A few weeks ago, I sat down in my customary reading chair, leaned forward to pick up from their customary nearby place on the floor the last volume of my Pleiade edition of A la recherche du temps perdu and my Concise Oxford French Dictionary, which I need to refer to frequently enough to warrant keeping it in my lap while I read Proust (Petit Robert on the shelf close by should the Oxford not suffice), as I had done so many times in the months since I impulsively started my third trip (second time in French) through Proust’s roughly three-thousand-page masterpiece, then posed the small Oxford volume on my lap and opened the Pleiade Proust to the page marked by the one of its two yellow ribbon bookmarks placed most deeply into the book. It was only then that I realized that I had merely been unconsciously following the path of habit, for I had finished the final volume the night before. I suppose that’s when it really sank in that the long journey had been completed and that, considering my other interests and duties, the number of years that had elapsed between my last two readings of Proust, as well as my undeniable sharing of at least one essential characteristic with Socrates, I had very likely read Proust through for the last time.
Since I’ve already talked about Proust’s importance to me (Ronnie Knox, Marcel Proust, and I), it seems fitting that I look back briefly on that last reading and pass along a few somewhat idle thoughts. Some of what I’m going to say will refer to incidents or characters in the book, which may not mean much to anyone that hasn’t read Proust, but no one need need worry about a so-called “spoiler” appearing, as it is not the nature of Proust’s work to be spoilable.
The first part of the work, which deals with the narrator’s childhood and especially the vacations he spent away from Paris with his family at his Aunt Léonie’s house in Combray, the small town of his family’s roots, is the part that I have always found the most magical. Though my circumstances were very different from those of Proust (and the narrator in his work), I spent a lot of time in my childhood in the country, staying with my grandparents; and the scenes and people Proust depicts resonated strongly with my own memories, so much so that even on first reading, I felt the narrator’s childhood memories to be coming from within myself and not just from the book I was reading. Of course, this was exactly Proust’s intent, expounded in the final volume, Le temps retrouvé, where the narrator finally discovers the secret of art that thrusts him into almost literally full-time writing after decades-long writer’s block.
Reading Proust once more this last time, I already had within me the memory of my previous reading, itself ready to be awakened by Proust’s evocative phrases and images (like so many crumbs of Petites Madeleines dropped into the full, waiting teacup of my mind), so that the feeling of having actually lived the narrator’s childhood was even stronger in the retelling (Yes, I remember exactly the sound the bell of the garden gate made when Swann rang to announce his arrival in the evening!).
I believe I enjoyed even more than before (though I can’t be sure after more than twenty years) all of the work that comes before the time the narrator takes Albertine to live with him in Paris. It’s sometimes very funny, sometimes very moving, and always insightful and illuminating about human nature (including in particular that of the portion of humanity he refers to as residents of Sodome et Gommorhe), society, social class, personality, sleep, dreams, habit, memory, desire, jealousy, vanity, adolescence, anticipation, disillusionment, obsession, sloth, illness, nature, political passions, death, writing, music, art, and the artist: to mention only a few, as they say. And let’s not forget Time and those pages of deep poetry, such as the closing ones of Du côté de chez Swann.
Although Proust completed his long work, he did not truly finish it; the last part is more like a late draft. He reconciled himself to the fact that he would not live long enough to polish it all, got it into publishable form, and was able to publish the better part of it in several volumes during his lifetime, famously paying for the printing of the first great volume himself. I think I was more aware of the ragged edges, multiple sketches for the same scene, and outright contradictions in the later volumes this time than in my previous readings, but perhaps those fade from memory, as they are not what makes Proust Proust. I found overly long and repetitious the narrator’s analysis of his obsessive jealousy of Albertine, the mistress he had turned into a virtual prisoner in luxury. The analysis of his obsession became itself obsessive.
Despite his dispassionate voice, or perhaps because of it, I couldn’t help feeling sorry at times for Proust the person, since his writing makes it clear (even explicitly at times, and the reader knows it is Proust speaking then, not a fictional character) that he knew, being one himself, that there were people who never inspired love in anyone else. I gather he was always in the position of having to buy a semblance of it. He talks of shared love at one point as something attainable by others, which seems contrary to his usual view of love as an unfortunate affliction, inevitably one-sided, based on jealousy and the fear of loss and the destruction of habit. I think he may have been missing something inside himself; but, in any case, there is no more detached and acute scientific observer of human nature and psychology, including his own, than Proust the writer. We can say about Proust that, having produced such a work as A la recherche du temps perdu, his suffering was not in vain; and there’s every reason to believe he felt the same way. For Proust, it was mainly through suffering that we are forced to transcend our ordinary, largely mechanical, lives in which habit dominates, and go deeply into our true selves; and Proust took advantage of those times to a rare degree.
It’s impossible to know what difference it would have made for Proust to have presented the feminine Gilbertes and Albertines of his book as the masculine Gilberts and Alberts they must have been in his life, but there is something unconvincing about his relations with them as painted in his book. And I have never been able to decide if one should interpret Albertine’s sexual attraction to women, and the narrator’s obsession with making sure she had no chance of acting on it, as a substitute for Proust’s own fear that his male paramours might actually prefer women to him or what. If the depiction were successful it wouldn’t matter, but it seems false somehow, which makes me look for some explanation outside of the realm of art.
In any case, I have to say that Albertine, despite the number of times her name appears in the work and her supposed great importance to the narrator, is not for me in the least a memorable character (one can hardly call her a character at all), in a work containing many that were very memorable. Consider Françoise, Charlus, or the narrator’s grandmother, for example. Perhaps this is because Albertine was based on a composite of more numerous real-life persons; or perhaps it reflects the distorting influence of money in Proust’s real-life liaisons, and the lack of trust inseparable from such relations, which must have made it impossible to know for sure what the “prisoner” was actually thinking. Or maybe the gender switch was just too difficult to pull off. It should be noted that Proust had no patience with the biographical sort of literary criticism, and I agree that these speculations have no bearing on the merit of his work.
No doubt because I am now of an age that can only be described as old, if not yet very old, I found the descriptions of the characters the narrator was seeing at a social gathering after an absence of something like fifteen years, to be rather dispiriting. During the narrator’s absence, time has been devastatingly cruel to most of the characters, and some are mocked openly by younger newcomers to the society scene. I might mention that Proust, who died in 1922, seems to have projected the last actions of his book well beyond his lifetime, based on the amount of aging of characters he describes, including that of Gilberte’s daughter, who couldn’t have been born before 1913, but is said to be about sixteen. This obvious fact has no doubt been noted before, and I only mention it because I had already felt that the passage of time seemed unrealistic, without having done any calculation. It is also in this last section that we encounter numerous contradictions in the text, including totally contradictory descriptions of how a character has aged.
Lest my words on the last volume make it seem that it wasn’t worthy of Proust, it should be noted that it is there that the narrator makes his inspired connection between the timeless realm into which the sudden onrush of intense memories triggered by unexpected accident takes one and the state of aesthetic contemplation into which it is the goal of art to bring one. In his flash of insight, the narrator recognizes that his experiences of powerful involuntary memories have revealed to him the way that literature might accomplish the aim of art: sweep us away from the habits of daily existence to plunge us deeply into our true selves. For whatever reason, it was only on my third reading of Proust that I felt I had fully gotten what he meant; and I was strongly impressed by how clearly the narrator (and obviously Proust) had come to see the urgent task of the rest of his life and at the same time the justification for his previous life.
Near the end of the book there also occurs one of the most striking images in the whole work (for me at least): that of Gilberte’s daughter, whom the narrator sees for the first time at about age sixteen, as his own youth personified and incarnate. I’ve experienced something similar in my own life, though without the transcendent vision. It’s one thing to see someone from our past for the first time in many years and note how he or she has grown older, as so have we; but the sight of that person’s child (before only a baby or even nonexistent) standing before us as a grown person presents us with an undeniably material measure of elapsed time, yet glowing with the mystery of existence.
Finishing a trivial book, or even a good one, is not an event to necessarily make one think of one’s mortality. Finishing a very long and very deep book of the very rare kind that alters one’s view of the world and life is like finishing a stage in one’s life, which feels like a farewell, and so makes one especially conscious of the finiteness of one’s time. Obviously, Proust’s book is such a one for me.
Have I read Proust for the last time? I can’t know that, and I don’t want to put the thought of a jinx in mind by any sort of prediction; but, just as the narrator of Le temps retrouvé had to consider that, even as he realized he had a great work before him, he also had a limited amount of time of unknown duration in which to accomplish it, since events both internal (organ failure) and external (accidents) beyond his control might prevent its completion, I too have to recognize the possibility of such unforeseeable events. Of course we are every one of us in that position, for whatever modest plans we might have, but as our years mount, we have to face the increasing likelihood that our projects for the future may be left unfinished. Blogs are good from that standpoint. One post per week is all I aim for.