How Proust Changed My Life

I just finished reading Swann’s Way*, the first book of Proust’s series of big fat navelgazers (BFNs) Remembrance of Things Past**. This novel was really strange. I’ve never read anything like it. It was also really good.

The opening 200 pages (which recount the narrator’s remembrance of his childhood summers spent in the French town of Cambray) felt more like a memoir than a novel. Although I’ve never read a memoir that was so detailed, so promiscuous in delving into the inner lives of side-characters, and so lacking in self-consciousness, I’ve also never read a novel that didn’t seem concerned about going anywhere at all. Memoirs recount incidents just because they’ve managed to stick in the memory of the writer for years. Their durability is proof of their importance. But novels generally have some dramatic structure to tie incidents together.

Every page of the first section offers some kind of pleasure. Even in translation, the words seem to flow very mellifluously (I read the recent Lydia Davis translation, since I had bounced off the 1930s Montcrieff translation a few times before). It wasn’t hard to follow. It wasn’t “difficult” the way that, for instance, Faulkner is kind of difficult. You’re not wondering what’s happening, or who people are, or what their relationships are to each other. But there is a kind of meta-difficulty in trying to understand why all this information is being given to you, and where this is going to go.

Perhaps that understanding of the author’s intention is always an illusion. All books are filled with details and incidents whose purpose is not fully apparent, and perhaps was not even apparent to the conscious mind of the author. But most books keep you moving at a fast enough clip that you don’t notice that you can’t quite understand the purpose of the regimental commander’s marriage woes, or that of the old clocktower which is an hour slow.

 

What’s fascinating is how much ground Proust can cover in a good meander. He can sketch out characters in a moment, or spend pages detailing them. And then thirty pages later, he’ll revisit the character and demolish everything you thought about them. Kindly, confused aunts become selfish hags. Rakish men-about-town become sighing schoolboys. Devoted maids become cruel taskmaskers and then turn back into devoted maids. And each of these transformations is not, the way they would be in most books, a progression, or some kind of change of heart. Instead the transformation is only in your own mind. You come to understand that this aspect of the character was always present, that they were always like that, and it was only by selective interpretation that they gained the former character for you. It’s intense.

 

But it’s also a fragile pleasure. I found that a slight noise could put me off the book and make me do something else. Sometimes my mind would wander and I’d read on, unseeing, and not remember anything for two or three pages. When I’d come back, we’d be somewhere different, but because of the lack of progress, I wouldn’t have the impression that I’d missed anything.

In general, I’m not a huge believer that books need to be difficult. For me, books are first and foremost entertainment. If I am not enjoying myself, then I fail to see what I can be learning from the book.

But reading outside my comfort zone has, time and again, showed me new things. It’s trained me, and showed me new kinds of pleasures, and turned an initial mild interest into a passion. I’m not so well-defined in my reading tastes that I can immediately know what I’ll enjoy.

 

The presence of the book’s middle section – a 200 mini-novel segment entitled Swann in Love – is totally bizarre. Charles Swann is a friend of the protagonist’s grandfather who comes to visit them sometimes in Cambray. This middle section is a (mostly) third-person account of Swann’s love affair with the eminently unsuitable woman he will eventually marry.

In describing the vicissitudes of love, the book gains a sort of storyline that proceeds in fits and starts through Paris’ bourgeois and high societies. But its inclusion in the middle of this book almost struck me as a joke, the kind of high-concept novel that only really exists in parody, like Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is so different from the first section that the two are slightly hard to reconcile.

If not for this section I might have given up on the book. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but just because I didn’t know how to read it. It was hard for me to integrate the book into my life. I had to keep trying to read it. I had to read every word, instead of reading by the phrase or by the paragraph. Proust (and Faulkner) have made me realize how much skimming I actually do when I read.

I think I might have a better grasp on this now, but I do not know. I still wonder if perhaps I am fooling myself, and perhaps I did not enjoy it after all. I wonder whether I am committing some kind of deep-rooted intellectual pretension whose primary victim is myself.

 

The third section is short, only fifty pages, and recounts the narrator’s attempts (as a slightly older child) to win the love of Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, an attempt that contains echos of her father’s attempts to win and keep the love of her mother.

I am not sure if psychological realism is the right term for the novel. The novel seems very concerned with the working of the mind. It is a human brain trying to understand itself. But it’s also not reductionist in the way that psychology is. It taxonomizes mental phenomena, but doesn’t explain them.

When I was at Clarion, Kelly Link told us that the more you explain a character, the more he or she will begin to sound like everyone else. Psychological explanations tend to reduce people to the effects of some cause. I found that to be true in my own writing, and also kind of depressing. I’ve long struggled to try to convey the differences between people, and I’ve come to prize works that combine kindness and understanding with perception.

And Proust does that. But he’s also demonstrated to me another way to think about people. He portrays them as something whose character is not firmly set, except in the minds of those who know them. And he applies this even to the narrator. The narrator’s conception of himself shifts as memories recede or come back to the forefront of his mind. Things that were once important become unimportant and then seem important again. There is a complex ecology of selfhood that doesn’t has little to do with actions or events, and more to do with strange rules and species of interaction. We don’t understand why people change, or why they do the things they do or any of the whys, really, because it is difficult enough to perceive the changes themselves or to understand the ways in which the person we have in our mind is not the truth of the person in front of us.

Late in the second section, I thought, “Hmm, I better quote something when I blog about this,” so I marked the following sentences, which occur after Swann has learned about how his lover has betrayed him:

…it gradually ceased to hurt Swann. For what we believe to be our love, or our jealousy, is not one single passion, continuous and indivisible. They are composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, which are ephemeral but by their uninterrupted multitudes give the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity. The life of Swann’s love, the faithfulness of his jealousy, were formed of the death, the faithlessness, of numberless desires, numberless doubts, all of which had Odette as their object.

And that is hella tight. I really hope that I get around to reading the second book.

*Or The Way By Swann’s if you prefer the more recent translation of the title.

** Or In Search Of Lost Time….god, there really should be a ban on changing the accepted translation of a book’s title.

2 thoughts on “How Proust Changed My Life

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I’m glad. With my educational background, it’s easy to feel a little like an imposter when reading Proust, and like I must be missing things or having difficulties that more sophisticated readers would never have, so it’s nice to know that my subjective experience of the book is shared by others.

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