Ink and Insight: On Proust’s Masterpiece

Why and how to start reading one of the finest writers to have put pen to paper.

Photo: adocphotos/ Corbis via Getty

Marcel Proust is the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. That is a sentence that doesn’t mean anything. It is a statement made to be rejected. One can make just as good a case for Lawrence, Joyce or Woolf. My remark has nothing to do with comparative merit—that would be stupid. But he is the greatest precisely because he is the greatest in my list, because À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) is my favourite novel (Richardson’s Clarissa being a very close second). Its incredible personal quality is the point. That being said, in my view, its characters are more charming, its language more lyrical, its narrative more natural, its scope deeper, and its soulful tendrils more genuinely interwoven than any other novel perhaps ever written. He is lost on those who skim through him distrustfully. Readers receive personalised advice and leave the book transformed, dare I say healed, if they read it closely and patiently enough. In this regard his true literary precursor is Montaigne, even more so than Pascal, Chamfort, or La Rochefoucauld, in that the subject of his book is himself, and through him the reader learns to talk to themselves without self-recognition and changes as a result. 

My goal is to show that he is more than some lacklustre pop-culture reference (like in Barbie most recently). His seven volume, thirty-three hundred page ‘novel’ is highly resistant to critical generalities or reflective comments. But to play the Monty Python game of ‘All England Summarise Proust in 15 seconds,’ I turn to Andrew Marr who said that it is about “a man reflecting on what it means to be alive.” I’ll go further, it’s about a man reflecting on what it means to be alive and how to make the most of it. 

A very famous book on Proust is Alain de Botton’s literary biography How Proust Can Change Your Life, whose commentary I find useful but the thesis—that Proust really belongs to the self-help section of bookshops—I am a bit sceptical of. Proust, for instance, most certainly does not teach us how to love:

Among all the modes by which love is brought into being, among all the agents which disseminate that blessed bane, there are few so efficacious as this gust of feverish agitation that sweeps over us from time to time. For then the die is cast, the person whose company we enjoy at that moment is the person we shall henceforward love. It is not even necessary for that person to have attracted us, up till then, more than or even as much as others. All that was needed was that our predilection should become exclusive. And that condition is fulfilled when—in this moment of deprivation—the quest for the pleasures we enjoyed in his or her company is suddenly replaced by an anxious, torturing need, whose object is the person alone, an absurd, irrational need which the laws of this world make it impossible to satisfy and difficult; to assuage—the insensate, agonising need to possess exclusively.

Proust’s jealous lovers (Saint-Loup, Swann, Rachel, Odette and Marcel himself) are very much characterised by excess, hedonism, and self-destructiveness that we, forget idolising them, can’t help but see ourselves in their suffering. Sexual jealousy has not been expounded upon so brilliantly since Shakespeare’s Othello, as illustrated by this superb passage (translated from the original French by CK Scott Moncrieff and revised by Terence Kilmartin) which might as well serve as a miniature model for his novel:

Albertine no longer existed; but to me she was the person who had concealed from me that she had assignations with women in Balbec, who imagined that she had succeeded in keeping me in ignorance of them. When we try to consider what will happen to us after our own death, is it not still our living self which we mistakenly project at that moment? And is it much more absurd, when all is said, to regret that a woman who no longer exists is unaware that we have learned what she was doing six years ago than to desire that of ourselves, who will be dead, the public shall still speak with approval a century hence? If there is more real foundation in the latter than in the former case, the regrets of my retrospective jealousy proceeded none the less from the same optical error as in other men the desire for posthumous fame. And yet, if this impression of the solemn finality of my separation from Albertine had momentarily supplanted my idea of her misdeeds, it only succeeded in aggravating them by bestowing upon them an irremediable character. I saw myself astray in life as on an endless beach where I was alone and where, in whatever direction I might turn, I would never meet her. 

But the book, to put it as crude as did de Botton, is a “universally applicable story about how to stop wasting time and start to appreciate life.” The self-help aspect really appears as a result of Proust’s aphorist precursors. Any and all of his sentences can be cut up and stuck on walls. My favourites include, “the courage of one’s opinions is always a form of calculating cowardice in the eyes of the other side,” or “we do not tremble except for ourselves, or for those whom we love,” and one from his letters, “one must never miss an opportunity of quoting things by others which are always more interesting than those one thinks up oneself.”

Harold Bloom, one of the great literary critics of the twentieth century and an intense admirer of Proust, remarked that the best poetry of the twentieth century is written in prose. The long, spiral-like sentences in this lapidary prose epic, which are nothing short of intense lyrical poetry, repeatedly cause the reader to lose track of the narrative, making it highly conducive to drifting off. This is because memory (both voluntary and involuntary) is the overarching theme of this bildungsroman. For example, attempts at voluntarily bringing up from memory the name of someone or some song is a painfully frustrating and all but futile task. Yet as if by magic, when we are engaged in some other activity, the name reappears. This is also true while trying to write a piece of autobiography or retell an old anecdote because our memories are unreliable if we force it; as Proust would have it, “the remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Explaining this, Samuel Beckett in his essay titled Proust wrote, “At any given moment our total soul, in spite of its rich balance-sheet, has only a fictitious value.” Proust’s involuntary memories—evoked by madeleines, lavatories, trees, boots, and cobbles among others—condense the whole of his history and forthcoming, which are what we now call ‘Proustian’ moments.

The advice I got was to wait till I was thirty-five before touching the first volume Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way) given its material: regret, erotic love, nature of consciousness, aesthetics, class, literature—which requires much lived experience. To start reading it at fourteen was a task I (pompously) undertook just to be able to re-read it when I was older, as I understood it would be a completely different book ten or twenty years later. In Search of Lost Time is a perfectly inexhaustible book; one can and should return to it again and again throughout one’s life for comfort and companionship. 

To read it well would be to read it the way Proust wrote it: late at night, sick, despondent, lying on his bed. Proust’s brother (who helped edit and publish the final volumes of the book) wrote, “people have to be very ill or have a broken leg” to read the work as the author intended his book to be read. Another advice would be to read it with a pen. Marginalia and journaling are the ways through which we show our love to writers, to let them know their work is worth underlining, disagreeing and wrangling with. Write whatever comes to mind concerning the book and one’s own life. Because a good book (and the Search is as good as it gets) can be so perfect that it makes us speechless, indeed silent. So to make Proust proud we must also dispose of it and not “give too large a role to what is only an incitement. [Because] reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.”

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