Marcel Proust was not a household name in the household I grew up in; I don’t know about yours. Can you remember the first time you ever heard Marcel Proust’s name? Unless the preceding sentence was it, probably not I’d guess. I can remember perfectly, and with the help of the amazing power of the worldwide web and Google, I can put an approximate date on it. This was actually an important event in my life. But first a little background.
Back in the 1950s there was a young football player in California, an outstanding passer who could also run and punt, named Ronnie Knox. Ronnie was California high school athlete-of-the-year for 1952-53, and had become one of the most sought-after players by college recruiters in the whole country. Ronnie was also good-looking, and was nicknamed “Golden Boy.” His overbearing stepfather, Harvey Knox, had moved him from high school to high school searching for the right coach to best showcase Ronnie’s talents. Then Harvey, acting in effect as Ronnie’s agent, had basically sold his services to the highest bidder, the University of California at Berkeley. The problem turned out to be that Cal already had one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and he had another year of eligibility.
Unwilling to see his son playing second string to anybody, even for a year, Harvey Knox pulled Ronnie out of Cal and took him south to UCLA, even though it meant losing a year of college playing eligibility. Harvey also got Cal in trouble with the NCAA by revealing some of the incentives that had been promised Ronnie in violation of the rules. It was at this time that I first heard about Ronnie because the story made it into national magazines.
California glowed with Hollywood glamour compared to my home state of Texas, and I took an interest in this West Coast story. I was twelve at the time and very open to finding new sports heroes. Mickey Mantle was my number one hero, and he would never be equaled by anyone else in my eyes, but I didn’t have a college football hero, so I think I mentally filed Ronnie away as a candidate for that position. In any case, Ronnie’s name stuck in my memory; but, as he had a year without playing, and I was in Texas and not going to get out-of-state football news unless it made it into a national magazine, I pretty much forgot about him, although his name would pop up every now and then. Ronnie took over the starting tailback job in the first game of the 1955 season for the UCLA team, which completed the season ranked fourth in the country. He played well in his team’s last-seconds loss in the Rose Bowl on January 2, 1956, which I may have seen on television, though I don’t remember it.
In an unusual move for the time, Ronnie decided to turn pro without playing his senior year at UCLA. He signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League and played the 1956 season with them. He was drafted in the third round for the next year by the Chicago Bears, but only appeared in one game for them, whether due to an injury, or just being in a backup role, I don’t know. In any case, he went back to Canada to play for the Toronto Argonauts the following season. It was after that return to Canada that I became aware of Marcel Proust through the unlikely medium of a pro football quarterback’s words.
In the online archives of Sports Illustrated, one finds that the November 3, 1958 issue had as the second entry in its They Said It feature the following:
Quarterback Ronnie Knox of the Toronto Argonauts, an I-like-football-but man: “If I had to make the choice between a month of playing football and a month of reading Marcel Proust, I’d take Proust.”
I’m almost sure I saw the quote in some other magazine as well, with a phrase that described Proust in some inadequate way (but definitely mentioning he was French and probably that he had written a long work called Remembrance of Things Past) for those sports fans like me, who didn’t have a clue who Proust was.
To me, it was an altogether extraordinary statement. First of all, how could a gifted football player rather do anything more than play football? As a non-athletic teenaged sports fan who could only dream of being that skilled and successful at a sport, I tried to imagine what an exquisite pleasure the reading of this unknown-to-me Marcel Proust must be, at the same time thinking what a remarkable person Ronnie Knox must be to have the sensibility to appreciate this rare talent to such a degree. Now sixteen, alienated from fifties Texas culture and society, a reader myself, and vaguely attracted by the beatniks, I found Ronnie Knox, already a somewhat legendary figure, and Marcel Proust, this new intriguing writer, each causing the other to seem more exceptional in my mind.
Though I have no reason to doubt him—and it’s really just the difficulty I have in imagining any other pro quarterbacks I can think of as being that devoted to Proust that makes me say this—I don’t know for a fact that Ronnie actually ever read Proust. It could have just been an impressive name he’d picked up somewhere in college, but that thought never arose in my mind at the time, even to be rejected. All I had to go on were the words on a page. He’d rather read Proust than play football! Someday I too would read Proust, I thought, and then I will become one of the initiates and understand. I had no idea what Proust had written about, which was probably just as well. I very likely pronounced Proust as Prowst in my mind.
From that day on the mystique of the name Proust never faded for me, but I didn’t actually read any Proust until I was a junior at the University of Texas in a European Novel course. The sheer length of Proust’s one work of lasting importance was intimidating, and I thought I should read it straight through. I’d heard a professor recommend it as a summer project. When Ronnie talked about a month of reading Proust he wasn’t talking about rereading the same pages over and over. I may also have wondered if I would pass the Ronnie Knox test of Proust appreciation.
My English professor took an unusual approach. Proust’s long work had been published in separate volumes over time, so there was some slight justification for viewing it as a collection of several novels instead of one long one. The professor had us start toward the end with the sixth book in the series, called ridiculously in the translation we were reading The Sweet Cheat Gone (French title: Albertine Disparue). His reasoning was that the first volume (Swann’s Way), was not typical of the rest of the book, (presumably because the narrator was largely recalling scenes from his early years and because a good chunk of the volume—the Swann in Love section—was told in the third person, unlike the rest of the work) so that to really get to know what Proust was about we should read a later volume.
In practice this decision meant that we were thrown into the middle of a strange situation with numerous unknown characters whose personalities, sexual tastes, and foibles had been revealed and developed over the course of the earlier volumes; not to mention the narrator’s frequent references to earlier events, thoughts, and experiences from those volumes. I can’t remember exactly what I thought of the experience, and about all I can recall from class discussions of the book was the professor’s point that the narrator’s female love interests (e.g., Gilberte and Albertine) had all been given names which were the feminine forms of masculine ones, since Proust’s actual experience was with men. I emerged from this first sampling of Proust as committed to reading the whole work as ever, and with a better idea about what that meant.
It was not, however, until some eight or nine years later that I recommenced reading Proust. It was in Berkeley at a turning point in my life, marriage ending, when I felt the need to renew my acquaintance with great literature, which I sensed I had nearly lost touch with, having spent so much time on physics graduate studies and research and on political meetings and demonstrations. This Proust was still in English translation. I can’t remember if I skipped the previously read volume or reread it, but I did finish all of Remembrance of Things Past, which is what the translator Scott Moncrieff chose to call Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I not only enjoyed the reading but had my approach to the world changed by it. I may want to talk about Proust more some other time, but that’s not my purpose now.
My aim had always been to read Proust eventually in the original French, and I had started learning French during my last year at the University of Texas, but hadn’t advanced very far until I started studying it in earnest about the same time that I took up Proust in translation again. A few years later, back in Austin, I felt ready to attempt A la recherche du temps perdu in Proust’s own language. Of course it was slow at first, but in time I found that I could read pages-long sentences without getting lost, which is a testament to Proust’s writing, of course, and also to its ability to train the reader’s mind to start thinking like Proust (or to have that wonderful illusion). After I don’t know how many months, I finished the full journey en français. A couple of years later I bought a beautiful three-volume French Pleiade edition as a treasure to keep and as a promise to myself to read Proust again someday.
One day not long ago, well over twenty years after that book purchase, and with no particular thought at all, I picked up the first volume of the Pleiade edition, started reading “Longtemps je me suis coucher de bonne heure,” and was swept into Proust’s river again. I’m a little over halfway through the second volume now, and, if anything, enjoying it more than during the earlier readings. But that is impossible to judge with the greatest writers, the unique power of their art being impossible to remember fully when it’s not being actually experienced. This is something Proust himself notes, as I recall.
Only in the course of writing this have I come to realize how obviously, thoroughly, and appropriately “Proustian” this whole experience of mine with the name Marcel Proust was. For the narrator in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu recounts numerous examples of words and names that took on enormous importance and aesthetic meaning for him just from his having heard or read them in some prestigious or romantic context—La duchesse de Guermantes and Balbec, for example—names that he had endowed in his mind with incomparable and exquisite qualities before having made a real acquaintance with the persons or places they denoted.
Just to finish with Ronnie Knox—he decided to quit football for good during his second season of playing for Toronto. The Time magazine online archive for September 26, 1959 records the following.
Badgered by a bad back, and no longer able to throw the long ball, cleft-chinned, curly-haired Quarterback Ronnie (“Golden Boy”) Knox, 24, quit the Toronto Argonauts in Canada’s rugged Big Four, thereby put an end to one of football’s most unfulfilled and peripatetic careers (three high schools, two colleges, four pro teams), which had largely been botched by the boisterous stage-mothering of stepfather Harvey Knox. “Football is a game for animals,” said Ronnie. “I like to think I’m above that.” Dreaming of higher things, Ronnie allowed he might toss off a novel or some poetry, already had some lines at hand that lurched with the proper beatnik beat:
Beauty is a thing of Ragmud But the maid left late. So don’t look under the apple tree Let’s rebel, man.
Who knows what kind of personal conflicts and disappointments may have lain behind that severe rejection of his profession? Or maybe the physical cost was just too great. I vaguely remember hearing that he tried acting for a while, which some web site listings confirm, but I never saw him in anything that I can remember. All I could find on the web were appearances in a handful of episodes of weekly tv dramas (e.g. an episode of Perry Mason), all from the 1958-1963 period. An astrology web site had his (to them) essential data plus a tiny picture of him taken some time after his playing days, in which he did not look happy. I’m not surprised he didn’t make it as a poet, but I don’t know what became of him. There’s also a movie/tv technician of the same name that shows up in online searches. Could it be the same person? If anyone knows, drop me an email.
So would I have read Proust at all without Ronnie Knox? Well, I read James Joyce (haven’t gotten all the way through Finnegan’s Wake, I confess), to mention someone comparable in some ways—writer of genius from roughly the same time period, but not exactly popular—so I can conjecture that I probably would have, but I can’t be sure. Perhaps literature, despite my having enjoyed reading as far back as I can remember, would not have secured such an important place in my mind without that adolescent connection between Proust and an unconventional star athlete.
Ronnie, old man, a lot of years have passed, and I hope the time has been good to you and that you have had a chance to read Proust as much as you wanted to. If you should somehow stumble across this, please know that I am grateful to you.