Reflections on Reading Proust

proust-refelctionsIt has been almost four months now since I finished reading In Search of Lost Time again.  As I wrote in an earlier post, I made several abortive attempts to get through Proust’s novel in my early twenties, and finally succeeded in my late thirties.  But the experience, when I achieved it, was disappointing.

That first time I struggled, of course, with the novel’s length and with its often labyrinthine and seemingly ceaseless sentences.  I lost the thread of Proust’s reflections on self and society, on memory’s grasp and jealousy’s strangleholds for times than I could recount.  And having swum against these strong but sleepy currents for 3000 pages, I was hugely disappointed in the final pages of Time Regained, the last volume towards which I’d been navigating for so many months.  The book seemed to end, not with an exaltation or a trumpeting revelation, but with a series of muted memories, thoughts that could barely be dignified with the title of realizations.  The novel, after all that efforts, ended, to mangle T. S. Eliot’s phrase, not with a bang but a whisper.

The stages of progress along the way had been frustrating, unsatisfying, often disappointing, making the lack of éclat at the end even more mystifying.  The narrator’s charming childhood in the gardens and pathways of Combray and the intense psychology of Swann’s love for Odette in Swann’s Way led to the excitements of discovering the sensuality of young girls in flower and artist’s reconstructions of reality in the second volume.  In the third, The Guermantes Way, the narrator fulfills his dream of entering society and discovering the world of the nobility who heraldic past animated the church windows in Combray.  And here was where things started to go wrong, I thought.

For the remainder of the novel, through Sodom and Gommorrah, The Prisoner, The Fugitive, and even into Time Regained, the narrator grows increasingly disillusioned with both the world and with himself.  The Prisoner and The Fugitive were particularly trying experiences, as I found the narrator’s inability to bestir himself except to sink further into a pointless pit of misery over Albertine’s imagined infidelities infuriating.  And when all this culminated in yet another long matinée at the salon of the Princesse de Guermantes, and when the Princesse herself turned out to be none other than the exasperating Mme Verdurin, it was almost more than I could stomach.  And for what seemed to be no brilliant conclusion.  My experience reading the others greats of Modernism, Joyce, Woolf, even Beckett hadn’t prepared me to be so underwhelmed.  More conventional plot structures in contemporary fiction and even worse, Hollywood films, no doubt contributed to my failure to appreciate the arc of Proust’s narrative.

On my second voyage through these currents of memory, I was prepared for the disappointment, yet hopeful that such preparation would help me fathom the true mysteries of the novel.  At the least, I was no longer reading to find out “what happens,” nor to see how Proust really handled the theme of homosexuality which was supposed to be one of his groundbreaking achievements, presaging Gide and Genet, going where even Joyce had not cared or dared to tread.

What I learned this time was that my impressions from the first reading were largely correct.  But the important revelation was that this progress of stifling disappointment is exactly the point of the book.  It’s is the narrator’s own inability to have any perspective on his life until he has reached an age well past maturity, until he is able to perceive that the impermanence of people and their impenetrability at any stage of life, that the constant change that time imposes on us, is the essential experience of life.  The length of the novel is designed to illustrate this, to demonstrate it fully, and all the action of the novel leads to the narrator’s final understanding of these facts and his realization that transforming both the incidents of living and the insight into life’s mutability, and more importantly, its decay is his true vocation as an artist.

The way in which the well-known incident of the madeleine is often recounted as the key to Proust’s novel has much to answer for, in my opinion.   The narrator as an old man suddenly recaptures with astonishing vividness and joy the experience of being given some crumbs of cake soaked in lime-blossom tea by his Tante Léonie.  This act of “involuntary memory” is has entered common discourse as the key to the entire novel, a revelation of Biblical magnitude.  Almost as widely known is that fact that a quick succession of such episode of involuntary memory bring the novel to a climax in the final volume, Time Regained.

In mt actual, first-time reading, no thunderclap accompanied these moments.  Life was not immediately transmogrified into art; there were no hosannas sounded. How could this, I wondered, be what all the fuss is about.

Well, these incidents do have great structural significance in the story, but you’d almost have to grasp them in reverse order to understand how they work.  For 3,000 pages, the narrator recounts the events of his life, a life filled with increasing dissatisfaction, frustration, loss of purpose, failure to find direction.  This downward slope from the promise of childhood to the disillusionment of age, is not the typical emotional arc of a novel.

Instead, the accumulation of detail exists to present us with the raw material of the narrator’s life from which he will ultimately fashion his art.  But because he does not grasp that the uniqueness of his own life, and of all lives, is to be his subject matter until the end, we as readers are kept in the same kind of suspended animation that the narrator himself suffers.  Throughout, the narrator struggles to see into the souls of others, his beloved Gilberte and Albertine, the Duchesse de Guermantes, Swann,  And he fails every time, ultimately despairing of ever being able to grasp the essence of another human.

We are all prevented from achieving this goal by the agency of time, which corrodes and changes us as we move through it.  There is no essential self; only a succession of selves.  This insight, and the inexorable slide towards death that leads to it, is a major theme of the novel, and it is only when the narrator grasps it, at the end, after experiencing those final bursts of involuntary memory, that his artistic mission is revealed to him and he resolves to write the novel we have just finished reading.  It is almost as if the experience is over before it is begun.

The episode of the madeleine, occurring at the end of the first section of Swann’s Way, what is known as the “Overture,” opens the door to the narrative that has been constructed in the wake of that ultimate revelation 3,000 pages later.  The old man is suddenly transported in mind back to the scenes of his childhood and, a few pages later, the narrative of that youth in the town of “Combray” begins to unfold.  The way in which the story moves from that taste of the madeleine into the scenes of Combray is the first real moment of magic in the novel, a magic that can only be appreciated in retrospect: a fitting structure for the celebration of memory as the engine of creative transformation that is the heart of In Search of Lost Time.

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