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.