Kurt Vonnegut’s caution against the use of semicolons is one of the most famous and canonical pieces of writing advice, an admonition that has become, so to speak, one of The Rules. More on these rules later, but first the infamous quote in question: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
To begin with the lowest-hanging fruit here—fruit that is actually scattered rotting on the ground—the “transvestite hermaphrodite” bit has not aged well. The quote also, it seems, may have been taken out of context, as it is followed by several more sentences of puzzlingly offensive facetiousness, discussed here.
That said, I also have no idea what it means. My best guess is that he means semicolons perform no function that could not be performed by other punctuation, namely commas and periods. This obviously isn’t true—semicolons, like most punctuation, increase the range of tone and inflection at a writer’s disposal. Inasmuch as it’s strictly true that you can make do with commas, the same argument that could be made of commas themselves in favor of the even unfussier ur-mark, the period. But that is a bleak thought experiment unless you are such a fan of Ray Carver that you would like everyone to write like him.
Finally, regarding the college part, two things: First, semicolon usage seems like an exceedingly low bar to set for pretentiousness. What else might have demonstrated elitism in Vonnegut’s mind? Wearing slacks? Eating fish? Second, in an era of illiterate racist YouTube comments, to worry about semicolons seeming overly sophisticated would be splitting a hair that no longer exists.
But however serious Vonnegut was being, the idea that semicolons should be avoided has been fully absorbed into popular writing culture. It is an idea pervasive enough that I have had students in my writing classes ask about it: How do I feel about semicolons? They’d heard somewhere (as an aside, the paradoxical mark of any maxim’s influence and reach is anonymity, the loss of the original source) that they shouldn’t use them. To paraphrase Edwin Starr, semicolons—and rules about semicolons—what are they good for?
As we know, semicolons connect two independent clauses without a conjunction. I personally tend to use em dashes in many of these spots, but only when there is some degree of causality, with the clause after the em typically elaborating in some way on the clause before it, idiosyncratic wonkery I discussed in this essay. Semicolons are useful when two thoughts are related, independent yet interdependent, and more or less equally weighted. They could exist as discrete sentences, and yet something would be lost if they were, an important cognitive rhythm. Consider this example by William James:
I sit at the table after dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally to bring the act about.
The semicolon is crucial here in getting the thought across. Prose of the highest order is mimetic, emulating the narrator or main character’s speech and thought patterns. The semicolon conveys James’s mild bewilderment at the interconnection of act (eating the raisins) and thought (awareness he may eat the raisins) with a delicacy that would be lost with a period, and even a comma—a comma would create a deceptively smooth cognitive flow, and we would lose the arresting pause in which we can imagine James realizing he is eating, and realizing that somehow an awareness of this undergirds the act.
An em dash might be used—it would convey the right pause—but again, ems convey a bit of causality that would be almost antithetical to the sentence’s meaning. The perception follows temporally, but not logically. In fact, James is saying he doesn’t quite understand how these two modes of awareness coexist.
Or consider Jane Austen’s lavish use of the semicolon in this, the magnificent opening sentence of Persuasion:
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.
Periods could be ably used here, but they would not quite capture the drone of Elliot’s stultifying vanity. Again, form follows function, and the function here is to characterize the arrogantly dull mental landscape of a man who finds comprehensive literary solace in the baronetage. More than that, the semicolons also suggest the comic agony of being trapped in a room with him—they model the experience of listening to a self-regarding monologue that never quite ends. We hardly need to hear him speak to imagine his pompous tone when he does.
The semicolon’s high water usage mark, as shown here, was the mid-18th to mid-/late 19th centuries. This is hardly surprising, given the style of writing during this era: long, elaborately filigreed sentences in a stylistic tradition that runs from Jonathan Swift to the James brothers, a style that can feel needlessly ornate to modern readers. Among other virtues (or demerits, depending on your taste in prose), semicolons are useful for keeping a sentence going. Reflecting on the meaning of whiteness in Moby Dick, Melville keeps the balls in the air for 467 words; Proust manages 958 in Volume 4 of Remembrance of Things Past during an extended, controversial rumination on homosexuality and Judaism. There is a dual effect in these examples and others like them of obscuring meaning in the process of accreting it, simultaneously characterizing and satirizing the boundaries of human knowledge—a sensible formal tactic during an era when the boundaries of human knowledge were expanding like a child’s balloon.
Stylistically, the latter half of the 20th century (and the 21st) has seen a general shift toward shorter sentences. This seems intelligible on two fronts. First—and this is total conjecture—MFA writing programs came to the cultural fore in the 1970s and over the last few decades have exerted an increasing influence on literary culture. I am far from an MFA hater, but the workshop method does often tend to privilege an economy of storytelling and prose, and whether the relationship is causal or merely correlational, over the last few decades a smooth, professionalized, and unextravagant style has been elevated to a kind of unconscious ideal. This style is reflexively praised by critics: “taut, spare prose” is practically a cliche unto itself. Additionally, personal communication through the 20th century to today has been marked by increasing brevity. Emails supplant letters, texts supplant emails, and emojis supplant texts. It stands to reason that literary writing style and the grammar it favors would, to a degree, reflect modes of popular, nonliterary writing.
Beyond grammatical writing trends, though, semicolons are a tool often used, as exemplified in the Austen and James examples, to capture irony and very subtle shades of narrative meaning and intent. It might be argued that as our culture has become somewhat less interested in the deep excavations of personality found in psychological realism—and the delicate irony it requires—the semicolon has become less useful. Another interesting (though possibly meaningless) chart from Vox displays the trend via some famous authors. As fiction has moved from fine-grained realism into postmodern satire and memoir, has the need for this kind of fine-grained linguistic tool diminished in tandem?
Maybe. In any case, I have an affection for the semi, in all its slightly outmoded glory. The orthographical literalism of having a period on top of a comma is, in itself, charming. It is the penny-farthing of punctuation—a goofy antique that still works, still conveys.
A larger question Vonnegut’s anti-semicolonism brings up might be: Do we need rules, or Rules, at all? We seem to need grammatical rules, although what seem to be elemental grammatical rules are likely Vonnegutian in provenance and more mutable than they seem. For instance, as gender norms have become more nuanced, people—myself included—have relaxed on the subject of the indeterminately sexed “they” as a singular pronoun. Likewise, the rule I learned in elementary school about not ending sentences with prepositions. Turns out there’s no special reason for this, and rigid adherence to the rule gives you a limited palette to work with (not a palette with which to work).
We know, on some level, that writing rules are there to be broken at our pleasure, to be used in the service of writing effectively, and yet writing is such a difficult task that we instinctively hew to any advice that sounds authoritative, cling to it like shipwrecked sailors on pieces of rotten driftwood. Some other famous saws that come to mind:
Henry James: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.”
Elmore Leonard: “Never open a book with weather.”
John Steinbeck: “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
Annie Dillard: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place.”
Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
And more Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”; “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action”; “Start as close to the end as possible.”
In the end, of course, writing is a solitary pursuit, and for both good and ill no one is looking over your shoulder. As I tell my students, the only real writing rule is essentially Aleister Crowley’s Godelian-paradoxical “Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law.” Or alternately, abide by the words of Eudora Welty: “One can no more say, ‘To write stay home,’ than one can say, ‘To write leave home.’ It is the writing that makes its own rules and conditions for each person.”
My son was in a good mood, ready to walk to school with his father, and then suddenly, he was crying. He’s four. The ostensible cause of his tears had to do with some last-minute renovations on a Lego house. He made an adjustment to the chimney, I said “Good enough!” and he got mad. “But I’m not finished!” He threw himself on the floor. He’s not given to tantrums and I knew immediately that he was upset because I had slept in, was still in my pajamas, and would not be walking him to school. He had already accused me of not being nice, an hour earlier, when I pulled the covers over my head and told him I was a hibernating bear who would prefer not to be disturbed. And you know, he’s right. That wasn’t nice — especially when I said I was the type of bear who ate little boys. But I was sleeping so well! I felt like a hibernating bear. I was cocooned in sleep, layered in sleep. I couldn’t bear to be unraveled.
On the whole, motherhood has reshaped my life and habits in ways that have made me a lot happier, but the one thing I really miss from my childless life is waking up slowly. I have never been someone who jumps out of bed, eager to get started with my day. Instead, I like to lie in bed for a while to soak in the dream residue and listen to the radio and to the sounds coming from outside of my window. Maybe this is too obvious to say, but there is something uniquely relaxing about sleeping in after the sun has risen. Marcel Proust’s narrator, Marcel, a connoisseur of sleep, claims that morning sleep “is — on an average — four times as refreshing, it seems to the awakened sleeper to have lasted four times as long when it has really been four times as short. A splendid, sixteenfold error in multiplication which gives so much beauty to our awakening and gives life a veritable new dimension…”
That observation is from The Captive, the volume I’m currently making my way through. As you might well expect from an invalid, Proust brings a wealth of personal experience to the subject of sleep. On the experience of awakening slowly, he writes: “Often we have at our disposal, in those first minutes in which we allow ourselves to glide into the waking state, a variety of different realities among which we imagine that we can choose as from a pack of cards.” On dream residue: “I was still enjoying the last shreds of sleep, that is to say of the only source of invention, the only novelty that exists in story-telling, since none of our narrations in the waking state, even when embellished with literary graces, admit those mysterious differences from which beauty derives.” On the elusiveness of sleep: “Sleep is divine but by no means stable; the slightest shock makes it volatile. A friend to habit, it is kept night after night in its appointed place by habit, more steadfast than itself, protected from any possible disturbance; but if it is displaced, if it is no longer subjugated, it melts away like a vapor.”
The slightest shock makes it volatile. I’ve been trying to remind myself of this, lately, as I decide what television show to watch before bedtime, or when I pick up my phone to check the news one last time. The election, especially, has wreaked havoc on my ability to relax at the end of the day. It’s not only that it’s been so dramatic, unpredictable, and vile, it’s also that it calls for so much analysis. I can’t stop listening to podcasts and reading think pieces even though I know they rarely satisfy, and can’t provide a definitive answer to the question of how we got to this ugly place. Certain disgusting phrases and epithets stick in my mind; the week that Donald Trump’s lewd Access Hollywood tapes were released, I kept remembering incidents of sexual harassment and aggression that I’d put up with over the years. From conversations with other women, I wasn’t the only one having these late-night reckonings. Sleep is the perfect balm for these kinds of obsessive thoughts; the catch-22 is that you have to achieve calmness before you can pass into the even calmer regions of sleep.
Sometimes, when I can’t fall asleep, I look in on my son, sleeping peacefully. Often I lie next to him for a few minutes, listening to his breathing, and stroking his soft cheek or holding his hand. I miss the days when he was a baby and he would sleep in his carrier with his head on my chest. When he was around two, my husband and I went through a phase of waking him early from his weekend afternoon naps, when he was still very groggy and tired, because he would snuggle in our laps and fall back asleep. It was the only way we could enjoy the particular peace of mind that comes with holding a sleeping child.
I found myself thinking of my son’s peaceful sleep when I read one of the most famous passages in The Captive, that of Marcel observing Albertine while she is napping. Albertine is Marcel’s frustratingly unknowable mistress, a woman Marcel has fallen out of love with by the end of Volume 4 (Sodom and Gomorrah), but who we find living with Marcel at the beginning of Volume 5 (The Captive). Marcel is too jealous to give her up, and so neurotic that he confesses to installing her “in a bedroom within twenty paces of my own, at the end of the corridor, in my father’s tapestried study.” What’s more, he tries to control her social life, sending her out with his chauffeur, who is instructed to keep tabs on her comings and goings. His biggest fear is that she is in love with another woman, or perhaps, several women. He suspects her of lying, and interrogates her acquaintances about her activities outside of his apartment. When that fails, he finagles invitations and manipulates her plans so that she cannot go anywhere alone.
And yet for all of Marcel’s controlling behavior, Albertine remains elusive, both to the narrator and the reader. You never feel you know her, which is odd, because one of the hallmarks of In Search of Lost Time is how well you feel you know Marcel’s friends and acquaintances. When Swann died, I felt personally bereft. When Robert de Saint-Loup appears, I brighten up at the thought of his charm and good looks. Even Bloch, who appears very little after the first volume, feels like an old friend when he makes an occasional cameo. But Albertine frustrates me. All I really know of her is what she looks like, and what she seems like. Marcel is always comparing her to other people and things, always trying to reconcile his present, complicated, neurotic understanding of her personality with his memories of the athletic, fresh-air girl he fell in love with in Balbec. But her portrait never comes into focus, in part because he knows her better than he used to — that is, she’s more than just an idealized image — but also because he’s too suspicious of her, too busy analyzing her words and behavior for signs of betrayal.
It’s only when Albertine is asleep that Marcel can enjoy her company, a discovery he makes one day when he happens upon her, napping: “stretched out at full length on my bed, in an attitude so natural that no art could have devised it, she reminds me of a long blossoming stem that had been laid there.” A few sentences later, he continues with the botanical analogies:
She was animated now only by the unconscious life of plants, of trees, a life more different from my own, more alien, and yet one that belonged more to me. Her personality was not constantly escaping, as when we talked, by the outlets of her unacknowledged thoughts and of her eyes. She had called back into herself everything of her that lay outside, had withdrawn, enclosed, reabsorbed herself into her body. In keeping her in front of my eyes, in my hands, I had an impression of possessing her entirely which I never had when she was awake. Her life was submitted to me, exhaled toward me its gentle breath.
This passage is unsettling, and becomes more troubling as it continues, and as Marcel fondles and kisses Albertine while she is asleep, without her knowledge or consent. And yet I could relate to it, as a mother. The first sentences, especially, reminded me of the feeling of wonder I get when I watch my sleeping son — that sense of him germinating in a secret, slow, plant-like way that is impossible to witness moment to moment, but which I know will hit me later on, when, scrolling through photos on my phone, I wonder what happened to the chubby-cheeked baby boy who used to fall asleep in my arms.
Is it correct to read this passage in a maternal light? This is what I asked myself as I read and re-read the long and incredibly beautiful descriptions of Albertine’s resting body, the long musical sentences in which Albertine’s breath is compared to sea breezes, her hair to moonlit trees, her movements to that of the tides. One sentence, in particular, struck me as exactly what I feel, late at night, when I check in on my son as a way of curing my own insomnia: “I savored her sleep with a disinterested, soothing love, just as I would remain for hours listening to the unfurling of the waves.”
Of course, it’s easy to love a sleeping child, easy to idealize him as innocent and adorable, easy to forget the whining and the interrupting and the sudden, frustrated tears; easy to believe that he will always be safe, healthy, and above all, close — that he will never do what he is supposed to grow up and do, which is to thrive independently, with thoughts and desires unknown to you and unsatisfied by you. It’s as easy to idealize a sleeping child as it is a sleeping woman, to simplify her personality, to forget that she has multiple and often conflicting desires, social roles, friendships, and responsibilities. It’s easy to believe, when looking upon the closed eyes of a beautiful mistress, that you possess her, and that everything about her is known, or at least possible to know.
Later in The Captive, in a separate passage about Albertine’s sleep, Marcel acknowledges that there is something maternal in his obsessive, neurotic love:
Her sleep was no more than a sort of blotting out of the rest of her life…This calm slumber delighted me, as a mother, reckoning it a virtue, is delighted by her child’s sound sleep. And her sleep was indeed that of a child. Her awakening also, so natural and so loving, before she even knew where she was, that I sometimes asked myself with dread whether she had been in the habit, before coming to live with me, of not sleeping alone but of finding, when she opened her eyes, someone lying by her side. But her childlike grace was more striking. Like a mother again, I marveled that she should always awaken in such good humor.
Reading this passage, 50 pages or so after the first description of Albertine’s sleep, I not only felt assured in the parallels to motherhood that I had previously drawn, but also that Marcel was, like a mother, aware of the futility of his efforts to control another person. The scene that follows is actually quite tender and easygoing, as Albertine, in a reversal, sits with Marcel when he is just waking up. Together, they listen to the sounds of the street vendors passing by Marcel’s open window, and they plan their meal based on the foods advertised. It’s in this scene that Marcel rhapsodizes about the particular, heavy sleep of morning, the sleep that is “four times as refreshing.” He’s also quite honest, for the first time in many pages, about the troubled nature of his love for Albertine, and how he suspects they will both be happier when they have parted. But in the moment, there is only the sensual pleasure of waking slowly, a zone of ambiguity that somehow keeps you from acknowledging the more destabilizing uncertainties of life.
I knew an MFA candidate in grad school who had already written a novel and even had an agent, and who, whenever Ernest Hemingway was mentioned, would instantly come down with a migraine so severe that he had to retire to bed with a cold compress on his forehead for eight hours. It was as though Hemingway were a kind of god whose very name could smite his acolytes. My friend, needless to say, never published and did not become a writer. The weight of his hero was just too much for him.
Writers have their touchstone authors. Marcel Proust is mine, and has been for almost 30 years. I learned French primarily because I wanted to read Proust in the original. I’d made my way through the Scott Moncrieff translation over a period of eight or nine months while living in the usual reduced circumstances of an aspiring writer in Cambridge, England. He was deep-sea diving into themes that I’d begun to introduce into my own work: time, memory, the past. In French his prose is sinewy and supple, much stronger and bolder than he comes off in the Scott Moncrieff translation. But it was how Proust dealt with character that most fascinated me.
By my count, I own some six biographies of Marcel Proust, not including biographical material contained in other volumes, such as his devoted housekeeper and amanuensis Céleste Albaret’s valuable Monsieur Proust, as well as those books dedicated to one aspect or another of his life. For years the most authoritative biography in English was that of George D. Painter, who wrote under the assumption that In Search of Lost Time was a way into the life of its author; an approach Proust utterly disdained. As Proust wrote in what is considered an early version of the Search: “A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices.” Thus, many assumed that this asthmatic hypochondriac with his fur-lined coat, pale complexion, and drooping mustache could never possibly create anything more substantial than a flowery thank-you note to his hostess. Instead he produced one of the great works of literature.
Also one of the least-completed. Most readers who take the plunge get through Swann’s Way and give up. Yet once you forge ahead in the seven-volume work you see the pace increase, the humor deepen, the obsessions grow even more obsessive. This isn’t a rambling, stream-of-consciousness book of memories lost and found; it’s a novel with a subtle and solid architecture, where in its last volume, Time Regained, the shape of the work comes finally into focus. The man who tells this story, the “I” of the book, known as the Narrator, isn’t the author, per se, though once or twice they share a first name. And the book you’ve just finished reading isn’t quite the book the Narrator now sets out to write: it’s as though the author and his novel were a kind of optical illusion: where is the reality, where is the fiction? And what is this we’ve just read? A book about a man who wants to write a book about what we’ve just read?
The arc of the novel is the Narrator’s search for understanding the nature of time and the meaning of the past, in the end learning that, though the body ages and the mind weakens, the past never dies, it’s as vivid as when it was first experienced: always retrievable, always alive within us. The Narrator is something of an undercover agent. He’s an outsider who yearns to be accepted by the higher circles of le tout Paris, in particular the salons of the Duchess de Guermantes and that of her cousin, the Princesse de Guermantes. Proust himself, never one to shun the salons of le beau monde, had the perfect disguise: mix with high society and French nobility, look and listen and be tolerated, while few would suspect this social butterfly would ever make anything of himself. And yet the entire time he was observing, taking in not just how people spoke but how they looked, how they gestured, how they presented themselves both when in public and in their unguarded moments (something that Pablo Picasso recognized when he and Proust were at the same gathering towards the end of the author’s life: “Look, he’s keeping his eyes out for models,” as Jean Hugo quoted him as saying, though Benjamin Taylor rightly points out that all the models had already been found; some of them in that very room).
There’s a key scene in the novel when the Narrator, still a young man, happens to witness an exchange between the Baron de Charlus and Jupien, a tailor, soon to be Charlus’s secretary and afterwards the owner of a brothel, which the Narrator sees as something like an insect being drawn to pollen. He observes the baron’s little dance of seduction, how he now approaches, now retreats, until the two men have vanished inside Jupien’s waistcoat shop. Now the Narrator knows something that no one would suspect him of knowing. I spy with my very own eye, Proust seems to be saying, and I know everything. In many ways the central character of this long novel, Charlus, so robust and masculine at the start, then becoming an old man, retains something of the decrepit dignity of King Lear. As a creator of character, Proust is something of a Cubist: his people are never seen in only one dimension; they’re constantly changeable, and changing, and all of those faces exist on the same plane.
In Search of Lost Time is, I’ve always felt, aside from being a kind of detective story, something of a spy novel, which may stem from the fact that its author was both Jewish and gay, firmly placed as outside the perceived mainstream. The fact that gay men were ostracized (though in some quarters quietly tolerated) needs no elaboration here. And with the Dreyfus Affair being the story of the day when Proust was a young man — a story that didn’t quite go away for some 12 years — the population was divided, with anti-Dreyfusism becoming to a degree synonymous with anti-Semitism. Proust campaigned on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus. “Was this because he felt Jewish?” his latest biographer, Benjamin Taylor, asks. “Certainly not. Proust saw himself as what he was: the non-Jewish son of a Jewish mother. The Dreyfus Affair was for him, first and last, a clear-cut miscarriage of justice that demanded reversal. In this he was like most of the Jews, half-Jews, and baptized Jews who rallied to the cause in 1897 and 1898; they did so not because Dreyfus was Jewish but because he was innocent.”
The definitive biography in English is by William C. Carter, and in French we have the exhaustive, encyclopedic and equally valuable doorstopper by Jean-Yves Tadié, which has been translated into English. Just released from Yale University Press is Benjamin Taylor’s slim but rich volume, Proust: The Search. By now we know pretty much everything there is to learn about Proust, though the diaries of Reynaldo Hahn, considered by scholars to be, as Taylor calls it, “the holy grail of Proust biographers,” are under embargo until 2036, and will undoubtedly shed a great deal of light on this important relationship. So what does Taylor have to offer that’s new?
One might think that, as Taylor’s biography is part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, the author would be focusing on Proust’s life as a Jew. Though Proust’s Jewish mother, Jeanne Weil, never converted, his father, Adrien Proust, wished to have his children baptized into the Catholic church. Taylor, I think wisely, doesn’t make much of this, and turns his attention to the life of a writer, not just a Jewish writer, giving us a slender but rich work of biography that is stylishly written and covers all the bases of Proust’s life and career. Because so many of the highlights and details are well known to those who’ve read the earlier biographies, he succeeds not so much by narrowing the focus but by shedding light on the salient points of the author’s life and by reminding us why Proust is such a touchstone for so many.
However one reads the Search, when you come out at the other end of the experience you have become a different person; not just because something like eight months or a year has passed and you also have changed over that time, perhaps falling in love, or out of love, or becoming a parent, or finding yourself uprooted, but because you now see the world through the eyes of this author, just as, Proust writes in his novel, once Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings were seen, people would say of a woman passing by, “That’s a Renoir woman.” “To succeed thus in gaining recognition,” Proust writes elsewhere in the novel, “the original painter, the original writer proceeds on the lines adopted by oculists. The course of treatment they give us by their painting or by their prose is not always agreeable to us. When it is at an end the operator says to us: ‘Now look!’ And, lo and behold, the world around us (which was not created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an original artist is born) appears to us entirely different from the old world, but perfectly clear.” And that is what Proust does to you: you begin to define the world around you through the eyes of this artist.
There’s an eerie moment in the fourth volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Sodom and Gomorrah that stopped me dead the first time I came across it. In a meditation on sleeping and waking and memory, the author writes: “…I, the strange human being who, while he waits for death to release him, lives behind closed shutters, knows nothing of the world, sits motionless as an owl, and like that bird can only see things at all clearly in the darkness.” I had the strange sensation that the author, by then dead more than 50 years, was somehow still very much with us as he describes his exact circumstance, both as the voice of the book’s Narrator and as the person writing this book, as though he knew that one day someone would come across this line and sense the living author behind it. For that moment he knows you’re there; in those few words he is still alive. As he wrote upon hearing of the writer John Ruskin’s death to his friend Marie Nordlinger, “I am shown how paltry a thing death is when I see how vigorously this dead man lives.” Thus it is with Proust, and all our touchstones.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these diaries. I have to be honest: I don’t think it’s ever been more difficult for me to find time to read. It’s strange, because I’m reading more than I have in years, and yet I struggle for those hours of solitude. I schedule them, I turn on Freedom, I turn off my phone, I go to bars alone, I give up on critically acclaimed TV shows, I unsubscribe from podcasts, and every afternoon I sit my son down in front of Octonauts so that I can sneak into his room and read novels and magazines. I like to read in my son’s room because he has a single bed like the one I had in college, and it is covered by a quilt that my mother made for me. Sitting on that little bed, surrounded by toys, I feel as if I have permission to read solely for the fun of it — not because I need to, for an assignment, or because it will be beneficial, in some indirect way, for my writing.
When I started reading In Search of Lost Time at the beginning of the year, I planned to read 10 to 20 pages a day, which I thought would be a reasonable and attainable goal. At least one commenter recommended that I throw page numbers out the window, because Marcel Proust’s prose style does not really bend itself to “reasonable.” Those commenters were absolutely right. Counting pages was frustrating; as soon as I found myself sinking into the book, I would reach the end of my daily allotment. It seemed foolish to limit myself just to make the book easier to digest — or, more likely, because I felt guilty cutting into my “work time” for more than 20 minutes. Likewise, if I really only had 20 minutes for reading on a particular day, there was no point in reading Proust. Better to wait until I could block off at least 45 minutes. For a couple of months this summer, when my son was at day camp, I went to a coffee shop after drop-off and read there for an hour or so. It was a wonderful way to start the day, and I liked it so much that I can’t figure out why I don’t make a point of doing it every day. Then again, why don’t I do 10 minutes of yoga every morning or drink two glasses of water with lemon, upon rising? Those things make me feel great, too, and like reading, they are cheap and accessible. The only thing that stops me is my indolence.
There is no one like Proust to force you to examine your habits, and lately I’ve been thinking about how and why I find time to read books — and not only Proust. I actually feel like I’ve got a handle on In Search. I am now about halfway through Sodom and Gomorrah, which means I’ve crossed the border of my previous attempts. I don’t feel any desire to quit, which is not to say that there haven’t been boring parts. There have. But I’ve discovered that I really like having a long-term reading project. It brings a continuity and effort to my reading life that I was missing.
Before this Proust project, my reading was disciplined mainly by my book group’s selections, which I generally read at the last minute, a few days before the group meeting — so it’s fresh in my mind, I tell myself. Really, I’ve fallen into a binge reading habit, in general. Because it is so hard to find time to read, and because we live in an age when reading time must be planned, I gravitate toward books that force me to read them, making me forget my to-do list. Books like volumes one and two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I read those when my son was two and I remember tipping over the recycling bin and letting him play with the forbidden plastic and glass bottles so that I could eke out 20 more minutes of reading time. But I lost interest halfway through book three, and have left the series alone for the time being. A similar thing happened with the first two Elena Ferrante novels. I lost interest after book three — only to be taken by storm, a few months ago, when the fourth book suddenly seemed to take on a special glow on my bookshelf, and I just had to finish the series.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with abandoning a book or taking a break from a series, but reading Proust all year has reminded me of the particular pleasure of focusing on one author for an extended period of time. I used to do this a lot, when I was a teenager, in part because I didn’t know what to read, so when I found an author I liked, I read everything I could find. But I also did it out of a desire to be close to the writer, to notice obsessions and preoccupations, favored words and phrases, repeated motifs and situations, and of course, to observe the way his or her storytelling changed over the years. For a writer, it’s slightly embarrassing the way a reader can track your development (as both a writer and a human being), but for a reader, it’s intoxicating, and reading In Search of Lost Time has reminded me of that feeling. It’s probably too early to start thinking about what I’m going to read when I’m finished with In Search of…, but I think I’d like to choose an author and read all of his or her works in a systematic way — and then maybe keep doing that, until I’ve exhausted my favorites. For the first time, I see the appeal of being a completist.
Sometimes I think that In Search of… is about reading, more than anything else: reading people, reading art, reading memory. Reading people, especially. The most incredible thing about Proust’s novel is his characterization, which I appreciate even more in this reading, now that I am a little older, and have seen the way people change (or don’t change) over time. It is almost magical, the way you get to know Marcel’s friends and witness their transformation over the years. At least some of this involvement has to do with the book’s length. You’re spending a lot of time with these people. There have been some dull passages, usually party scenes in high society, where I’ve wondered what on earth Proust is up to (and sometimes, he will interrupt a passage to assure the reader that this will all be relevant, later) and then 100 pages later, a character from the party will reappear, someone I hadn’t even realized I’d gotten attached to, and I will feel like I’m seeing an old friend. And as Marcel reports on their lives, and the changes in their behaviors and appearances, I will feel as if I am noticing these changes, because I’ve become so steeped in Marcel’s (and, by extension, Proust’s) sensibility.
To be steeped in sensibility. For me, this is the pleasure of reading. In real life, it would be hazardous to take on another person’s point of view so completely, but in reading, you can be reckless — and this is what I’ve been reminding myself, lately, when I feel I have no time to read. Am I really going to fill up my days with productive activities? Or am I going to leave some space for recklessness?