Reading Proust: Time Lost . . . But Not Wasted

by Jean McGarry

The charm of Beckett’s short (very short) book on Proust is the claim that Proust had a bad memory, a statement so loony, it’s hard not to laugh. Needless to say, Beckett has a good argument for this howler; and, of course, “memory” (bad and good) is a term in play, if not in torment, through the entire multi-volume, million-and-a-half word A la recherche du temps perdu. To a Proustian, even the title’s two English equivalents cause a ripple of disquiet, if not of quiet torment. Remembrance of Things Past, from Shakespeare’s 30th sonnet was, of course, the bright idea of Proust’s first English translator, C. K. Scott Moncrieff; the elegant phrase has not, to this Proustian’s ear, been upgraded by the more literal In Search of Lost Time, a title that has stuck, even to the re-edited Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright version (my favorite). Proust altered a few of his own titles, toying for a time with the not-to-be-believed Stalactites of the Past. On the other side of the divide, the author was insulted by Moncrieff’s shortened version of the first volume’s title, supplying a snappy Swann’s Way for the fussy Du Coté de Chez Swann. Proust was irked, perhaps, because of how “way” suggests something more than pathway, something closer to “tendency”—a spoiler on the first page of what was to come into focus as the most significant theme after many, many words, many scenes, and many eras, finding its full value only in the very last pages.

What is a “Proustian,” anyway? Even to the ears of this most dogged of the faithful, the term sounds pompous, if not presumptuous. And, yet, may I make a case for myself? I’ve taught the six-volume English version in two back-to-back five-week summer sessions; I’ve read the million-and-half words in the two-volume Moncreiff; the three-volume Moncrieff-Kilmartin, and the six-volume Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright, along with a handful of the now shabby paperback Gallimards, when my French was strongest. On the other hand, no Proustian worth a nibble of tea-soaked madeleine would have turned down the offer of a brand-new, Moroccan-bound Pléiade edition presented as a honeymoon gift. Why did I balk? Easy enough now to recall the moment of disquiet: did I have the cred to own such a treasure, or even enough time left on earth to penetrate the thick scrum of footnotes and variants assembled by that great Proustian Jean-Yves Tadié, editor of the Pléiade and author of the magnificent Marcel Proust: A Life, which was published by Gallimard in 1996 and weighs in at a mere 800 pages? (It’s only late in this reader’s life, I should note, that footnotes have become de rigueur. Tackling a work even longer than Proust’s, and one famous for its notes, I’ve vowed never to bypass a single bottom-of-the-page trick by that backbiting cynic Edward Gibbon, as funny as he is wicked.)

Say again? Turned down the Pléiade Proust! I must have been out of my mind. What I accepted, in exchange, was an oversize paperback, with the whole of Recherche squished into a singlet. To add insult to injury, I owned, in years to come, two of these paperbacks, and gave them both away! But, I do retain, secure on my shelves, multiple editions of the faded and brittle French paperbacks (good enough for me), and a number of the translations. (I never cottoned to the most recent team endeavor, sensing that a different translator for each volume was a fool’s errand.)

As a pilgrim, I prowled the streets of Paris for the key nodes of the Proustian ambit—the école maternelle, the lycée Cordorcet, the parental and grandparental homes—and spent a sad day contemplating the place of rest, where the family Proust is interred under a black granite slab. (Note to those who care: a chrysanthemum spray, Odette’s flower, was lying atop the stone that day; Marcel’s name is on the back.) Moving farther out, the channel coast of Brittany was scoured, over several summers, for specimens of that Romanesque Breton specialty, the Calvaire, wherein the life and death of Christ unfold on tablets set in a single monolith; I also passed a night or two in the Grand Hotel in Cabourg, Normandy, site of the author’s regular summer visits. Venice, too, was on the check list: several sojourns spent pounding the “stones,” prowling the water-city that Proust loved so well—especially upon once looking into the works of John Ruskin. With the help of his highly cultivated Maman, Proust devoted nine years of a short life to the translation of three works of the great English critic/artist/ preacher. The Ruskin trail proved almost as long for me, especially after reading Richard Macksey’s witty excursus, Marcel Proust: On Reading Ruskin, where the Proust’s French introductions to his three freshly translated works are converted into an English worthy of the original (both originals!). Reading John Ruskin “through” soon became an obsession, a task almost the equal in scope (and time “lost”) to the 30-year engagement with Proust. The reward, though, was not just the art critic’s poetic prose, but, the bracing (“punishing” might be a better word) effect of his scoldings, corrections, and bossiness. Ruskin knew he knew best, and yielding to his instruction is really the only way to bear the overbearing—that, and knowing that Proust went that “way” too.

Interestingly, Ruskin’s famous French translator is, in his own way, a match for the pontifical Ruskin, and on some of the very same heads: landscape painting, sculpture, architecture, politics, morality, etc., etc. Proust just does it differently. Remembrance, but also Pleasures and Days, and even the truncated and cannibalized Contre Sainte-Beuve, induce in the reader a state of blissful self-forgetfulness—self-erasure, even— an experience comparable to nothing so much as heavy sleep with vivid dreams. The reader is awake, certainly, but absorbing the music and message of the attenuated sentences, as they coil and list toward their object, causes the mind to grip so hard that there’s nothing left over for any kind of readerly counterpoint. (Few readers are inclined to think, for instance: “Oh, yes, that happened to me last night with that first Oreo.”) One doesn’t identify with Swann or Odette, Marcel, or Oriane, Basin, Robert, Albertine, or Charlus. The bond between reader and text, reader and characters, is a strange one, and a thing all to itself, and the attaching glue is not uniformly applied throughout the six volumes and many sub-volumes. Sometimes, yes, one’s mind wanders, while swimming its pages-long paragraphs. A mistake—for getting back in is not easy. Breaking out is to be lost outside of that Niagara, sitting on a rock watching. The reader must comply, and be still, while the mind is slowly filled to bursting.

That said, what is the value of the reader’s so-called “contribution” to any text? Perhaps, those writers who asked most from their readers were certain Anglo-American modernists, who, in using the plainest language possible, with minimal qualifiers, invite the reader to test the story (or poem), to step back and imagine the characters in theatrical space, and to compare what the writer is saying about them against what we think ourselves from observing them. In some ways, Hemingway’s stories would barely cohere if the reader didn’t glean from the sharply described action and bits of dialogue what was really going on.

Another reader contribution is required if, in minimal stories, the characters are also somewhat minimal, not terribly perceptive or sensitive, so that the author and reader conspire against them, and enjoy the fun of seeing them flounder, as they learn the hard way. Joyce’s Dubliners and Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories are often designed for this collaboration between writer and reader (with the narrator falling on one side or the other).

Proust, by contrast, has created a narrator a million times more sensitive than any reader. Whether the unnamed child-narrator is as smart as he becomes is hard to say, but he’s an instrument for sensation and perception superior to anything I’ve read. Part of the “excess” of the writing is justified by the need to convey how this rare being sees the world, disclosing the findings of this special case to the thick-skulled and jaded reader.

Why otherwise does Proust block the reader from horning in, when, as we’ve seen, reader engagement can, occasionally, be fruitful? It isn’t just that he distrusts his reader to “fill in” (crude concept), he’d just rather do it himself, and he has the wherewithal. His scenic peregrinations are meticulously filled in (especially those that have already transpired and are converted by magical faculty to memory.) But the inclusiveness, the fullness, is not Jamesian, to invoke another writer who leaves little space for the reader. James is interested in some of the same mental play: the fine engraving that experience makes upon consciousness, and how that engraving is altered by more experience, by time, by naiveté, by maturity, by sickness, by forgetfulness, and by a million other interferences, but also by the ways that strong desire and acute anticipation can devalue experience. James is interested in some of these transmutations, but mainly to show how experience alters, in a progressive way, whatever is there at the first. James goes in for epochal, propulsive awakenings, when, say, Isabel Archer sees the villain in Mme. Merle, or Milly Theale discovers what her lover and best friend have been up to, as she lies dying in Venice. James has his characters grow with their enlightenments, but in one direction. Proust lets his people reverse, advance, revolve; at the end of their lives, they’re sometimes closer to the beginning than at some point of arrival. A James heroine like Isabel Archer travels across the hundreds of pages straight from innocence to experience. You can’t say the same about Proust’s Marcel, who interests us most; but, even the personages around Marcel exhibit no linear pattern, partly because all characters are seen through another character’s (often distorting) lens. Characters around Isabel Archer (notably Mme. Merle and Gilbert Osmond) do not display another side, once we’ve seen what they’ve been hiding. The Proustian dynamo, moreover, produces beautiful essays on art, love, music, nature, but it isn’t as “thoughty” as a James’s text, and the ruminations work as much by way of poetry and musical repetitions and variations, as they do by syntax and logic. The threads of thought multiply and divide, and the experience of following Marcel from childhood to his 60s is not at all what you might expect from a narrative that centers on the one person. The whirligig of Marcel’s experience (or how that experience is presented) does not fall into stages and episodes, advances and retreats (although losses do seem to grow in size, and in their painful effects). I don’t think you could say that there’s a story arc with a rising action, a point of high tension, and a falling off, or even several of these. The novel is not suspended on that kind of frame. Things happen, yes, but their pacing, their progression seem always to involve reversals, not to mention the undertow of something else, and something very different, to be revealed only in the future. And some might say that the clock sometimes ticks too slowly, and the hands turn back too often (the two volumes on the capture, loss, and death of Albertine, for instance), having the maddening effect of a piece of music with too many repeats. Great patience, as well as alert absorption, are, of course, required in reading Proust, but the first is induced, and the second rewarded, both in the moment and beyond. Colette, Proust’s contemporary, described her experience with Recherche as being blown through a tube: she goes in, as she wrote, one end, and comes out the other. Even the steely Flannery O’Connor said something of the same, when she was in the hospital with yet another bout of lupus, and took on the novel. Henry James is said to have read Swann’s Way in a single sitting.

Is reading Proust not unlike being “under the weather”? Just sick enough to allow oneself to drift and dream, the way the young Marcel does in the back garden of Combray, when his very existence melts into the book he has in hand. Reading comes in early in the section entitled “Combray,” but the very first sentence of the novel has to be one of the dullest in any language. What it opens up, though, is the kernel of the entire work:

For a long time, I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself: “I’m falling asleep.” And half an hour later the thought that it was time to look for sleep would awaken me; I would make as if to put away the book which I imagined was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had just been thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to be that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V.

For most writers, this would be enough on that subject. But, Proust hasn’t yet delivered the experience so vivid in his own mind.

This impression would persist for some moments after I awoke; it did not offend my reason, but lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a previous existence must be after reincarnation; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to apply myself to it or not; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for my eyes, but even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, something dark indeed.

What commences after this struggle to describe the indescribable is a series of awakenings running the course of the narrator’s life; an extreme reduction of the entire book, seen through rooms he’s slept in. The most dramatic of all, to my eyes, comes early in the series, but represents a late moment in the chronology, and is strangely depersonalized:

Nearly midnight. The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to set out on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakened by a sudden spasm, sees with glad relief a streak of daylight showing under his door. Thank God, it is morning! The servants will be about in a minute; he can ring, and someone will come to look after him. The thought of being assuaged gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; someone has just turned down the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night suffering without remedy.

Proust wrote much of his giant book in bed, suffocating at times with asthma, working through the night like Gertrude Stein, and rewriting, adding, interpolating as proofs came back. The novel gaining an enormous middle section when the Great War closed down Grasset, his publishing house, leaving him with nothing to do but write more. In a typical Proustian way, he wrote the beginning and the end first, and filled in the middle, and filled in, and filled in, the book gaining 2,500 pages. André Gide, then an editor at La Nouvelle Revue française, rejected the manuscript after reading less than a page but changed his mind enough later on to write: “so disconcerting [is Proust’s style] in its suppleness that any other style appears stilted, dull, imprecise, sketchy, lifeless.”

And he goes on (bless me father, for I have sinned): “. . . when I plunge again into this lake of delights, for many days afterward I remain afraid to pick up the pen, no longer believing myself capable—as happens during the time a masterpiece holds us in its sway—of writing well, seeing in what is called the “purity” of my style only “poverty.”

* * *

The reason it took me a full year to read Benjamin Taylor’s biography Proust: The Search was not just fear of Proustian overload, but the possessive jealousy (and resistance) that one Proustian feels about another. Proust, as I mentioned earlier, fills in all the gaps, and, in some sense, Remembrance is a version of the life, and there are at least three extant biographies, including the work of Tadié, who must have spent a lifetime in the archives, with the near-impossible task of producing a “final” version of a manuscript that had grown sidebars, tails, off-shoots, gills, wings—what Proust’s last housekeeper, Celeste Albaret called his “paperoles”—as the insomniac scribbled away in the night.

So, do we need more?

In some sense, Proust’s novel explodes the whole concept of biography. Truth lies not in the details of a life, in the sequence of its events, but is a jagged and recalcitrant thing that pulls odd and seemingly unrelated bits of life together.

Here is what Proust’s first biographer has to say about the relation between life and novel: “Proust believed, justifiably, that his life had the shape and meaning of a great work of art.” He goes on to say, that “though he invented nothing, he altered everything. His places and people are composite in space and time, constructed from various sources and from widely separate periods of his life. His purpose in so doing was not to falsify reality, but to induce it to reveal the truths it so successfully hides in this world.”

“Untruth,” according to Proust himself, is created by two things: the dullness of chronology, one damned thing after another, and the shallow scrapings of memory. Time separates experiences that should be unified for their congruence. Conscious memory records like a slave, and falsifies complex emotional reality. The tool to use (and one has no control over it) is “involuntary memory,” an experience so rare that, even in this 3,000-odd page account, it occurs to Marcel only 13 times.

This difference in types of memory is so important to the book that it’s worth consulting that great compacter, Samuel Beckett, who puts the complicated difference into this beautiful nutshell:

The most trivial experience . . . is encrusted with elements that logically are not related to it and have consequently been rejected by our intelligence; it is imprisoned in a vase filled with a certain perfume and a certain color and raised to a certain temperature. These vases are suspended along the height of our years, and not being accessible to our intelligent memory, are in a sense immune, the purity of their climatic content is guaranteed by forgetfulness, each one is kept at its distance, at its date. So that when the imprisoned microcosm is besieged in the manner described, we are flooded by a new air and a new perfume (new precisely because already experienced), and we breathe the true air of Paradise, of the only Paradise that is not the dream of a madman, the Paradise that has been lost.

* * *

The lifelong effect of reading and rereading Proust is not unlike the lifelong reading of someone like Freud, as the Proustian text offers an abundance of philosophic, aesthetic, historic, and (of course), psychological insight—and, in almost every way, what Proust has to say is new, new or something old (and taken for granted) turned inside out. Freud had the same kind of ambition, and one feature of his oeuvre that makes him easy to pick up is that every new book, with its distinct advance on theory, starts at the beginning and explains everything, as if nothing had come before. (About the only assertion that I have resisted in Proust’s opus is the narrator’s claim that friendship is impossible, non-existent, always a dodge or a cover for something else more primal.) Taylor in his pithy and elegant account of Proust’s journey, claims that the author had only two true relationships—with his last housekeeper, Celeste, and with Maman (his Jewish parent; Father Proust, a doctor, was a Catholic); but this claim, too, seems contradicted by his lifelong friendship with composer Reynaldo Hahn a onetime lover. To such a generous, gentle, and magnanimous man as Proust, how could friendship be impossible? Well, since Proust says it, it’s worth pondering. Do great thinkers and writers have friends, or could many of them say the same thing—that the relation doesn’t exist? Freud’s friends and adherents were always falling afoul of the great man, although the latter maintained very close relations to his extended family, and an even closer relation and dependence on his youngest daughter, Anna, keeper of the psychoanalytic flame. Leaving out the family (and the rather overbearing mother), Ruskin seems to have been a solitary with a famously aborted marriage.

The only other claim in this compact and newsy biography that seemed off was that “[Proust] never read Freud and would have found the discoveries superfluous if he had.”

The only reason that Proust would have found the discoveries “superfluous” is if the novelist had felt, in any way, competitive about those discoveries. Freud, though, we have to remember, was very generous in giving credit to writers for pointing the way to the major claims of psychoanalysis. I can’t help thinking that the two would have found each other’s work very much worth the effort. They both understood the unconscious, although Proust saw it, drawn to the surface by involuntary memory, as a source of great richness; where, to Freud, the return of the repressed, was a fearful and unwanted uprising. They both understood that a strong emotion contains its opposite, or is convertible, or is a disguise for the unwanted of the twin.

To mention just a few of the “discoveries” that Taylor makes, sifting through the other biographies, the letters, the works, the critics, the reports of contemporaries, etc.:

  • That Proust thought The Idiot the greatest of all novels. (And yet, the intuitive sense is that his great predecessor—the man to beat—was Balzac.)
  • A reminder that Proust trained as a lawyer and worked as one for 14 days.
  • That his vast and intimate diary (the “holy grail” of Proustians) kept by his erstwhile lover Hahn is sealed until 2036. (How was that year selected? Why not 2030, or 2050?)
  • That, although a staunch Dreyfusard, Proust maintained a lifelong friendship with the rabid anti-semite Leon Daudet.
  • That, like Samuel Johnson, Proust was a dazzling talker.
  • That he inherited, upon his mother’s death, the equivalent of $5million, which he mostly frittered away on gifts and lavish tips to good-looking waiters.
  • Some beautiful extracts:

There are some beautiful extracts. On an essay written after visiting a Rembrandt exhibit in 1898:

The artist is someone more subject to reality than other people, whose work is in no way a parading of out-of-the-way qualities, but the expression of what had lain nearest to him in his life, and what lies deepest in things.


The essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense it does not need to be “invented” by a great writer—for it already exists in each one of us—has to be translated by him. The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.

Proust might have been interested in the residue that his giant novel deposits in the reader’s mind. Something as long and attenuated as Recherche is a bulky insertion into memory, and it takes so long to read (even when galloping at the rate of a volume every few days—which is the rate at which it must be absorbed if one is to finish in five weeks time, and meet to discuss it three times a week).

Turning young writers into Proustians was easier than I would have thought. Although some were a bit resistant, all were, by the first week of the class, game. For one reader, a new direction in life was found—mathematics and physics were traded in for writing and literature. Most of the others were already writers. One young woman, who lacked the funds for the new books, took over my ancient two-volume Moncrieff. I noticed in class that each rusty page had been carefully taped to the binding, making the already hefty two books into a pair of thick, yellowish fans. I took this as her way of coping with the interminable read, and, indeed, making her own kind of mark on the text.

One thing we noticed in the course of reading the novel as fast as possible was that change in Proust happens very quickly. Characters fall in and out of love in a few sentences, which is the way they die, or change course. There’s a contemporary feeling to these abrupt shifts, as if Proust were suddenly forcing his characters to “get over it,” after they’ve languished for hundreds of pages. The critical moment we expect to see extended is cut short, and vice versa.

One rather difficult student declared after class that Proust was a sexist. What could I say? All I had to do was wait. Not only was her outrage cooled, she took the course again the next summer. If you can bear it, if you can stick with it, Proust’s novel is a lifetime companion.

My last full read of the novel was with three friends, one of whose mother had been a Proust scholar in her youth, and used to lie abed mornings—while her husband fed the children and got them off to school—reading Proust. Where had his mother been all those mornings is what this grieving reader wanted to know.

For Richard Macksey