Category Archives: A la recherche du temps perdu

Peaking

  Each morning, the sun rises over Green Mountain to my east. Upon waking, I go and look out my bedroom window to gauge the coming day. This morning was stunning. Temperatures dipped below freezing overnight, frost was on the ground and rooftops, and a thick fog obscured the half disk of sunlight peeking over the mountain, ivory through grey mist. The whole world had a silver fringe.

My first impulse was to delay getting ready for work, to go back to bed, and to read a few more pages of Proust. I read a paragraph that was close to three dense pages long and decided it was time to put the book away and meet the promising day ahead.

By the time I returned home, from work, the sky was a clear blue, the sun was low on the horizon on the other side of the house, and Green Mountain was clearly visible through the second-floor windows as I stole time to read a few more pages of my book. As I finished, a half moon was newly visible and Venus was the brightest light amid the emerging stars.

I wrote in summer 2018 that I was tackling an English translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (translated as Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time), the daunting seven-volume 20th-Century French masterpiece that has been called the literary Mount Everest (“Climbing Mount Proust”). My incentive for reading the novel was my fondness for the “madeleine passage,” in which the taste of a madeleine pastry dipped in tea brings forth a flood of childhood memories for the novel’s narrator. I have evoked that passage so many times over the years that I finally felt guilty that I had not read most of the 3400-plus pages that surround it.

I didn’t plan to write any more essays about Proust’s book until I finish, but I feel a need to report that I’m still at it. In December, I peaked the summit; now, perhaps, I am well into the downhill slide. I’m hoping to eventually be one of the relative few to have finished the task. I was reading through one of the volumes before a faculty meeting a few weeks ago when an English professor asked me what I was reading. She shuddered, “I would never!” when I told her; she laughed, and I questioned my sanity for a moment.

I questioned my motives, too. Why am I spending such time and effort on a book that I probably won’t be able to discuss with others since I only know maybe a couple of people who have even tried to read it? What am I getting out of this beyond the personal satisfaction of a task completed? When I’m gone, what difference will it make that I read a dense and daunting book over the course of two or three years?

The truth is, I’m enjoying it. It’s a pleasant and eye-opening respite to travel back to a compulsively indulgent French comedy of manners and social satire from a century ago. Proust’s Narrator is not identified by name, but the author occasionally teases the reader with the insinuation that his Narrator is Marcel, something the reader assumes from the start.

The novel is a fever dream, laboriously exploring all ramifications of even the smallest and most nuanced event. Proust spends extensive pages describing the introductions of the Narrator into a salon, only to have the Narrator remind the reader that the events that he has examined in such detail, at such length, only comprise a few moments in time.

I am currently reading the fourth volume, “Cities of the Plain,” also translated “Sodom and Gomorrah,” in which the implicit becomes more explicit. Proust’s melding of time and transience is as potent as his manipulation of sense memory. The author’s voluptuous descriptions are often entertaining and very often outright funny. In discussing over-the-top praise for a simple bow, the Narrator considers how flattery often favors the gesture over the person who made it, concluding that “one indirectly reminds a servant who smells that the practice of taking a bath is beneficial to the health.”

My reading of Proust has prompted me to research and learn more about the Dreyfus Affair than I ever knew from history. The Dreyfus Affair and the anti-Semitism it embodies are often mentioned and divisive topics within the Narrator’s social circle. One’s acceptance or rejection in “society” might be based on one’s stance about that fin de siècle French scandal. One examines it today and finds parallels to other politics and other religious biases. One hesitates in its ramifications.

Most of all, my immersion into Proust feeds my ongoing interest in memory and the ways in which memory is formed. He writes

The images selected by memory are as arbitrary, as narrow, as elusive as those which the imagination had formed and reality has destroyed. There is no reason why, existing outside ourselves, a real place should conform to the pictures in our memory rather than to those in our dreams.

I’m hooked. Pay homage to memory.

Climbing Mount Proust

About fifty pages into A la recherche du temps perdu – the 4000-page novel of class consciousness, neurosis, and love by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) – comes the novel’s most iconic moment. The narrator dips a madeleine into a cup of tea and that food memory stimulates thousands of pages of detailed observations and digressions about his life and the lives of those in his orbit, interspersed with philosophical reflections about time and memory.

I am a life-long reader. My parents provided me with a huge collection of Little Golden Books before I could read. When I was three or four, I wandered to the furniture store around the corner from my parents’ business in downtown Tuscaloosa and independently bought a book shelf for my collection. Mr. McGraw didn’t ask questions — he just put it on my parents’ account.

From elementary school, I usually had at least a couple of books working at any given time and summers were always for reading, in addition to riding my bike to Baker’s Candy Shop, listening for the popsicle man, and hanging outdoors. The reading habit continued through college, graduate school, a theatre and academic career, and beyond. I read a lot of serious fiction, but was also partial to history, essays, and other non-fiction, especially biography.

Lately, my reading has tapered off – not by choice but by time and necessity. I still read daily and frequently, but mostly magazines and things that may be started and finished in a single sitting. Reading is still a tactile experience for me – I like the feel of the object in my hands, the ability to dog-ear a page with a passage to which I want to return, the compulsion to underline or write a comment in a margin. My library is still a bound one on book shelves and not one I retreat to on a sterile small screen.

I decided to tackle a long-time mission this summer and start to read all of Marcel Proust’s sprawling early 20th century novel in seven parts. The preferred and more accurate translation of the title is In Search of Lost Time but the most popular English translation is C. K. Scott Moncrief’s Remembrance of Things Past. I am partial to Moncrieff’s (inaccurate) title because of its reference to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30.

Proust’s novel has been referred to as the literary Mount Everest. I’ve read bits and pieces over the years and frequently refer back to the “madeleine moment” which stimulates my ongoing interest in food memory. I’ve skimmed through other sections of the work and remember an overwrought 1984 film adaptation of the novel’s “Swann in Love” episode starring Jeremy Irons.

I was immensely moved by playwright Harold Pinter’s film adaptation of the sprawling work, published as The Proust Screenplay in 1977. The film, which would have been directed by Joseph Losey, was never produced, but the haunting – and skillfully taut and compressed – screenplay is beautifully rendered and evocative of the prose that inspired it. I still long to see the film if it’s ever made but I doubt that it has a chance with contemporary audiences and tastes.

The lush, deliberate, and lyrical prose of Proust’s novel is out of fashion in our dismal age of texting, twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. When I first tackled a complete navigation of the book this summer, I wasn’t sure I would make it. As of today, I am only about a third of the way through, but I am compelled to move forward and determined to complete my task; each day it becomes more of a pleasure and less insurmountable.

The thing that I never realized in reading random and isolated fragments of the novel is just how frequently funny Proust is. To read the novel as a whole is to go through a master class of literary composition and style. Proust engages in pages of precious and immaculate description which follow dozens of principal characters and hundreds of supporting roles. His social satire sneaks up on the reader until its anticipation becomes part of what compels the reader forward.

The passages about the faithful “clan” of the Verdurin household and Mme. Verdurin’s stranglehold on her little band of acolytes are as funny and biting a comedy of manners as the early and most wicked works of Evelyn Waugh (like Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies). I rarely laugh out loud while reading novels but I have laughed many times during my summer of Proust (which seems destined to become a fall of Proust and perhaps even the year of Proust).

Finally, after years of resisting the urge to read Remembrance of Things Past in its entirety, it feels like I have reached the time of my life in which its exploration of art and time and memory and nature, love and jealousy and the fragility of life, self-doubt and self-examination and what, ultimately, is the meaning of our brief time on the planet have a resonance for me that I have missed in the past.

It’s well worth the effort. You should read it some time. Find the time of life that’s right for you.