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à la recherche du temps perdu

16 april 2008

It took me just 22 years to read À la recherche du temps perdu. It didn't take Marcel Proust nearly that long to write it, but he had the advantage of writing about his own life, about which I knew nothing when I started reading Proust and not much more today.

Entire books have been written just about the experience of reading Proust (quite apart from criticism of the work itself). I don't intend to add much to that burgeoning literature here, but any reading experience that takes decades to bring to term inevitably doubles back on itself. After all, as Proust argues, "En réalité, chaque lecteur est quand il lit le propre lecteur de soi-même" [Really, every reader, while he is reading, reads himself.] (Le Temps retrouvé, IV: 489).

So, indulge me in a little self-reading. Du côté de chez Swann was one of the first books I read in French. It was 1986. I was working at a dead-end adjunct teaching job in New Jersey, and I probably should have been steeping myself in Emily Dickinson scholarship in hopes of landing on a tenure track somewhere. But given that I had no visible future as an academic, I decided instead to read anything I wanted to read. I read Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, Balzac's Père Goriot, Zola's Germinal, skipping up the steps of the canon to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, which I had been teaching in translation in an honors course and which looked like the highest peak in sight. Once I had read Madame Bovary, I looked around and saw that I was only on a foothill. In the distance, À la recherche du temps perdu loomed like the Himalayas of French literature.

Reading Du côté de chez Swann when your French isn't all that great and your exposure to French fiction consists of a few stray classics is a disorienting experience. It isn't that Proust is hard to follow. The story is pretty leisurely throughout; if you miss something, you'll get another pass over the material, and probably another and still another. The style is vexing, but not hopeless. Proust is addicted to hyper-complex run-on sentences spliced together with commas and semi-colons, full of elaborate parentheses, but unlike those of his modernist contemporaries (James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Richardson, William Faulkner), all of Proust's sentences can be parsed. My main problem was (and still is) that I would start a sentence of Proust and soon realize that there was no hope of getting to a parsable stopping-place within the bounds of my reading session. I would get a few nested clauses into the sentence, and then the phone would ring or the laundry need attention, and I'd come back ten minutes later to find that I had to start the sentence all over again.

In this respect, reading Proust is a fractal experience. Not only do you have to start sentences over and over, but you have to do the same with paragraphs and sections and eventually with entire novels, or at least so I felt in my 20s, with a young reader's ethic of completion. I had imbibed from Edgar Allan Poe the principle that the entire effect of a literary work should be kept in the mind at once. But in Proust I was faced with the impossibility of a "unity of impression" – and not because I read French slowly and had eighty papers to grade every weekend, but because Proust himself was bent on defeating such unity of impression.

Fortunately, much of the heart of À la recherche du temps perdu can be found in the first few pages of Du côté de chez Swann. The center of the unnamed narrator's experience is located in the one childhood experience that he needs no madeleine-dunking to recapture: waiting at the top of the stairs, at the risk of censure and rejection, to capture a goodnight kiss from his mother, who exists for him, in her high-bourgeois isolation, as "le bruit léger de sa robe de jardin en mousseline bleue" [the light rustle of her blue muslin garden dress] (I: 13) as she comes down the corridor every night. But this night is different: the boy has been sent to his room expressly without a kiss, not as a punishment but out of mere arbitrariness. When he dares to demand the kiss, his mother is terrified that his father will be enraged, but the father instead sends the mother to spend the entire night in the narrator's room.

Il y a bien des années de cela. La muraille de l'escalier, oú je vis monter le reflet de sa bougie n'existe plus depuis longtemps. . . . Il y a bien longtemps aussi que mon père a cessé de pouvoir dire à maman: "Va avec le petit."
[It has been many years since then. The wall of the staircase, where I saw the light cast by his candle rising, has not been there for a long time. . . . It has been a long time too since my father could say to my mother: "Go with the little one."] (I: 36).
I thought in 1986, and I still think today, that that paragraph, three dozen pages into À la recherche du temps perdu, is the finest writing in Western literary history. Which presents another obstacle to reading Proust, perhaps: where do you go from there?

Proust, of course, goes back to that moment, again and again. When Swann agonizes over the absent Odette, when the narrator ties himself into knots over Albertine, when the Baron de Charlus is inflamed with jealousy for Charlie Morel, we are continually reminded that all desperate longings, for Proust, are types of that first longing, the longing for a mother's kiss.

While that continual doubling-back is profoundly resonant, it doesn't make for what my undergraduate students would call "a smooth easy read." I forged ahead in Proust over the next decade or so like a tide fighting its way up a beach. I read Du côté de chez Swann, started à l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, lost my place and started Swann again, made it further in Jeunes filles, started over again and made it halfway through Le côté de Guermantes, fell back to the beginning again, and then finally finished Guermantes sometime in 1997. I rounded the turn and started into Sodome et Gomorrhe and stalled there for another ten years.

There were two main obstacles to my steady progress through Proust, aside from trying to earn tenure as an English professor and having a life. One was that ethic of completeness; the other was Proust's attitude toward women.

À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, in particular, deals largely in a kind of high-toned predatory nymphomania. The classic form of desire, for Proust, is the sudden urge to embrace a paysanne or a blanchisseuse. In Proust, I wrote many years ago on my second pass through the early novels, "women are a separate species, a part of the natural world that supplies metaphor, that entagles itself pleasantly or irritatingly, but always mysteriously, with the spiritual notions of time and memory that comprise the narrator's consciousness." One doesn't have to be a hermeneutically suspicious feminist theorist to get tired of the narrator's sexist antics, and for a while there, I got very tired indeed.

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