Lle When you are a writer of novels who’s reading a novel, there’s a natural tendency to think, “what can I learn from this?”
One wants to pick novels apart, especially great ones, and find within them some sort of lesson.
But one cannot do this with Proust, because his novel is fucking crazy. How does it work? What is its appeal? What guiding impulse determines what he mentions and what he doesn’t mention? Is there a story? If so, what is it?
These are questions nobody can answer. The closest one can come is probably by examining the most traditional narrative within the novel, which is the middle section, “Swann in Love,” within the first book. This is a fairly traditional story. Wealthy man is pursued by sketchy woman. He falls in love with her. Then the tables are turned and he must pursue her, rather fruitlessly in this case.
To a certain extent, this is a microcosm of the work as a whole, which is, in some rough way, about a man who pursues a woman, Albertine, who he almost but doesn’t quite manage to catch.
And yet to call this “the story” would be I think a misnomer. In the case of “Swann in Love” you actually care whether or not Swann ends up with Odette. There’s some element of suspense there. Furthermore, you can easily track Swann’s change in character. He has an arc.
But in the case of the work as a whole, these things are not true. Nobody cares whether or not the narrator ends up with Albertine. Nor is any change in his character at all perceptible because the book jumps around so much (and is in fact narrated from a point just beyond the events of the book, so frequently the narrator’s adult mental state is mixed up with his youngest one as he comments on himself). The entire point of the book is that it’s not possible to tidily track a person’s change in character. Nor is it possible to neatly sever your youthful self, who exists in your memory, from your adult self.
And most importantly, the experience of reading the work as a whole is very different from the experience of reading Swann’s chapter. In the work as a whole, we are not driven by suspense. As far as I can tell, we are not driven by anything other than the pleasures of any given page. Which is why when Proust is boring, he is deadly (God spare me from ever reading about another hawthorne bush). It’s because if you’re not interested by the sentence you’re reading, then the book feels pointless.
Proust succeeds, in my opinion, by being interesting on every single page. This is one of the few philosophical novels, for instance, that actually has something to say. Proust’s ideas on art, on society, on love, on politics, are fascinating. It’s like going to dinner with the most interesting person you’ve ever met.
And there’s also a certain moment to moment ingenuity. Unexpected things happen. People change in odd and striking ways. And, of course, the sentences are amazing. I hesitate to call them good or beautiful (because no one except Proust should ever attempt to write like this), but they are an experience. The nearest thing I can compare him to, in English, is Samuel Johnson: a writer who says, in page-long sentences, the kind of thoughts that can only really be expressed in page-long sentences.
But none of this is any good to the aspiring writer of fiction, of course. And by giving writers the notion that they don’t need story–they just need to be interesting!–I’m pretty sure Proust has harmed many more writers than he’s helped.