The problem with finishing Proust is that there’s nothing left to read. I’m sure Swing Time is just as excellent as everyone says, but it felt like a slog to me, and I stopped close to the end, with only 40 pages left to go. It sits on my bookshelf, unfinished. The same went for my book group’s March pick, a classic, Les Liasions Dangereuses. I tried some novels that I’d been meaning to read for months, but they didn’t matter anymore. Nothing seemed interesting. Apparently, this particular form of boredom is common for anyone who has finished In Search of Lost Time. Anne Carson describes it as “the desert of after Proust:”
There’s a kind of glacial expanse that opens where nothing seems worth reading and all you want is for Proust to start over again, but of course he can’t and so you read, in a desultory way, things about Proust or criticism or biography, but it’s not the same and eventually you just give up and realize you’ll be in Proust withdrawal for a while and then life will sort of go on in a grayer level.
Like Carson, I picked up criticism and biographies of Proust, as well as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. De Botton’s book was especially depressing, like reading the tour guide of a country you’d just visited, and wouldn’t be able to return to for many years.
Knowing I might feel bereft, I stretched out the final volume, Time Regained, for as long as I could. For me, it was the most compelling part of the novel because it spoke so directly to the writing process. After years of frittering away his time at social events, Marcel has a strange and unexpected revelation when he’s on his way to yet another party. While crossing the courtyard outside the Guermantes mansion, he jumps out of the way of a car, nearly tripping on some uneven paving stones. The feeling of disequilibrium brings back a strong memory of Venice—a memory as strong as the one that famously came to him when he dunked a madeleine in a cup of tea and his childhood visits to Combray bloomed in his mind. All at once, Marcel understands the work he must do to write the book he has dreamed of composing.
In a startlingly direct 200-page passage, Marcel describes what writing is, what memory is, and how writing and memory allows us to translate our experience of life—our consciousness—into art. He explains the way that our deepest-held impressions are accessed through our senses, by the sound of a bell, the feeling of paving stones beneath one’s feet, or by the taste of a cookie dipped in tea. In Proust’s philosophy of memory, the majority of our recollections are intellectualized narratives; these are voluntary memories. But involuntary memories are those that come to us when we encounter a physical sensation that seems to put us in two worlds at once: the past and the present. These types of memories dissolve time, and they also, Proust observes, dissolve the ego:
These [memories], on the contrary, instead of giving me a more flattering idea of myself, had almost caused me to doubt the reality, the existence of the self.
To forget oneself is one of the great joys of writing, possibly the greatest joy, but we’re not living in a moment when people are encouraged to forget themselves. Social media, our most popular narrative form, is all about intellectualizing memory, and crafting a narrative of self that gives a particular impression. But these curated memories don’t have much correspondence to what people actually think or feel. Furthermore, most of us aren’t aware of their most deeply buried memories, the ones that shape our experience of life. If you want to find out your true impressions, Proust says, you must push away the distractions of everyday life:
As for the inner book of unknown symbols…if I tried to read them, no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us. How many for this reason turn aside from writing! What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task! Every public event, be it the Dreyfus case, be it the war, furnishes the writer with a fresh excuse for not attempting to decipher this book.
I read those words on Tuesday in February. I know it was a Tuesday because my son has swimming lessons on Tuesdays, and, having read Time Regained for longer than I’d intended, I was in a rush to pick him up from school and take him to class. Still, I arrived at the YMCA pool in a spaced-out mood.
Usually I bring my smartphone down to the observation deck, so that I can check emails and read the news while my son takes his lesson, but on that day, prodded by what I had read, I left my phone in the locker room. I brought my book group’s February selection—Bluets, by Maggie Nelson—but I didn’t open it. Instead I stared at the pool, occasionally searching for my son’s swim-capped head. The scent of the chlorine was strong and I drifted into memories: my lifeguard training as a teenager, an unhappy time when I swam lap after lap on Saturday mornings in a pool that left my hair greenish. I changed among girls I didn’t know and who didn’t seem to like me particularly. The bathroom smelled strongly of bleach. Later, I found out that I didn’t even enjoy lifeguarding, but I did like the confidence it gave me in the water. I love to swim laps in the ocean and out to the middle of lakes. I want my son to have the same love of swimming when he’s older, but I don’t know if that’s something you can actually pass on.
My son finished his lesson and I dried him off with a white towel worn from industrial washings. We put his suit in the noisy drier that I’m certain is damaging to the fabric of his swimsuit but which he loves to operate. I wondered if he would remember any of it—the noise, the chlorine, the shower stalls—years from now.
That same Tuesday, my husband and I went to a lecture by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. He was promoting his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, which addresses the evolution of human consciousness. As we waited to attend the lecture in a very long line outside of a warehouse near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, I noticed that the majority of the people in line were looking at their smartphones. It was an unremarkable observation, but waiting in a long line had gotten me nostalgic for my 20s, when free lectures were a way of life. Except, back then, no one had smart phones. Instead, you had a book, or a magazine, or you made idle conversation with your friend or the friend of your friend who arrived first. If you called someone on your phone, the people around you were slightly annoyed to be put in the position of eavesdropping on your one-sided conversation. Everything was a little bit awkward, and a little bit boring. But on that night in Gowanus, nothing was awkward. No one was bored. Everyone was on their phones, doing as they pleased: playing games, texting, posting, reading, scrolling, commenting, joking. It was great, maybe? Or it was sad? Were these even the right questions to ask?
It was a mild night, for February. Above the sky was faded New York City black, with the streetlights glowing orange. The sidewalk was cracked and uneven and there were puddles at the curb, reflecting the lights. The gutters were dirty with trash and debris. People waved to approaching friends and companions, removing earpieces in advance of hugs and kisses. They showed each other images, lit by small glowing screens. They checked the time. Many human behaviors remained the same. But a certain lull was gone.
There was also, harder to pinpoint, a disengagement from the physical world. I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it if I hadn’t just read Proust’s theory of involuntary memory, and the role of sensory input in the formation of thoughts and memories. I wondered how many people waiting were absorbing anything about waiting in line with these particular people at this particular moment in time. I wondered if it mattered. I wondered if the online world, that abstract place of arguments and images, comments and shares, likes and links, was becoming, or had already become, larger in people’s imaginations than the world of paving stones and dirty puddles, telephone poles and night skies, elevated trains and guard rails, dropped gloves, car horns, peeling paint, swiftly moving clouds, and strangers standing close enough that you can smell their floral perfume. I wondered if I was a foolish, stubborn person, willfully out of touch with a new social language, a new way of being human.
During his lecture, Dennett discussed his theory that consciousness is a mental process that has evolved over time and exists on a spectrum across many living creatures. He argued that human consciousness is unusually powerful because it allows us to be aware of our capabilities. That is, a spider can make a complex web but as far is we know, a spider is not aware of its web-making skills. From our awareness comes an ability to be intelligent designers; we don’t have to wait on the slow-moving, trial-and-error process of biological evolution to grow our species. We have cultural knowledge, such as language, music, and cooking, to help us survive and thrive.
When describing the transmission of ideas among humans, Dennett refers to memes, a word that originates with Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene. Dennett defines memes as “a kind of way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught, shunned, denounced, brandished, ridiculed, parodied, censored, hallowed.” Words, Dennett writes, “are the best examples of memes.” He likens memes to viruses, looking for a host in a human brain. He sees them as similar to genes in their ability to replicate. He’s deeply interested in artificial intelligence, which he sees as a new stage of human evolution. His ideas are controversial among philosophers, and to be honest, I’m still working my way through his very long, very dense book and don’t completely understand his theory of consciousness, nor the arguments of his detractors. But his book was the one that brought me out of my post-Proust reading drought, I think because he looks closely at human habits, the way that Proust does.
After the lecture, there was a Q&A, and an attendee asked Dennett for his view on religion’s influence on culture. Dennett said religion was a meme, a way of behaving in the world, and like all memes, its chief goal was to spread among humans. He didn’t think there was a point in assessing religion as good or bad for humans. His verdict: “Religion is good for itself.” Hearing that, I couldn’t help applying the same formulation to social media: “Social media is good for itself.” There is really no point in deciding if social media is good or bad. It is now part of our cultural evolution and there’s no going back. Like religion, it is sometimes a means for justice and compassion. And like religion, it is also sometimes destructive and divisive. I thought of all those people, waiting outside, their heads bent over their phones, as if in prayer. I realized that my discomfort with social media is similar to my discomfort with organized religion. I am sympathetic to its allure, and in awe of its power to organize communities and bring about social change, but I am alarmed by the way it creates a new reality for people.
That was February. Now it’s June and I’ve been taking a break from social media for the past few months. For me, that meant quitting Instagram, neglecting my Tumblr feed, and ignoring online comment fields. I also removed email from my phone, which made the biggest difference in my daily routine. I hadn’t realized how much I was checking email. I also wasn’t aware of how often I was taking photos with the thought of posting them to Instagram. It’s a relief to have those small decisions—Should I check email? Should I take a photo? Should I post a photo?—removed from my life. There’s still plenty of distractions on my phone, but I stare into space more than I used to, and I pay closer attention to strangers, and passersby. My life feels quieter and more relaxed, but also lonelier. If I wasn’t living in a place with a busy street life, and where I know a lot of my neighbors, I think I might feel very isolated. I keep noticing how often people refer to things that have “happened” on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Slack, and in the comments section.
But do the things that happen on social media actually happen? Do they have any basis in reality? This is the question I keep returning to. I know that what happens on social media affects reality, and it affects people’s perception of reality, and maybe that’s enough. But I also know that when I meet people in real life after following them on social media, the online version of the person usually becomes irrelevant. A person’s social media profile is kind of like the publisher’s summary on the backs of novels. Maybe it draws you in, or maybe it turns you off, but it likely has very little to say about the actual experience of reading a particular book. It’s better to open the book at random and read a few pages, just as it’s more informative to meet someone in person. Even an extremely self-aware person, who is “good at social media,” has aspects of their personality or physical presence that they would never think to display. It’s also just very difficult to represent yourself on media platforms whose parameters are designed with the intent, above all, to grow and replicate a larger network. (Remember, social media is only good for itself.)
The difficulty of knowing yourself is one of Proust’s central themes, and one I’ve touched on several times throughout my posts. For most of In Search of Lost Time, Proust explores this law of human perception through social life, as he gently exposes the hypocrisies and delusions of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. He’s so good on other people that you barely notice that his narrator, Marcel, is a struggling writer, a person who tries, and fails, repeatedly, to undergo the self-examination necessary to write. It’s only in the final volume that Proust addresses the difficulty of discovering (or rediscovering) a reality that is worth expressing:
The work of the artist, this struggle to discern beneath matter, beneath experience, beneath words, something that is different from them, is a process exactly the reverse of that which, in those everyday lives which we live with our gaze averted from ourselves, is at every moment being accomplished by vanity and passion and the intellect, and habit too, when they smother our true impressions, so as entirely to conceal them from us, beneath a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life.
I underlined that passage with the passion of an undergraduate, feeling as if I’d discovered the secret of writing—of life, possibly. Yes, my true impressions were constantly being smothered. Because what else is social media but a process fueled by vanity, passion, intellect, and above all, habit? What else is so much of Internet content, with its barrage of hashtags, inspo, links, and #goals, but “a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life”?
I feel naïve writing these things, and when I first started thinking about this post, I wanted to title it: How Proust Convinced Me to Give Up My Smartphone. But to write that essay, I’d have to give up my phone, and I don’t want to. My phone makes certain parts of life really easy, and it also makes it easier for other people to be in contact with me—important people like family members, friends, neighbors, and my son’s teachers and caregivers. There’s also the fact that I’m writing this essay on a platform that uses social media and mobile apps to distribute its content. I can be as morose and confused as I want about the proliferation of social media, but the reality is that I have become habituated to its many uses.
This is the struggle of modern life, an irony Proust touches on throughout In Search of Lost Time, as he encounters new technology like telephones, airplanes, and motorcars. He loves the convenience of calling his grandmother, and yet he experiences new strains of melancholy when he hears her voice through the receiver. One can only imagine the new forms of jealousy he would have encountered if his beloved Albertine had been on Instagram. And yet he would have adapted. Habit, “that skillful and unhurrying manager,” would have interceded.
Louis C.K. has a joke about how quickly we adapt to technology, the joke being that the first thing we do after achieving an amazing technological advancement—like flight—is to complain that it could be better. For Louis C.K., this is evidence of our fundamental ingratitude and unhappiness, but Dennett might say that our rapid acclimation to new technology is the special gift of our species, the thing that has allowed for our wild success in reproduction and survival. I think Proust’s observations on the power of habit bridge both views. Reading Proust became a habit for me, and it’s one I still miss, months later. Certain books, Proust writes, can be a lens for your life, a way to see more clearly. His novel certainly did that for me. Years from now, I’ll read it again, when I need to see the world with fresh eyes.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Several months ago, a commenter asked if reading Marcel Proust had affected my writing, and I’ve been turning the question over in my mind ever since. I thought it would make an interesting subject for a book club entry, and I’ve started this one many times, but I haven’t been able to write anything. One reason is that I’ve been working on a novel, and that’s taking up a lot of my time. A second reason is that my attention (like everyone else’s) has been dragged this way and that by the news cycle. A third reason is that the final volume, Time Regained, is so intelligent, so truthful, and so piercing, that there doesn’t seem to be any point in writing about it. I have nothing to add, nothing to analyze. There is also something incredibly delicate about this last volume. The narrative seems to be crumbling in my hands. The characters are suddenly much older, World War I has arrived, and the voice of the author is, for the first time, a little rushed. You can tell Proust is dying, truly writing on deadline, and it’s as if the book’s most important theme, Time, is taking over.
(I have more to say on Proust’s treatment of death, but I don’t think I can write it until I’ve finished the book.)
With 200-odd pages still left to go, it feels too early to reflect on how this past year of reading has affected my writing, in general. But I can speak to how Proust has aided me in my own fiction. In particular, reading In Search of Lost Time has helped me to refine my approach to characterization.
The novel I’m working on now is almost completely character driven, and the premise is simple: here are three women on the brink of three different life changes; let’s see how they fare over the next five years. When I started making notes for this book, a few years ago, I wasn’t sure what these three women would do or if I even had a book. (To be honest, sometimes I’m still not sure, but that’s a topic for another day.) Small plots have emerged, but most of my technical focus has been on characterization. I want to keep showing different aspects of each woman, while at the same time giving the reader a consistent sense of who each character is and how she will behave. To put it more simply, I want readers to feel as if they know these characters, in a real, complex way.
My first — and now that I think about it — only formal lesson in characterization came from my 10th-grade creative writing teacher. He asked our class to come up with a list of ways that authors convey character without simply describing a person’s personal qualities, e.g. “kind,” “greedy,” “selfish,” “compassionate,” etc. First on the list were physical description, action, and dialogue. From there we moved to the environment that a character inhabits, and their social milieu: their family and friends; their clothing and possessions; their house, room, office, school, etc. Then we got into the more subtle aspects of physical presence: the sound of a voice, a manner of sitting or standing, particular movements or gestures. Finally, we considered a person’s inner, unseen qualities: their thoughts and beliefs, likes and dislikes, loves and hates, and their previous lived experiences, i.e. their “backstory.”
This may seem like a blindingly obvious exercise, and maybe it was (we were 15), but as I recall, we got into a big discussion of personality and some students questioned the premise of the exercise. Why couldn’t you just describe a character as “nice” or “good” and get on with the story? Why did you have to show it? My teacher told us that it’s more memorable for a reader to decide that a person is nice, rather than being informed of their niceness. But he offered the following work-around: another character could say that a character was nice, and that would also be memorable — though of course, character’s B’s testimony of character A’s niceness would be judged based on a variety of factors, including but not limited to: character B’s relationship to character A, character B’s motivations with regard to A, character B’s overall trustworthiness, and to whom character B is describing character A’s niceness.
This is the part of the lesson that really stuck with me, because it made me see, first of all, how plot can arise from character. Even in this highly abstract set-up, you can’t help wondering if character A is really as nice as character B says. At the same time, it made me see how difficult it is to represent the intricacies of human interaction. What is said and what is done isn’t even half of the equation. We have a variety of social selves, and even the most straight-shooting, guileless person speaks differently to a parent than to a best friend. To properly reveal a character, you would need to show them in a variety of situations and moods and how on earth are you supposed to do that with any economy?
One answer is: don’t write a novel. Instead, write something for the stage or screen and let the actors fill in all the subtle dynamics that action and dialogue alone cannot describe. Another answer: write a long novel or a series of novels with the same characters. It’s human nature to feel attached to the people we spend the most time with — this is basically the premise of the American version of The Office — and so even if the characterization is not subtle, you can’t help feeling close to a person you have followed for thousands of pages over the course of several books.
At first blush, it would seem that Proust’s strategy is to write a very long book. The events of In Search of Lost Time take place over four decades. Characters grow up, marry, and bear children. Some become ill and die. This accumulation of events certainly contributes to a feeling of knowledge and intimacy. But the key to Proust’s characterization is, paradoxically, the way he shows that, when it comes to other people, there is no knowledge and no real intimacy. Our experience of other people is subjective, colored by our own fantasies and projections or dulled by habitual contact. As Proust observes in The Fugitive, at the end of his long, tormented affair with Albertine: “It is the tragedy of other people that they are merely showcases for the very perishable collections of one’s own mind.” Our subjective assumptions keep us ignorant of other people’s motives and proclivities, and certainly we know little of the inner changes taking place in other people. In addition, powerful outside forces are constantly shaping people in ways in which they themselves are often unaware: history, society, time — to name a few. Throughout In Search of Lost Time, Proust illustrates this ambiguity by revealing new sides to his characters. The final chapter of The Fugitive is straightforwardly titled: “New Aspect of Robert de Saint-Loup.”
The character twist is a staple of thrillers, but Proust does not use character revelations to advance his plot (the plot of In Search of Lost Time, if there can be said to be one, is: how Proust came to write In Search of Lost Time). Instead he uses them to remind the reader that our observations of other people are subjective and incomplete. Here’s Marcel, in a scene from The Captive, reflecting on the unexpected kindness of an old family friend, a person who had generally been indifferent toward him:
I concluded that it is as difficult to present a fixed image of a character as of societies and passions. For a character alters no less than they do, and if one tries to take a snapshot of what is relatively immutable in it, one finds it presenting a succession of different aspects (implying that it is incapable of keeping still but keeps moving) to the disconcerted lens.
Proust illustrates this “succession of different aspects” in a beautiful passage about Saint-Loup, one of the most well-developed characters in the novel, someone we see throughout the book and feel that we know. But after Saint-Loup’s death, it occurs to Marcel that he really didn’t know his friend very well, and that they rarely saw each another:
And the fact that I had seen him really so little but against such varied backgrounds, in circumstances so diverse and separated by so many intervals — in that hall at Balbec, in the café at Rivebelle, in the cavalry barracks and at the military dinners in Doncieres, at the theatre where he had slapped the face of the journalist, in the house of the Princesse de Guermantes — only had the effect of giving me, of his life, pictures more striking and more sharply defined and of his death a grief more lucid than we are likely to have in the case of people whom we have loved more, but with whom our association has been so nearly continuous that the image we retain of them is no more than a sort of vague average between an infinity of imperceptibly different images and our affection, satiated, has not, as with those whom we have seen only for brief moments, during meetings prematurely ended against their wish and ours, the illusion that there was possible between us a still greater affection of which circumstances alone have defrauded us.
To me, this paragraph is a miniature class on literary characterization. Marcel is saying that even though he does not actually know Saint-Loup very well, he feels that he does; there is an illusion at play. And that illusion is the result of having seen Saint-Loup for brief periods of time in a variety of different circumstances. Anyone who has ever been in a long-distance relationship will certainly recognize this phenomenon. A dear friend recently visited me, or at least someone I consider a dear friend, though I have actually not spent much time with him. We have never lived in the same city and I know very little of his daily life. But we see each other every year or so, and I remember our meetings in greater detail than I do with friends in New York that I see on a regular basis. In some ways, this friend is more real to me than my friends who are “like family” — the ones I text with daily and who wipe my child’s nose. I rely on my local friends for companionship and community but I don’t notice them in quite the same way.
Literary characters are, maybe, like long distance friends. Your perception of them is brief, but intense. Even in a very long book, an author writes with the knowledge that there is a limit to the number of scenes he can write with a particular character, or the number of lines he can devote to physical description or psychological observation. An author is not trying to reconstitute an actual person, but to create an illusion of intimacy. And there are tricks — many of them as described by my teacher, earlier in this entry. But the main trick is to abandon objectivity. That doesn’t mean that a novelist has to employ a subjective narrator. It’s not the mode of narration that matters, it’s the discipline of the author — the precision it takes to leave aspects of a character unresolved and ambiguous.
In order to exert some discipline on this essay, I will not get into Proust’s philosophy of selfhood, which distinguishes between the parade of moods, states of mind, and social performances that constitute our experience, and a deeper, bedrock self. But in terms of literary expression, of trying to create the illusion of character, one thing I’ve learned from reading Proust is that a writer must attempt to show a character’s “succession of selves.” This is different from the classic storytelling advice: that a character must change or grow over the course of the narrative. I’ve never liked that presumed moral arc; it feels constraining and didactic. Also, it’s not necessary, because the passage of time will always reveal character.
The poignancy of the final volume, Time Regained, is in seeing all of Proust’s character’s age. At a party attended by many of the novel’s personages, Marcel observes that he must study the guests with his memory as well as with his eyes. Some are so transformed that he doesn’t recognize them at first. Of his old school friend, Bloch, Marcel cannot even perceive him as middle-aged until someone else points it out:
I heard someone say that he quite looked his age, and I was astonished to observe on his face some of those signs which are indeed characteristic of men who are old. Then I understood that this was because he was in fact old and that adolescents who survive for a sufficient number of years are the material out of which life makes old men.
In Time Regained, the chronology is somewhat confusing as War World I begins and ends, Marcel retreats to a sanatorium for an unspecified number of years, and certain marriages are never fully explained. It’s hard to know if this was intentional, since Proust never had a chance to complete his revisions, but it makes psychological sense, because time doesn’t pass logically for us, especially when it comes to our friends. By embracing the subjectivity of perception, and of the passage of time, Proust created characters that feel as mysterious, fleeting, and precious as life itself.
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.
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