Essay – Proust’s Way: Life and Romance in a Search for Lost Time

WHEN I WAS 12 YEARS OLD I READ SOMETHING more terrifying than anything I had read before. The only book series any of the kids in my year ever read of their own choosing was Goosebumps by R.L. Stein. It was a ridiculous pop-horror book for kids. The book that would keep me up for nights was recommended by my librarian after I shared a poem I wrote. She responded with the recommendation that I read Crime and Punishment.  I was twelve. I have since reasoned that this was a punishment in and of itself.

I don’t know if individuals can explain why they like the things they like, or why red is better to most Russians than the color blue. My own theory is that after so many centuries of fighting off the most dangerous armies in history, they have ironically fell in love with the sight of blood. And to a young man, it was the first book that ever made apparent to me that murder and violence is not always motivated by clear-cut villains who sing a song to explain why they’re the bad guys.

In our culture, the villains often have their faces masked, or hidden, covered in black—or they are aliens or terrorists or, for nostalgia, communists, and they’re all reduced to identical thoughts and attitudes and looks. Dostoevsky was the first author I discovered who made the killer the main character; he made the killer a hero. I wasn’t used to that. It changed the way I looked at motivations and my attitude towards simplistic depictions of good and evil. If Dostoevsky changed the way I looked at the nature of good and evil, Proust changed the way I looked at everything.

The more I read the more enamored I was. I was very fond of the Russian literature I read; Chekov, Turgenev, Lertmentov, Bulgakov (especially Master and Margarita,) Tolstoy, Pushkin, Nabokov, and Gogol. The explosive characters, the madness, the psychological complexity, all had a tremendous influence on how I would write novels.

When I was almost finished with this book, I was fortunate enough to go through a profound moral crisis and tragedy. I was put in the same situation as Ernest Hemingway was, at twenty-five, when all the work he had to show for his entire life was lost at a train-station because of a misplaced suitcase. Everything about Hemingway’s formative years that could have given us a better understanding of his method didn’t exist.

Hemingway was the antithesis to the bombast and platitudinous method of Shakespeare and the high drama of Goethe and I never found another writer who could write so gently with such force. The most important thing about Ernest Hemingway was how he made the ordinary seem almost mythic. After I went through pupation I discovered that I had no real affiliation with post-modernism. It seemed to be more focused on what can only be called more form and less art. It was a type of masturbation, a way to use words as a maze to amaze with flair of language and verve of the freedom that came with abandoning the rules of composition. There is a freedom in that kind of work, but cleverness is no substitution for tenderness, and genius is no substitute for beauty and true poignancy.

I had been writing for twenty years when I discovered In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. The first thing to strike me was how understated and natural it all was. There was no sense of bombast or overt melodrama. It is another case in which the deepest of meaning is achieved because life is shown in all its forms and from such scenes so much can be taken.

Proust’s epic is hard to relegate to a category. If I had to say what it was about, I’d say everything; time and space, love and loss—everything in the human sphere of experience.  In Search of Lost Time or alternatively, Remembrance of Things Past, is one of the longest popular novels in history. It comes in at over 4,000 pages. And not a word is wasted.

The importance of the unimportant is a unique characteristic of the French school of romanticism and naturalism among the more prominent of French novelists; Balzac, Flaubert, Chateaubriand. Stendhal. But none of them managed to reach the  heights of literature I had discovered in Proust. It’s a cliché now to say that reading Proust will change your life. However, in this case it has become cliché because it is true. And he does it unremarkably, conversationally, even recounting the seemingly unimportant details of his house in the fictional town he made immortal at the end of The Past Recaptured. The titles are literal.

Proust was a sickly and anxiety ridden man when he turned thirty and had but one newspaper publication to his name. This was before he found himself capable of pulling such a masterful tale out of that famous teacup. In doing so he fashioned what I believe to be the best work of literature of all time. It’s all a disappearing act;  a whole life in one book, wherein there is no death; time is defeated in these silent pockets of eternity in which Proust found that precious hawthorn bush; the sound of skipping rocks, the sound of toast; the heavenly music was the fountain of not only youth, but that which he had found in his search through time and self-diagnosis—a gradual undressing of the superficial and the shallow. The layers of characters fall away until you see bone

Proust not only unmasked himself. He unmasked the entirety of human history. Along with the Geurmentes, an idolized, almost deistic conception for Proust’s French universe made immortal by his hand. Balzac’s The Human Comedy collection is more decorative, concerned more with unedited nature than Proust and external translation, settings, set-pieces; Proust’s setting is the landscape of malleable memory.

His search for immortality became immortal; it is, in this regard, a precursor to Fellini’s 8 ½; both now considered untouchable works of art, beyond reproach. Another interesting fact is the reading within Proust’s books; his characters are always in the middle of one book or another, and art and affectation in the highbrow culture of the period was ripe for satire.

In a book I recently read, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the author [Johah Lehrer] makes a convincing case for the triumph of art over science in demonstrating discoveries of scientific truths in art long before conventional science could verify the discoveries. Proust presaged the findings of modern neuroscience intuitively. He understood the distortions and the way a building by memory could change in color, in form, in location; bringing up the obvious question as to how much of our lives are as we remember it to be. It’s a heavy question, and perhaps the most unanswerable. But tthese ideas are in the back seat, of characters and character moments. The mundane is transformed by its telling.

In Swann’s Way, a peculiar aspect of Marcel’s family is revealed: they come to dinner an hour earlier on Saturday than they do the rest of the week. It’s almost a throwaway line, but resolves itself in a memorable subplot. The lack of over-description, the lack of meaning to the overall plot, and its lack of importance is what makes it so important to consider when reading and interpreting naturalism. Despite the number of scholars who have made their careers discussing and interpreting Proust, he’s not particularly hard to interpret; it’s all right there. If you read the entire story, you’ll find the narrator happy to explain every detail of his conscience. This is what gives Marcel, as a character such nuance. It has been said that every disguise is a self-portrait. And because he says so much, he attempts to hide much more; whenever the story gets too close to the author we are deferred to another aspect of his consciousness, or another explanation. If ever a book was more adequate in describing what it is to be alive, I have yet to read it.

 

Other than that, it’s pretty good.

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