In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.
I struggled with Proust, on and off, for three years. I read these books sitting, standing, lying down, in cars and on trains, waiting in airports, on commutes to work, relaxing on vacation. Some of it I read in New York, some in Madrid, Lisbon, Vienna. By now this book functions as my own madeleine, with different passages triggering memories from widely scattered places and periods in my life.
I am surprised I reached the end. Every time I put down a volume, I was sure I would never pick up another; each installment only promised more of the same and I had already had more than enough; but then the nagging sense of the incomplete overcame my aversion and, with mixed feeling, I would pick up the next one and repeat the experience.
Throughout this long voyage, my response to Proust has been consistent—I should say consistently inconsistent—alternately admiration and frustration. There are times when I fall completely under Proust’s spell, and times when I find his writing intolerable. Probably this mixture has much to do with what Harold Bloom called the “anxiety of influence,” since almost as soon as I finished the first volume, I started working on a novel, a novel which very clearly bears the traces of Proust’s influence. It may be that, with Proust, I have something of an Oedipal complex, and I need to lodge criticism at his work in order to clear the air for my own—though I don’t know. What I do know is that my reactions to this book have proven tempestuous and I have yet to spur myself to write a fair review.
When approaching a novel of this size and complexity, it is difficult to know where to start. Can In Search of Lost Time even be called a novel? In a writing class my instructor told us that any story needs to have a protagonist, an objective, a series of obstacles, a strategy for overcoming these obstacles, a sequence of failures and successes, all of it culminating in a grand climax that leads directly to a resolution. If you look carefully, you can, indeed, make out the bare outline of this dramatic pattern in Proust’s work. But, like the slender skeleton of a peacock buried under a mountain of feathers, this outline serves as a vague scaffold over which are draped colorful ornament; and it is the ornament that attracts our attention.
In most novels, any given passage will serve some dramatic purpose: characterization, description, plot. However, there are times when the author will pull back from the story to make a more general comment, on society, humanity, or the world. These comments are, very often, pungent and aphoristic—the most quotable section of the whole book, since they do not depend on their context. Some authors, like Dickens, very infrequently make these sorts of remarks; others, like George Elliot, are full of them: “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know of no speck so troublesome as self.”
Elliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch, is distinguished for being simultaneously didactic and dramatic, equal parts analysis and art. Proust goes even further in the direction of analysis, totally overwhelming every other aspect of the book with his ceaseless commentary. No event, however insignificant, happens without being dissected; the Narrator lets no observation go unobserved, even at the cost of being redundant. This endless exegesis, circling the same themes with relentless exactitude, is what swells this book to its famously vast proportions. Tolstoy, no laconic writer, used less than half the length to tell a story that spanned years and encompassed whole nations. The story Proust tells could have been told by, say, Jane Austen in 400 pages—although this would leave out everything that makes it worth reading.
Different as the two authors are, the social milieu Proust represents is oddly reminiscent of Jane Austen’s world, being populated by snobby aristocrats who jostle for status and who never have to work, a world of elegant gatherings, witty conversation, and artistic dilettantism. Austen and Proust also share an affinity for satirizing their worlds, although they use different means for very different ends. In any case, both Austen’s England and Proust’s France are long gone, and it can be very difficult for the modern reader to sympathize with these characters, whose priorities, manners, and lifestyle are so distant from our own. Why should we care about soirées and salons, dukes and duchesses, who do nothing but gossip, pursue petty love affairs, and pontificate ignorantly in their pinched world?
Yet this narrow social milieu, though always in focus, only forms the backdrop for Proust’s real purpose; and this purpose is suitably universal: to create a religion of art. A new religion was needed. Proust was writing at a turbulent time in European history: in the aftermath of the Death of God, as the fin de siècle high society of his youth was shattered by World War I, as new notions of psychology overturned old verities of human behavior, as every convention in art, music, and literature was being broken. Even the physical world was becoming unrecognizable—populated by quantum fields and bending space-time. It was the world of Freud’s unconscious, Einstein’s relativity, and Picasso’s cubism, when new theories about everything were embraced. Granted, Proust may have been only peripherally aware of these historical currents, but he was no doubt responsive to them, as this novel amply proves.
In this book, Proust sets out to show that our salvation lays in art. This means showing us that our salvation does not lay in anything else. Specifically, Proust must demonstrate that social status and romantic love, two universal human aspirations, are will-o’-the-wisps. He does this subtly and slowly. First, as a young man, the Protagonist is awed by high society. The names of famous actresses, writers, composers, and most of all socialites—the aristocratic Guermantes—hold a mysterious allure that he finds irresistible. He slowly learns how to behave in salons and to hold his own in conversation, eventually meeting all the people he idolized from afar. But when he finally does make the acquaintance of these elite socialites, he finds that their wit is exaggerated, their knowledge superficial, their opinions conventional, their artistic taste deficient. In short, the allure of status was empty.
And not only that, temporary. In the final volume, Proust demonstrates that status waxes and wanes with changes of fashion, often in unforeseen ways. By the end of the book, Rachel, who began as a prostitute, is a celebrated actress; while Berma, who began as a celebrated actress, ends as a broken down old women, still respected but no longer fashionable. The Protagonist’s friend, Bloch, who is a flatfooted, stupid, and awkward man, ends the book as a celebrated author, despite a total lack of originality or wit. The Baron de Charlus, an intensely proud man, ends up doffing his hat to nearly anyone he runs into in the street, while the rest of society ostracizes him. Status, in other words, being based on nothing but mass whim, is liable to change whimsically.
Proust’s views of love are even more cynical. The Protagonist does have a genuine affection for his mother and grandmother; but these are almost the only genuine bonds in the entire long novel. When Proust looks at romantic love, he sees only delusion and jealousy: an inability to see another person accurately combined with a narcissistic urge to possess and a paranoia of losing them. The archetypical Proustian relationship is that between Swann and Odette, wherein Swann, a figure in high-society, has a casual dalliance with Odette, a courtesan, and despite not thinking much of Odette, Swann nearly loses his mind when he begins to suspect she is cheating on him. He marries Odette, not out of romantic passion, but in order to gain some measure of peace from his paranoid jealousy.
Summarized in this way, Proust’s views seem, if somewhat disenchanted, hardly radical. But the real thrust of Proust’s thinking depends on a truly radical subjectivism. This book, as Harold Bloom points out, is wisdom literature, firmly rooted in the introspective tradition of Montaigne. But Proust is more than introspective. A true Cartesian, Proust is solipsistic. And much of his rejection of worldly sources of happiness, and his concomitant embrace of art, depends on this intensely first-person view of the world.
In his emphasis on the subjective basis of reality, Proust’s thought is often oddly reminiscent of Buddhism. Our personalities, far from being stable, are nothing but an endless flux that changes from moment to moment; each second we die and are born again. What’s more, we perceive other people through the lens of our own desires, knowledge, opinions, and biases, and therefore never perceive accurately. There are as many versions of you as there are people to perceive you. Thus we never really know another person. Our relationships with friends and lovers are really relationships with mental constructions that have only a tenuous connection with the real person:
The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.
You might think that this is a shockingly cynical view, and it is; but Proust adheres to it consistently. Here he is on friendship:
… our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusions of the man who talks to furniture because he believes that it is alive…
And love, of course, comes off much even worse than friendship:
Almost everyone was surprised at the marriage, and that in itself is surprising. No doubt very few people understand the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon we call love, or how it creates, so to speak, a supplementary person, distinct from the person whom the world knows by the same name, a person most of whose constituent elements are derived from ourselves.
In the dissolving acid of Proust’s solipsism, one can see why he considers both social status and romantic love as vain pursuits, since they are not, and can never be, based on anything but a delusion.
Of course, status and love do bring people happiness, at least temporarily. But Proust is careful to show that all happiness and sadness caused by these things have nothing to do with their reality, but only with our subjective understanding of that reality. Depending on how we interpret a word or analyze an intention; depending on whether we hold someone in esteem or in contempt—depending, in short, on how we subjectively understand what we experience—we will be happy or sad. The source of all suffering and bliss is in the mind, not the world, but we are normally blind to this fact and thus so on mistakenly trying to alter the world: “I had realized before now that it is only a clumsy and erroneous perception which places everything in the object, when really everything is in the mind…”
As you can see, we are moving in a strikingly mystical direction, where love and success are just egotistic delusions, hypostatized mental artifacts that we mistake for solid reality. Proust’s answer to this predicament is also mystical in flavor. Normally we are trapped by our perspective, thinking that we are viewing reality when we are actually just experiencing our own warped mental apparatus. To break us out of this trap we must first experience unhappiness: “As for happiness, that is really useful only in one way only, by making unhappiness possible.” And unhappiness results when something we mistook to be solid—reputation, love, even life itself—is shown to be fleeting and unreal, that our everyday reality is based on nothing but lies, mistakes, and misunderstandings. You might say this is Proust’s version of Christian consolation. For in the despair that opens up during these crises, we can give up our fantasies and partake in Proustian mysticism.
This mysticism consists in reconnecting with our basic sensations. To do this, Proust does not, like the Buddhists, turn to meditation on the present moment. Instead, he relies on art and memory. Normal language is totally inadequate to this task. Our words, being universally used, only convey that aspect of experience that is common to everyone; all the individual savor of a perception, its most essential quality, is lost. But great artists—like the fictitious Vinteuil, Bergotte, or Elstir—can use their medium to overcome the usual limits of discourse, transmitting the full power of their perspectives. Even so, this artistic communication can only act as a spur for our own introspective quest. Shorn of illusory happiness, inspired by example, we can probe our own memory and experience the bliss of pure experience.
Memory is essential in this, for Proust thinks that it is only by juxtaposing one experience with another that we can see the perception in its pure form, without any reference to our conventional reality. This is why moments of involuntary memory, like the madeleine episode, are so important for Proust: it is in these moments, when a present experience triggers a long-buried memory, that we can re-visit the experiences of our past, free from delusion, as a pure impartial spectator. The final Proustian wisdom is essentially contemplative, passive, aesthetic, able to see the ironies of human life and to appreciate the recurring patterns of human existence.
Proust’s goal, then, is to do for the reader what Bergotte, Elstir, and Vinteuil did for his Narrator: to create art that acts as a window to the self. And his style is exactly suited to this purpose. In my review of a book on meditation, I noted what I called the “novelistic imagination,” which is our tendency to see the world as a setting and ourselves as the Protagonist, beset by trials and tribulations. Meditation aims to break out of this rather unrealistic mindset by focusing on the present moment. Proust’s aim is similar but his method is different. He takes the narrative tendency of the novelistic imagination, and stretches and stretches, pulling each sentence apart, twisting it around itself, extending the form and padding the structure until the narration is hardly narration at all, until you are simply swimming in a sea of sounds.
By doing so, Proust allows you to feel the passage of time, to make time palpable and real, and to feel our memory processing and being activated over and over again in response to passing sensations. This way, Proust hopes to bring us in contact with reality: “An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them…”
This is my attempt to elucidate Proust’s aesthetic religion. Of course, like any religion of art, it is objectionable for manifold reasons: it lacks any moral compass, it is elitist, it is purely passive. Not only that, but Proust connects with his religion a solipsism that is questionable on philosophic grounds, not to mention cynical in the extreme. It is a cold, antisocial, unsympathetic doctrine, with appeal only to disenchanted aesthetes. But of course, this is ultimately a work of art and not of philosophy; and so In Search of Lost Time must be judged on literary grounds.
When it comes to the criteria by which we judge a usual novelist—characterization, dialogue, plot—I think Proust is somewhat weak. There is, of course, little plot to speak of. And although Harold Bloom thought that Proust was a rival of Shakespeare when it came to characterization—a judgment that baffles me—I felt very little for any of the people in this novel. They all speak in Proust’s longwinded voice, and so never came alive for me. It always seems as if I am overhearing Proust describe someone rather than meeting them myself.
But of course one cannot appraise Proust using these standards. This novel is, above all, audacious. It is a modernist tour de force, which turns nearly every novelistic convention on its head. More than that, it is a novel of ideas, which puts forward a radical view of the human predicament and its own answers to the perennial questions of life. It is wisdom literature rooted deeply in tradition, while being absolutely original and uncompromising in its newness. It is both intensely beautiful and intensely ugly—hideously sublime. For anyone who can pull themselves through all its pages, it will leave them deeply marked. I know I have been.
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