Reading Proust, At 60, During a Pandemic (Personal Essay) - by Dale Boyer
In a biography of C. K. Scott Moncrieff, the great translator of Proust’s monumental work, Remembrance of Things Past, the biographer visits the boarding school Moncrieff once attended and remarks that the site, with its imposing edifice perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, is “utterly silent.” Curiously, it is this detail about Moncrieff’s life that remained with me above all others over the past year as I made my way for the second time through Proust’s magnum opus. Pondering the Herculean task Moncrieff faced in translating it, I often found myself wondering: Is silence necessary to read Proust? And, at seven volumes and over 2,200 pages, is reading it worth doing once, let alone twice?
Moncrieff himself remarked, upon giving six volumes of his translation to a friend: “one needs to bedridden to absorb them all; indeed, there might be a special edition with a red cross on the cover and a pocket for thermometers, syringes etc.” My own decision to re-read the book came after I had recently reviewed another book for this publication, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. Shuggie is a great book, but one of the bleakest I’ve ever read, and I had an overwhelming urge after finishing it to read something as completely different as possible. I’d first read Remembrance when I was around 30. I’d heard that one should never attempt to read Proust before that age, because much of it would be lost on you. And so, every day for nearly a year and a half as my bus made slow progress going to and from work in Chicago in 1991, I patiently made my way through volume after volume. I remember being both dazzled and frustrated by the work, and there were indeed days when the leisurely pace of Proust’s prose, which, with its constant and insistent insertion of parentheticals, actually forces one to slow down, was simply beyond the level of my attention.
Now, however, in the middle of a pandemic lockdown in which there was nothing but silence, I thought almost longingly of revisiting those long, leisurely sentences and images, and returning to that marvelously recreated world of 19th century France. Indeed, coming to the work a second time, and now at the age of 60, one of the things I most appreciated about the work was the calmness and intricacy of the prose, and the way it forced one to pay attention. I was also constantly amazed by how seamless and sustained the writing was; so that, even though most days I was only able to manage 20 pages or so, after putting aside the book for a day or a weekend, upon picking it back up I was instantly re-engaged in the workings of Proust’s mind, and could pick up easily and exactly where I’d left off. I found a calming, almost healing quality in that.
There were, however, differences in my reactions this time around. For instance, at 30, after just having come out of the closet myself, I found the portrait of one of the main characters, Charlus ( a gay man), appalling and cringe-worthy – even reprehensible. Similarly, the depiction of Odette and Albertine’s lesbianism was equally lamentable. Though I still found much to object to upon this reading, what struck me was actually how brave Proust was in presenting such a complex, eminently recognizable portrait of a closeted gay man, and of homosexuality in general. The fact that no one had really ever addressed these issues so frankly or thoroughly before allowed me to forgive some of the more unforgivable statements Proust makes as he writes about that world while simultaneously (and sometimes infuriatingly) hiding the fact that he himself was gay.
With the passage of 30 years, I also felt better able to understand the poignance and brilliance of Proust’s depiction of the pains of the heart. There is surely no more affecting portrayal of tortured love in all of literature than Proust’s portrait of Swann in love with the unworthy Odette. That having been said, and despite the brilliance of Proust’s perceptions about the nature of love, and the way he fleshes it out with parallels between the narrator’s own love affairs with Gilberte and Albertine, and Charlus’ pursuit of the musician Morel, what struck me was the fact that, for Proust, the concept of love is basically synonymous with jealousy and possessiveness. In my own experience, these emotions are actually antithetical to love. So, even as I admired the tortured portraits of people pursuing unattainable objects, I also felt myself on a different plain of understanding about the foolishness of such pursuits.
Remembrance of Things Past opens with the narrator recollecting an evening in childhood when he waited long and patiently for a kiss from his mother in order to fall asleep. For page after page, Proust elaborates his thoughts and emotions while waiting for this sign of affection from his mother, so much so that the kiss, by extrapolation, becomes a kind of metaphor for the way many people suffer as they await love’s arrival. But sadly, this moment also becomes for Proust an indication that love can never quite be attained, and that the true glory of love depends upon how much suffering one endures in its name. Indeed, knowing Proust decided to sacrifice his own life by locking himself up in a cork-lined room for year after year to commit his consciousness to paper, one can’t help wondering if what he was really doing was trying to get back to the last time he truly felt something; and ironically, that in locking himself away to do so, he virtually guaranteed that he himself would never find happiness.
And yet, Remembrance is a wholly satisfying work – surely, one of the greatest novels ever written, a work whose very subject is consciousness itself, and whose voluminous and sustained triumphs make it arguably the culmination of 19th century literature. Every educated reader should read at least the Overture; and if one is not ready to commit to all seven volumes, Swann’s Way (volume one) contains nearly all the themes of the other seven volumes, and is perhaps the most beautiful and self-contained of them all.
In the end, then, I have found rereading it immensely rewarding, and urge others so inclined to begin the journey themselves. I can think of no other way to summarize the beauty and poignance of this beautiful, daunting, aggravating, and astounding work than to end with the words Proust uses as he recalls that night so long ago, when he awaited his mother’s kiss:
Many years have passed since that night. The wall of the staircase, up which I had watched the light of his candle gradually climb, was long ago demolished. And in myself, too, many things have perished which, I imagined, would last forever, and new structures have arisen, giving birth to new sorrows and new joys which in those days I could not have foreseen, just as now the old are difficult of comprehension. It is a long time, too, since my father has been able to tell Mamma to “Go with the child.” Never again will such hours be possible for me. But of late I have been increasingly able to catch, if I listen attentively, the sound of the sobs which I had the strength to control in my father’s presence, and which broke out only when I found myself alone with Mamma. Actually, their echo has never ceased: it is only because life is growing more and more quiet round about me that I hear them afresh, like those convent bells which are so effectively drowned during the day by the noises of the streets that one would suppose them to have been stopped forever, until they sound out again through the silent evening air.
Chasing Lost Time, Jean Findlay
Remembrance of Things Past, tr. C.K.Scott Moncrieff