A Visit to ‘the Desert of After Proust’

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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.

What Marcel Proust Taught Me About Characterization

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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.

Layered in Sleep with Marcel Proust


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.

Proust Book Club: On Reading Recklessly

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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?

Bill Cunningham’s Proustian Eye

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Since Bill Cunningham’s death last week, I’ve been thinking that he was New York City’s Marcel Proust. He captured the people of this city, and the special, sometimes hard-to-see beauty of its streets, just as Proust immortalized certain stylish Parisian women, and the particular seasons and moods of Paris’s parks and sidewalks.

I’m not the first to make this comparison: the fashion writer Cathy Horn made a connection between the two artists in a lovely remembrance for The Cut. She notes that Proust’s eye was different from Cunningham’s, because he was constructing a fictional world, whereas Cunningham was a journalist who recorded the world. Yet Cunningham and Proust have a similar sensibility when it comes to clothing. Both have a love for eccentrics, and for elegance. They go wild when the two converge. One of my favorite passages in all of In Search of Lost Time has to be when Marcel sees Robert de Saint-Loup for the first time. Saint-Loup, who will soon become his good friend, is wearing a beautiful summer suit:
…along the central gangway leading from the beach to the road I saw approaching, tall, slim, bare-necked, his head held proudly erect, a young man with penetrating eyes whose skin was as fair and his hair as golden as if they had absorbed all the rays of the sun. Dressed in a suit of soft, whitish material such as I could never have believed that any man would have the audacity to wear, the thinness of which suggested no less vividly than the coolness of the dining-room the heat and brightness of the glorious day outside, he was walking fast.
To me, that passage is like one of Bill Cunningham’s photographs in the way it magically captures a season, a moment in time, and a person, all at once. It’s easy to imagine Cunningham taking a photo of Robert de Saint-Loup in his white suit and then enthusing over it during one of his weekly “On The Street” videos. He might even use the word “audacity” to describe Saint-Loup’s style. More likely, he would simply say, “Isn’t it mahvelous?”

One of my favorite Sunday pastimes was to watch Cunningham’s videos, which were both a window to Manhattan and a fashion lesson. In a recent video from this spring, when the weather was still iffy, he extolled fluffy, white fake fox collars:
…you talk about a glamour frame for this face: that’s it! It always has been, and as a matter of fact, in the 1920s, they had what they called “summer fox” — same fox people wore in the winter, but they put a name on it. And people carried it or wore it. It’s hilarious how fashion captures people’s moods…
With that little snippet, you can get a sense of what made Cunningham’s eye special, and Proustian. He had a sense of history, and a sense of humor. Like Proust, he understood how clothing was a reflection of the wearer’s mood, and the season. Other New York novelists have tried to capture specific fashion moments and trends, but too many of them focus solely on status, the way that clothing can express a character’s aspirations and anxieties. Take someone like Tom Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities is full of 1980s fashion. Wolfe, in his trademark white suit, obviously cares about clothes and is very good on the subject, especially the perfectly coifed appearance of the “social X-rays” — a wonderfully memorable phrase. And yet Wolfe did not catch the humanity of his female socialites the way that Cunningham, who photographed them, often did.

Cunningham understood that clothing is about more than just personal identity. Fashion is a mirror of the culture, with links to the past and arrows pointing to the unknown future. On its most basic level, fashion is related to the weather, to variations in the color of the sky and the quality of the light. It’s almost too obvious to say, but what people wear has to do with how warm or cold it is outside, how wet or dry the streets are, and for how long people have been stuck in a season, how hungry they are for change. It has to do with collective desires, not always conscious, brought on by the physical environment, as well as emotional factors having to do with the news or the holidays or even something as frivolous as the sudden appearance of daffodils in public parks.

Cunningham had a sort of naturalist’s sense for fashion; he was interested in learning how people adapted clothing to fit their environments. Just as you can see in the evolution of the peppered moth, that textbook example of adaptation, how the color of the moth changed after the Industrial Revolution, Cunningham’s photos showed how women’s fashion changed to accommodate their changing daily lives. For instance, the fact that women began to commute meant that women needed more durable and practical outerwear. Cunningham was very interested in commuters. He paid a lot of attention to coats, utilitarian objects that can be quite beautiful and striking if worn with style. One of his famous early photos was of Greta Garbo, though he didn’t realize he was photographing Garbo. He just noticed a woman in a coat with a beautiful shoulder and he photographed that coat, that stunning shoulder.

More recently, in another one of his weekly videos, Cunningham observed that pale pink coats were making an appearance, noting that a pale pink coat is luxury item that is very difficult to clean. I love him for remarking on this, because he wasn’t saying it to be a killjoy. Instead his comment was to emphasize that women must really want to wear pink, they must need pink in some way, if they are willing to go to the trouble of wearing it. In another recent video about a trend in black and white clothing, he noticed the way that white clothing was giving way to silver, a subtle metamorphosis that seemed to point to an increasing focus on technology.

Cunningham was wonderful on color, in general. Through his photos I learned to see the way certain colors rippled through the city. Meryl Streep taught Anne Hathaway the same lesson in The Devil Wears Prada, with her lecture on “cerulean,” but her speech emphasized the power of the media and the marketplace. Cunningham understood the power of designers, manufacturers, and materials, but he wasn’t as interested in their influence. His great insight as a photographer was that fashion evolves on the streets, because that’s where the people are. It’s such a simple observation, but it became powerful, and then, profound, in the way that he executed it, day after day.

Even before Cunningham’s death, I found myself thinking of him while reading In Search of Lost Time. There’s a moment toward the end of Volume I in which Marcel describes pigeons as group of birds “whose beautiful, iridescent bodies have the shape of a heart and are like the lilacs of the bird kingdom.” I read that and thought, only Proust would see the beauty hidden in something as common — and potentially annoying — as a flock of pigeons. But then I thought: Bill Cunningham probably feels this way about pigeons, too. He could see the sublime in the most everyday aspects of city life. He often said he was looking for beauty, and he believed that it could be found anywhere. Like the great novelists, he taught us how to see other people, and the world.

Image Credit: Flickr/Bicycle Habitat.

In Which Marcel Proust Anticipates a Minor Mid-Life Crisis at My 15-Year College Reunion


Around this time last year, I attended my 15-year college reunion. According to my friend, who organized the reunion, the 15-year reunion is usually the least well attended. This makes sense when you think about life stages. At the 10-year reunion, my classmates were around age 32, and most of us — or, at least, the ones who came to reunion — had not yet had children and were still free to drop everything for a weekend party. But by age 37, many of us had procreated; so many, in fact, that our class sponsored a bouncy castle and pony rides on the quad to entice families. For the first time, my classmates brought their spouses along, partners who were perhaps alluded to at the five- and 10-year reunions but were now sitting on the grass beside them, cradling an infant or chasing after a toddler.

Even though I’d gotten married and had a child of my own, it was strange to see my classmates with their families. I kept noticing tired, balding, and out-of-shape men hanging around the girls I used to know — girls I ran with on the cross-country team, girls I watched Ally McBeal with in the TV lounge, girls I gossiped about boys with, in the library. I couldn’t figure out why everyone had married older men. I thought to myself that I was lucky to have married someone I met in college, someone my own age.

For the first meal of reunion, my husband and I sat with another pair who met in college, as well as two other couples that we see every year or so at someone’s wedding or party. I thought that everyone looked pretty much as they always had. Maybe the men had a little more silver in their hair and maybe the women had a little more dye, but in general, the class of 2000 was looking good — except for those extraneous spouses, at the other tables! Again, I was struck by how old they all looked with their drawn faces. I couldn’t help wondering why so many of my classmates had gravitated toward middle-aged partners. I started to theorize about it; maybe it had to do with technology? We were the last class to grow up without email or cell phones in high school. Maybe that was a significant divide, maybe it was easier to date a person in his or her 40s, rather than a younger person whose personality had been shaped by social media. Yes, I thought. That had to be it. We, the Jimmy Carter babies, had more in common with Gen Xers than Millenials. Of course we would be more attracted to them.

It wasn’t until midway through lunch on the second day, while nursing a bit of a hangover, that I realized that my vision was compromised. I was gazing at one of the unknown spouses, a woman whose lined forehead made me think I shouldn’t be so judgmental about Botox. I tried to guess her age. Her dress was slightly out of style, like she’d bought it years ago and only wore every now and then. Her sandals looked comfortable, a tad Mom-ish. I decided that if she wasn’t at least 40, then she had to be pushing 40. Some rational part of my brain — the part no longer pickled in beer — asked at what age did one begin to push against 40? The immediate answer was 38. I had just turned 37, which meant I was in my 38th year. Goosebumps rose on my arms as I realized that I was probably around the same age as this woman I was so harshly examining. Also, we were wearing basically the same outfit.

I did a very slow double take as a reassessed my classmates. They still looked young to me, in fact remarkably youthful, considering that they were all pushing 40. It hit me that I had no idea what any of them really looked like; that when I saw them, I was seeing the smiles and gestures of kids I’d first met almost two decades earlier, on a sunny September afternoon in 1996. I looked at my husband, whose not-yet-balding hair was nevertheless quite silvered. I’d always thought of it as majority pepper, but maybe it was majority salt? Then he turned and smiled at me and it was the same gap-toothed grin I’d known for years.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Do ever think that you really have no idea what I look like anymore?”

He laughed. “You always get like this when you have a hangover.”

My reunion mistake was a Proustian mistake, and it’s one of the things that spurred me to revisit In Search of Lost Time. There’s a scene in the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, which I have a vague memory of reading in college, when Marcel attends a party in Paris after being away from the city for a long time. At first, he can’t find his friends among all the old people in attendance. Then he realizes: the old people are his friends! It’s a beautiful and poignant moment, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it at age 21. I found myself thinking of that scene during reunion, after I realized my mistake. I thought: now I understand that scene. My next thought was that I’d like to read it again. In the back of my mind, I had always thought I would read all of In Search of Lost Time before I was 40. The reunion forced me to admit that the deadline was closer than I’d realized.

This morning, I read another scene about the way love and time warps our vision; it’s a very celebrated passage in Volume III, in which Marcel gets a brief, unvarnished glimpse of his grandmother. He’s been away from her for several weeks, visiting with his friend Robert de Saint-Loup, and when he returns home, she doesn’t hear him enter the room where she’s sitting. There’s a hair of a second when Marcel is not quite sure he has entered the right room and in that moment, he sees his grandmother as she really is, not the woman whose face and gestures are defined by the love he feels for her:
We never see the people who are dear to us save in the animated system, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them, which, before allowing the images that their faces present to reach us, seizes them in its vortex and flings them back upon the idea that we have always had of them, makes them adhere to it, coincide with it.
What Marcel sees, instead, is a woman who lives in the “world of Time, that which is inhabited by the strangers of whom we say, ‘He’s begun to age a good deal.’” For that split second, instead of seeing his beloved, morally perfect grandmother, Marcel sees an old woman, “red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, day-dreaming, letting her crazed eyes wander over a book, an overburdened old woman whom I did not know.”

It’s the cruelty of the physical description that makes the last line hit so hard. And Marcel is no less cruel, a few pages later, when he meets his friend Robert’s mistress for the first time. Robert has built his mistress up to be a lovely young woman who is sensitive and intelligent in addition to being physically charming. But upon meeting her, Marcel recognizes her as the prostitute he met in a brothel, years before. He can’t believe that this is the woman that Robert goes to such great lengths to please, and marvels at “how much a human imagination can put behind a little scrap of a face, such as this woman’s was, if it is the imagination that has come to know it first.”

Shortly after Robert introduces Marcel to Rachel, two young women walk by and call out to Rachel, asking her to join them. They are noticeably of a lower class, “two poor little tarts with collars of sham otter-skin.” Rachel rebuffs them, but Marcel can see that Robert is shaken by the encounter:
Robert detached himself for a moment from the woman whom out of successive layers of tenderness he had gradually created, and suddenly saw at some distance from himself another Rachel, the double of his but entirely different, who was nothing more nor less than a little whore.
Again, the severity of that last line makes the revelation hit hard; it is akin to my judgment of the extraneous spouses, people who exist in the world of Time, unlike my classmates who I see through the scrim of fond memories. As much as I like the idea that the people we love are created out of “successive layers of tenderness,” like some strange and subconscious artwork, I also find it unsettling. I want to see the world clearly, without layers of fantasy and nostalgia. And I think I want to see the people I love clearly, too — or at the very least, through one of the less intrusive Instagram filters.

Then again, I’m well aware that that layers of tenderness and nostalgia may be what make long-term relationships last. They help us to see the best qualities in our friends, spouses, and colleagues, and to ignore or laugh at weaknesses. They help us to be less cruel in our judgments, and kinder in general. But in writing and in art, layers of tenderness are not as useful or desirable. I think what’s most disconcerting about Marcel Proust’s repeated examples of our inescapable subjectivity is his insistence that we do not know our own habits of mind; and yet our perception and experience of the world is profoundly shaped by them.

Gluten-Free Proust

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For the past six months, I’ve been making radical changes to my diet. I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritty, but it started with a “detox” that I was required to participate in before I could consult with a nutritionist whose waiting list I’d been on for several months. I’d been told that this nutritionist could help me with an autoimmune disease I’ve been struggling with for several years. I’d tried diets before, but this was different because it was very rigorous and because I had to report back to someone about the results. Also, I was paying for it — though not for any food items. Instead I paid $99 to spend hours concocting dairy-free asparagus and leek soups, kale smoothies, and vegetable stews. Every smoothie I made seemed to come out the same weird green. One dish of lentils, eggplant, and onions was such an unappetizing brown puddle of mush that my husband just laughed when I served it. Luckily, it was tasty. Then again, anything is tasty when you haven’t had dairy, gluten, refined sugar, corn, potatoes, processed foods, or alcohol for several weeks.

The miracle of this detox, and the diet that I’ve adapted from it, is that it really did work! Symptoms that plagued me for years have vanished. Most significantly, I’m free of a nagging and sharp hip pain that used to flare up unpredictably, making it difficult to exercise or even walk a few blocks. Some of you may be thinking, I could never give up pizza/pasta/baked goods, but you’d be surprised at the will power you can muster when carbohydrates are pitted against chronic pain. I can’t tell you how dispiriting it was to wake up and realize, as soon as I put my feet on the floor, that it was going to be a limping day. I would start to panic, wondering how bad it would be by the end of the day, and how many days it would last, and how many activities I would have to reschedule or cancel. The only thing I could do for comfort was to pop a Tylenol and tell myself that it really didn’t hurt that much, and that someday it would go away. And then I would wince as I lifted my son out of his crib and he would say, “Oh, Mommy! Your hip hurting?”

What does any of this have to do with Marcel Proust, you’re wondering? Well, I could probably relate anything in my daily life to something I’ve read in these first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, because it’s such a vast landscape, but today, I want to write about Habit — and I’m going to capitalize it, and personify it, as Proust does. We all know that our diets are influenced by Habit, and we all know that dietary habits are hard to change — in fact, as a culture we are obsessed with dietary habits, and the difficulty of changing them — and yet we do not truly acknowledge the force of Habit. Or at least, I didn’t. I guess I should speak for myself here, with some help from Proust.

The first time Proust mentions Habit is right in the opening pages, when it is described as “that skillful and unhurrying manager.” I read those pages in January, when I was putting my diet back on track after the holidays. I underlined the phrase, nodding in recognition. I felt I knew Habit quite well; I saw her as a quietly efficient administrative assistant, the kind that keeps the boss on schedule by strategic use of Outlook reminders and borderline passive-aggressive sticky notes. I found her annoying but trustworthy.

Now that I am a little further along in what I ironically/unironically refer to as my “health journey,” I don’t have the same impression of Habit. Now I think Habit is more like a stagehand, a woman dressed all in black who tiptoes onto the set between scenes. At first you notice her presence and watch with curiosity, but then you lose interest and begin to look at the program notes or whisper to the person next to you. Before you know it, a new scene is in place, the actors are carrying on with the story, and even if you concentrate, it’s hard to remember how the stage used to look. In this way, Habit is linked to memory. Habit helps us to remember certain periods of our life, e.g., the time when I lived near a pool and swam every morning. But it also blurs perception; once a behavior becomes habitual, we stop paying attention to it. Looking back on those swimming pool years, we remember the pool visits in a generalized way, not each visit in particular. Proust argues that are senses are always dulled: “As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services.” Habit, Proust writes, is “analgesic.” It takes away the pain of homesickness, of love lost, and of change in general, by making us forget the visceral reality of previous experience.

It’s been six months since I’ve had a slice of baguette with soft cheese. This used to be one of my favorite things to eat, but the other night I was at a party and there was a beautifully arranged cheese plate next to a basket of bread rounds. I stared at the plate, trying to summon up an appetite. I knew, intellectually, that bread and cheese was something I had once craved, but I couldn’t really remember why. I felt like I should be happy that I wasn’t tempted — wasn’t this the state of zen I’d been promised, if I stuck to the diet? — but instead I felt sad for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. Luckily, Proust is the bard of vague melancholy, and the next morning I read a passage in Volume II that spoke so directly to my experience that I felt like crying. It was about Habit, of course.

Before I get to that passage, I want to write about some other things. It’s going to be a bit of a ramble, but let me start with an email I received from a friend whose doctor had put her on a diet similar to mine. We traded recipes and then she wrote something that stuck with me: “I’m surprised by how emotional it is.” I knew just what she meant. When I started my diet, I thought the difficulty would be in dealing with the cravings, but since I had such immediate pain relief, fighting temptation has been relatively easy. Socially, it’s been a bit more complicated, especially when I have to turn down delicious homemade food, or when I get to a restaurant and there are only two things I can order. I’ve learned to “pre-eat” before I go out, and to laugh at how vain I sound when I have to ask if there’s anything on the menu that doesn’t have grain, dairy, or refined sugar. Lately, I’m even learning how to end a day without a glass of wine, and how to begin one without a cup of coffee. So, on the surface, it’s all going very well, but as I succumb to Habit, I can’t help feeling as if a way of life, and a way of being in the world has been lost. And that’s the emotional piece.

The last time I remember feeling this sensitive about changing my habits is when I was 20 and I decided give up competitive running. After a summer of intense training, I attended my first week of practice and realized that I didn’t care if I ever ran another race in my life. The feeling took me by surprise. My coach was angry. My parents were mystified, because racing had always made me so happy. I broke the news to them when they called on a Sunday afternoon and I remember I started crying on the phone because they’d asked if I’d just come back from my long Sunday run. I hadn’t, of course. Long Sunday runs were suddenly a thing of the past. And even though I wanted to be free of long Sunday runs so that I would have time to read and write and maybe even take in a matinee, it hit me that in giving up running, I would relinquish dozens of hard-earned habits: the habit of going to bed early, the habit of morning stretching, the habit of afternoon practice, the habit of team dinners, the habit of racing (and all the micro-habits that attend an athlete on race day), the habit of Saturday night’s party, and of course, the habit of Sunday’s long run. I was tired of feeling beholden to these habits, but I also knew that they were the structure of my life. I was burning down the house — why? So I could stay up late and read? So I could write? (Could I write?) What if it wasn’t worth the sacrifice?

In a recent interview, the film director Richard Linklater said that you don’t really grow up until you give up playing sports. He gave up baseball his sophomore year of college and that’s when he started getting into theater and figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. Pretty much the same thing happened to me. I started reading more — I read Proust! — and I took my first creative writing classes. I still ran, but just for fun, without keeping track of mileage or pacing. It was like I couldn’t get serious about my real ambitions until I took running less seriously.

Changing my diet at 37 isn’t exactly the same coming-of-age moment. But it has caused me to take a step back and look at the structure of my days, to find out what habits have crept in over the years. I would evoke the word “mindfulness” if the word had any meaning left it in. Instead I’ll quote Proust, who notes “the selfish, active, practical, mechanical, indolent, centrifugal tendency which is that of the human mind.” Our attention is so easily scattered, and so invested in pleasure-seeking, that we cling to fantasy, especially fantasies of the future: “the mind prefers to imagine it [a particular pleasure] in the future tense, to continue to bring about the circumstances which may make it recur — which, while giving us no clue as the real nature of the thing, saves us the trouble of recreating it without ourselves and allows us hope that we may receive it afresh from without.”

Around this time last year, my husband was interviewing for a job in San Francisco. He got so far in the interview process that we began to seriously contemplate a cross-country move. I was surprised to find that I was excited about the idea — surprised because normally, like Marcel (and Proust himself) I hate moving. But I had a fantasy about my new California lifestyle, which would involve lots of hiking outdoors, fresh vegetables, green juice, surfing, and of course, sunshine. Without even really trying, I’d upend all my terrible NYC habits (caffeine, booze, Internet browsing, stress) and would finally be free of chronic pain! My skin would clear up! My mood would improve! My energy levels would be through the roof! When the California job didn’t come through, I was disappointed for myself as much as for my husband. I realized that I was craving change and, at the same time, I was resisting it. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the banalities of diet. Of stress reduction. I didn’t want to be that person who sets timers and plans meals and ends the day with mint tea — or rather, I didn’t want to be the person who decided to do those things. I just wanted California to force its legendary healthy culture upon me so that I wouldn’t have to think about why I was doing it or what it meant.

There’s a beautiful scene in Volume II in which Marcel observes the sunrise from his train berth. He’s en route to Balbec, a seaside town. Marcel’s parents hope that the fresh ocean air will relieve his asthma; Marcel, meanwhile, is hoping to be cured of his unrequited love for M. Swann’s daughter, Gilberte. The train ride is an exhilarating pleasure with its sunrise views and windows onto village life. He enjoys the novelty of travel, the way it makes him more attentive to beauty. (At his doctor’s advice, he also enjoys a few beers from the bar car, to calm his nerves.) It’s not until Marcel settles into his hotel room that he begins feel homesick. He tells himself that the homesickness will pass as his room becomes familiar and new habits take root. He reasons that in time, he will no longer pine for Gilberte. But he cannot convince himself; in fact, his rational explanations only make him feel worse and vaguely melancholy.

Why is it sad to change habits even when change is desired and hoped for? This is the question Marcel asks and answers in his hotel room — and this is the passage I read the morning after the party with the cheese plate. How ridiculous I feel, typing that! It feels silly to mourn party food. But for Marcel, every change of habit, even a superficial one, represents a death of self:
“it would be in a real sense the death of the self, a death followed, it is true, by resurrection, but in a different self, to the love of which the elements of the old self that are condemned to die cannot bring themselves to aspire. It is they — even the meanest of them, such as our obscure attachment to the dimensions, to the atmosphere of a bedroom — that take fright and refuse, in acts of rebellion which we must recognize to be a secret, partial, tangible and true aspect of our resistance to death, of the long, desperate, daily resistance to the fragmentary and continuous death that insinuates itself throughout the whole course of our life.”
Even the meanest of them. I love that. I stumbled on that clause at first, and even reread the sentence without it, wondering if it was necessary. But then I realized that it was the line that most applied to my situation — because Marcel is talking there, of the attachments we consider unimportant: the party foods of life, the mediocre TV shows, the old sofas, the ill-fitting jeans, the subway tokens, the store we never visited but the shuttering of which fills us with a strange sense of loss. We cling to behaviors, objects, rooms, foods, places, and even people that we don’t care for simply because they have become integrated into our lives, and to bring an end to them would mean bringing an end to a certain period of time. In the bones of our bones, we don’t want to be reminded of time’s passage. We can’t bear to think too deeply about the fact that we’re in a story with an ending.

In our culture, there is a lot of judgment attached to habits. There are good ones and bad ones and people with good habits are thought to be more virtuous. But in Proust, Habit does not vet habits; it simply implements them. And what I love about the above passage about the death and resurrection of self is that there is no talk of self-improvement. It’s not that one version of yourself dies and another, better one takes its place — that would be the American interpretation. I’m so tired of that flattening narrative! Thinking in those terms is a habit in and of itself.

And yet I often give voice to the culture of betterment, smiling when asked about my new diet and emphasizing my improved health. I don’t say that I suddenly feel my age, which is another way of saying that I’ve been aware, for the past few months, of death. Lately, it seems like every cultural figure who passes away is someone who already means something to me, whereas it used to be that a famous death was an education. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Garry Shandling, and Harper Lee were not idols of mine, and obviously not personal friends, but they had a place in my imagination. Mourning them means letting go of a certain vision of the world — certain habits of mind.

The irony is that writing about death, and facing my very natural fear of it, does not bring me down. If anything, it cheers me. Another thing I love about the passage I’ve quoted is that it’s immediately followed by a lively, comic scene in which Marcel awakens in a good mood and heads downstairs to breakfast. His grandmother causes a ruckus when she opens a window to let in the fresh air. The wind sweeps into the room, annoying everyone as it sends menus and newspapers flying about. But Marcel’s grandmother is oblivious. She loves the smell of the sea air, the sun on her skin. She doesn’t notice that her grandson is embarrassed. She has opened the window for him, because he needs the fresh air. She wants, more than anything, for him to outlive her.

Doing Laundry with Marcel Proust

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I used Leap Day to catch up on my Marcel Proust reading. And my laundry. Now, it’s March, I’m doing laundry again, and I’m finally caught up and well into Volume II. I was keeping a good pace with Volume I until mid-February, when my son had a week off from nursery school. During that same week, my husband was traveling in Australia. So it was just me and a three-and-a-half-year-old and a bad Skype connection for six days. I planned activities and playdates but foolishly did not schedule a babysitter. Also, it didn’t occur to me that it would be summer in Australia, and that when I dialed up my husband for an end-of-the-day chat, it would be morning where he was, and that he would be wearing sunglasses, a short-sleeved shirt, and a helpless grin.

On the second-to-last day of winter break I was so exhausted that I went to bed at eight, shortly after my son fell asleep. I slept deeply, waking up the next morning with the sense that I was in my childhood bedroom — that feeling Proust describes so well in the opening pages of Volume I. I closed my eyes and held onto the illusion, wondering if I noticed and identified the feeling because I had been reading Proust or if the feeling itself had arisen from reading Proust. And then my son called for me to make his breakfast and the sensation of being in my old bedroom vanished.

At that time, I was still reading Volume I, finishing up the last pages of the third section, “Swann in Love.” I was only managing a few pages a day, which was maybe an apt way to finish “Swann in Love,” with the slow pace of my reading mimicking the protracted period in which poor Swann, tormented by jealousy, can’t get enough time or attention from his lover, Odette. The worst part is, even when he’s with her, he can’t enjoy her company. And then, one morning, after a strange dream, his love dissipates and he famously wonders how he could have spent years of his life pining “for a woman who did not please me, who was not my type!”

This is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read “Swann in Love,” because even though I haven’t finished Proust’s novel, I’ve returned to “Swann in Love” several times and read it as if it were a stand-alone novella. When I first read it, I was most struck by Proust’s insights about romantic relationships, specifically, the role that memory plays in shaping our idea of a person, and how those memories create a narrative of “falling in love.” We use memories of shared experiences to build a story for our love and then we live in that story, inhabiting it so completely that we no longer see it as a fiction. Falling in love means abandoning an objective point of view for a subjective (some might say delusional) one. Somehow Proust manages to dramatize this change in perception in Swann’s story, making it feel epic and emblematic.

Over the years, I’ve approached “Swann in Love” from an apprentice fiction writer’s perspective, wondering how on earth did he do it? In earlier readings, I’ve thought the genius of the narration had everything to do with Proust’s prose style — his beautiful sentences and insights, his similes, his sense of humor. Now I think what matters most is the distance from which Marcel tells the story. Finding the right narrative distance is a problem I’ve been tackling in my own fiction, so maybe this is just projection on my part, but as I reread “Swann in Love,” this time, I kept thinking about the fact that Marcel introduces the story of Swann’s love affair with Odette as one that happened before he was even born. It’s a story he’s telling secondhand, “with the precision of detail which it is easier, sometimes, to obtain about the lives of people who have been dead for centuries than about the lives of our most intimate friends.”

Marcel never says who told him the story of Swann’s love affair, though there are occasional references to Marcel’s grandfather, who was friends with Swann’s father, and has a somewhat paternal and disapproving view of the younger Swann. We also meet Swann in the Combray sections of Volume I. He first appears as the visitor whose unexpected appearance disturbs Marcel’s bedtime routine, preventing Marcel from receiving a kiss from his mother. In this way, Swann is a father figure of sorts. But most of the time, Swann is like the fun, bachelor uncle whose unpredictable visits and dilettantish, social existence is in contrast to the staid routines of Marcel’s traditional, middle-class family. Swann fascinates the young Marcel, even more so after his “unfortunate marriage” to Odette, the coquette who is not even “his type.” But the younger Marcel of the Combray years doesn’t know her as Odette, he doesn’t know her “type,” and he has not yet heard the story of Swann’s tortured early years with her. All young Marcel knows is that his parents do not approve of the woman Swann has married.

To tell a story well, you need the right combination objectivity and intimacy. It’s important that Marcel’s fascination with Swann begins in childhood. Marcel will always have a memory of Swann that is visceral and associated with his family and his childhood home; he will always feel that he knows Swann in a deep way. That’s where the intimacy comes in. The objectivity comes into play as Marcel begins to wonder about Swann and the world he inhabits — a world that Marcel’s parents conceal or else know very little about. Looking back on my own childhood, the most interesting stories were the ones that my parents only told in part. I would have to piece the untold parts together like a reporter, using logic, deduction, and my own observations to make sense of what little I knew — as young Marcel does with Swann. Marcel’s questions about Swann’s life and his love affairs are essential questions of childhood: what is love, what is sexual desire, what is society, what is class, what, in short, are these mysterious forces that are shaping life but which no one alludes to directly?

A couple of months ago, I saw the movie, Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name and was struck by how well it translated to film. It’s not an especially dramatic story. It follows Eilis, an ordinary Irish girl who immigrates to Brooklyn in the 1950s and has to decide who she will marry and where she will live. Her choices are not very surprising or bold. And yet, in both the book and the movie, Eilis comes across as a brave heroine. Her ordinary life seems larger than life. Even with the period details, there was something slightly out-of-time about the story; it was almost like a fairy tale. Some critics objected to the tone, wishing for something more gritty and realistic, but I don’t think it would have had the same emotional depth without it — the same mix of intimacy and objectivity. In an interview with Tóibín, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the story was from his childhood, one he heard secondhand at an emotional moment in his life:

My father died when I was 12. We were living in a small town in the southeast of Ireland. An old woman came to our house to pay her condolences. She told a story about her daughter, who had left Ireland to live in Brooklyn. She never said “America” or “New York.” She always said “Brooklyn.” Like it was a country all by itself. The way she talked about her daughter’s experiences there — working in a big department store on Fulton Street, marrying an Italian boy — there was something magical about it. I knew even then that one day I would tell that story.

Flannery O’Connor famously said that anyone who has survived childhood has more than enough material to write fiction. When I first heard that quote, secondhand and out of context, I assumed she was referring to the trauma of adolescence, and that it was her way of saying, “if you can’t get a story from that transformation, you probably won’t get a story from anything.” That’s part of what she’s saying, but having read the quote in context, her main point seems to be that it’s not life experience that makes you a good writer; it’s your contemplation of whatever experience life gives you. More than any writer I know, Proust shows how the half-stories we hear in childhood, the people we meet, the histories and landscapes we absorb, can be excavated in adulthood, with an adult’s sympathetic imagination.

The Proust Book Club: The View From Age 38

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A few weeks ago, to prepare myself for my solo book club, I read a biography of Marcel Proust — though not the Jean-Yves Tadié doorstopper that I mentioned in my first entry. Instead I read Benjamin Taylor’s Proust: The Search, a tightly focused biography concerned mainly with one question: how did Marcel Proust, of all writers, manage to author what many consider to be the greatest novel of all time? According to Taylor, it was not by any means preordained. No one in his circle, especially those who knew him in his youth, would have predicted it. His first published efforts were mediocre and forgettable. He lacked discipline, socialized too much, and couldn’t be bothered to show up for his part-time librarian job. He was also very sickly, an asthmatic who was easily exhausted by travel and parties — both of which he could not resist. Yet somehow, Taylor argues, “all this light-minded flitting around would turn out to be essential preparation.”

It took Proust about 13 years to write In Search of Lost Time, an extraordinary pace when you consider that he wrote seven volumes, none of them less than 400 pages and some close to 900. And it’s extraordinary considering the quality of his prose, and how interconnected the books are, with certain themes repeating and developing over the course of the novel, and a cast of characters changing over time, aging and evolving (or not evolving), just as real people do. Proust had the end of the novel in mind when he began, and a vague sense that he had found the structure — or, maybe, the moral sensibility — that could finally contain all the different modes of writing he wished to employ: description, analysis, dialogue, gossip, satire, and of course, his essays and insights about memory and consciousness. He was 38 years old and in poor health when he started writing. He knew he did not have any time left to waste. He believed — as it turned out, accurately — that he was writing on deadline. He died in 1922, shortly after completing his novel.

Reading Taylor’s biography, I kept thinking about the fact that I’m turning 38 this spring. This felt, at first, like a very egotistical thing to dwell upon, a secret hope that I might be on the cusp of writing a novel as grand as Proust’s. But, delusions aside, I think what really interests me about this parallel is that as a reader, I am the same distance from my childhood as Proust was from his when he began his book. Given Proust’s theme of memory lost and found, that similarity in perception has made the early pages of the novel feel very close to my current experience of memory and time.

Even those who have only a passing knowledge of Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, will probably know that it begins with a long recollection of the narrator’s childhood trips to the country. This recollection is famously spurred by a happenstance bite of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea. The narrator, Marcel, describes the memories as “involuntary”, and all the more beautiful because he did not even realize he had them; they were bidden by sensory experience, not intellectual recall.

When I first read Proust in college, I certainly knew what it was like to suddenly and surprisingly remember something after encountering a particular smell or taste. But at 21, my memories of childhood were so close that nothing really seemed forgotten. If the smell of someone’s shampoo unexpectedly brought back the pretty smile of a long-lost babysitter, I didn’t believe, as Proust did, that it was a stroke of luck to have remembered that girl, and that I might have forgotten her, entirely, if not for that whiff of Herbal Essences. Now, at 37, I understand how distant memories can become. Lately, I feel like I’m looking at my childhood from a slightly higher vantage point, so that I can finally see the topography. Certain events and people seem to have risen in importance while others have blended together. I was talking to a friend my age about this and she knew what I was talking about, reporting that just recently she seems to have forgotten parts of her teens and 20s. Does this happen to everyone, we wondered — was it some kind of subtle marker of impending middle age? Did it happen to Proust? Was forgetting what allowed him to write his marvelous book of remembrance?

As I write this, I am about three weeks into reading Swann’s Way. I’ve finished the first two sections of the volume, “Combray I” and “Combray II,” which detail the summer hours Marcel spent in the village of Combray as a child, staying at his aunt’s house. I’ve read these pages twice before, so they were familiar, and as always, I reveled in Proust’s overwhelmingly sensual descriptions of the French countryside. It made me wonder if I’ve gravitated toward these books in January because of how evocative they are of warm weather, long walks outdoors, flowers, and sunshine. The funny thing is that Marcel often avoids the outdoors and would prefer to stay inside with a book. As a result, he is just as lavish, if not more so, in his descriptions of domestic space:
The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent that I could not enter them without a sort of greedy enjoyment, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully, because I had just arrived then at Combray: before I went in to wish my aunt good day I would be kept waiting a little time in the outer room, where the sun, a wintry sun still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, lighted already between its two brick sides and plastering the room and everything in it with the smell of soot, making the room like one of those great open hearths that one finds in the country, or one of the canopied mantelpieces in old castles under which one sits hoping that outside it is raining or snowing, hoping even for a catastrophic deluge to add the romance of shelter and security to the comfort of a snug retreat…
This sentence goes on to describe the variety of smells in the room, and how they are intensified by the warmth and heat of the fire, baking together “like a pie.” It’s wonderfully childlike, and it brought me back to my grandparents’ houses in West Chester, Penn. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents lived in West Chester (my parents met in high school) but they retired and moved away when I was still in elementary school. Their houses, along with the houses of certain school friends, seemed preserved in a particular part of my memory, at once more specific and dreamlike than the houses and apartments I’ve come to know as an adult. It’s these dream houses — or at least, aspects of them — that I helplessly imagine when a novel prompts me to imagine a house, or when I’m creating a house for a character in a story.

My life is a lot more domestic than it was 10 years ago, when I last read these pages, and that’s probably the main reason I’ve been paying closer attention to descriptions of interior space. I’ve also been watching my son grow up, and it’s dawning on me that his earliest memories will be of the apartment and the neighborhood where we now live. I love our apartment and our neighborhood; they have been the location of many important life events, including my wedding reception. And yet, my experience of my apartment will never be foundational, and as I look around its rooms and out its windows, I’m not at all sure what my son will remember of it.

When I was his age, I lived in a small town in Maine in a gray house that was next door to a fire hall and across the street from the town common. If you were to ask my father about this house, he would probably tell you about the downtrodden state it was in when he and my mother bought it, and the work they did to renovate. He would recall certain quirky details: the phone booth, the clawfoot bathtub, the little library. He would also remember the inconveniences: the fire hall’s alarm that went off every day at noon; the driveway that needed to be shoveled out every time it snowed; the loads of wood that had to be chopped for the furnace.

But I don’t remember any of that. I might even be wrong about some of those details, because I’m simply transcribing what I’ve heard in conversation, as an adult. What I remember from childhood are the narrow back stairs that led from my playroom to the kitchen like a secret passageway; the view of the town common from my bedroom window, how it looked empty and dark at night, like a lake; the cracked, uneven sidewalk that led from our house to the end the block where a maple flamed fuchsia and red every fall; the painted wooden steps where I liked to arrange my tea set, and where bits of gray paint flecked off in my hands; my mother standing on the front porch to call me indoors at 11:57, so I wouldn’t be startled by the alarm; my father shoveling out a hole in snow drift, “a snow house” to contain me while he shoveled the drive…

My childhood memories are dear to me, and indelible. I can only guess what my son’s will be. I can hope for certain things that I consider beautiful to have made an impression: the yellow walls in his room; the wall quilts that my mother made; our framed, antique map of Maine; our tall bookshelves, and our neighborhood walks to Valentino Pier, the bakery, and the cruise ship terminal, where the Queen Mary 2 docks and disembarks every few weeks. I hope — and yet, for all I know, my son’s memories are devoted to the recycling bins, the television remotes, the broken slatted shades, the gum-spotted sidewalks, the dinners in the IKEA cafeteria. I have very little control over what he remembers, and if Proust is to be believed, neither does he — neither do any of us.

The Proust Book Club: An Introduction

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Ten years ago, I purchased Jean-Yves Tadié’s definitive 720-page biography of Marcel Proust. I never ended up reading it; Tadié’s book stands on my shelf alongside my six volume set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I also never finished reading — although, to be fair, I have read a lot of it, thanks to a college professor who assigned about 75 percent of the book. We didn’t read the entire novel only because our professor wanted to leave time at the end of the semester to read another groundbreaking modernist, Samuel Beckett. I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven Beckett for not being Proust. After spending three months reading Proust’s conversational, musical, allusive, simile-rich prose, Beckett’s spare style struck me as miserly.

While in college, I promised myself that one day I would read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time after graduation. I made this vow, as all 21-year-olds must, knowing very little of the realities of full-time employment, commuting, and Sunday brunch plans. I also made this resolution at a time when my daily Internet activity consisted of checking my email and maybe, if I was really hungry, the dining hall menu. I had no idea that reading would one day become an activity that I would have to plan.

In my late 20s, I finally made good on my promise and read Proust daily for about four months. It was at this time that I purchased the Tadié biography. I bought it out of enthusiasm; when I started rereading In Search of Lost Time, I was enjoying it so much that I wanted to make sure I had more Proust on reserve after I finished. But my enthusiasm must have waned, because I stopped reading somewhere in volume four. I don’t remember when I gave up, or why; I don’t even remember feeling bored with the project. Looking back through my journal entries from that year, it seems that a new iPod shuffle was the culprit. Maybe the weather also played a part. I began my grand rereading project in January, when it was cozy to stay indoors and read during my lunch hour. But then spring and my iPod arrived and I started to use my lunch break to go for walks set to a soundtrack of my own design. I have to wonder what albums could have been better than Proust. And at the same time, I think that Proust, who briefly subscribed to “Théâtrophone,” a service that allowed him to listen to live opera performances via telephone, would have understood the temptation.

And so, here I am, 10 years (!) later, trying again to finish one of the best novels I’ve ever read, possibly the best novel I’ve ever read. (I’ll know for sure when I finish.) The world (i.e. the Internet) has only gotten more distracting and, having become the mother of a three-year-old, my daily responsibilities have increased and become less negotiable. At the same time, one thing I’ve learned over the past decade is that you can accomplish a lot by doing a little of something every day. You can raise a child, write a book, make a life with another person. Almost everyone I know who has completed In Search of Lost Time (and to be clear, most of these “known” people are those who have written about the experience, not anyone I’ve met personally) did it slowly, reading just 10 to 20 pages a day, usually in the morning. At a pace of 10 pages a day, it will take me about a year and two months to finish, a period of time that doesn’t seem as long as it did 10 years ago. If it’s not already obvious, I’ve decided to write about this reading project here on The Millions. It will be a book club of one — though if anyone would like to join me, I’d love the company. I’ll be posting monthly, (perhaps twice monthly, if the mood strikes) and I have no idea what I will write about, only that Proust’s beautiful novel will be my point of departure.