by Dennis Abrams

For your weekend reading pleasure, more from Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, and, specifically, to help us all through our Proust withdrawal, more from the chapter “How to Put Books Down.”

i.  The benefits of reading

“In 1899 things were going badly for Proust.  he was twenty-eight, he had ndone nothing with his life, he was still living at home, he had never earned any money, he was always ill and worst of all, he had been trying to write a novel for the last four years and it was showing few signs of working out.  In the autumn of that  year, he went on holiday to the French Alps, to the spa town of Evian, and it was here that he read and fell in love with the works of John Ruskin, the English art critic renowned for his writings on Venice, Turner, the Italian Renaissance, Gothic architecture and Alpine landscapes.

Proust’s encounter with Ruskin exemplified the benefits of reading.  ‘The universe suddenly regained infinite value in my eyes,’ explained Proust subsequently; because the universe had had such value in Ruskin’s eyes, and because he had been a genius at transmuting his impressions into words.  Ruskin had expressed things which Proust might have felt himself, but could not have articulated on his own; in Ruskin, he found experiences which he had never been more than semi-conscious of, raised and beautifully assembled in language.

Ruskin sensitized Proust to the visible world, to architecture, art and nature.  Here is Ruskin awakening his readers’ senses to a few of the many things going on in an ordinary mountain stream:

‘If it meets a rock three or four feet above the level of its bed, it will often neither part nor form, nor express any concern about the matter, but clear it in a smooth dome of water, without apparent exertion, the whole surface of the surge being drawn into parallel lines by its extreme velocity, so that the whole river has the appearance of a deep and raging sea, with only this difference, that torrent-waves always break backwards, and sea-waves forwards.  Thus, then, in the water which has gained an impetus, we have the most exquisite arrangements of curved lines, perpetually changing from convex to concave and vice versa, following every swell and hollow of the bed with their modulating grace, and all in unison of motion, presenting perhaps the most beautiful series of inorganic forms which nature can possibly produce.’

Aside from landscape, Ruskin helped Proust to discover the beauty of the great cathedrals of northern France.  When he returned to Paris after his holiday, Proust travelled to Bourges and to Chargres, to Amiens and Rouen.  Later explaining what Ruskin had taught him, Proust pointed to a passage on Rouen cathedral in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which Ruskin minutely described a particular stone figure which had been carved, together with hundreds of others, in one of the cathedral’s portals.  The figure was of a little man, no more than ten centimetres high, with a vexed, puzzled expression, and one hand pressed hard against his cheek, wrinkling the flesh under his eye.

For Proust, Ruskin’s concern for the little man had effected a kind of resurrection, one characteristic of great art.  He had known how to look at this figure, and had hence brought it back to life for succeeding generations.  Ever polite, Proust offered a playful apology to the little figure for what would have been his own inability to notice him without Ruskin as a guide [‘I would not have been clever enough to find you, amongst the thousands of stones in our towns, to pick out your figure, to rediscover your personality, to summon you, to make you live again’}.  It was a symbol of what Ruskin had done for Proust, and what all books might do for their readers, namely bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.

Because he had been so impressed by Ruskin, Proust sought to extend his contact with him by engaging in the traditional occupation open to those who love reading:  literary scholarship.  He set aside his novelistic projects and became a Ruskin scholar.  When the English critic died in 1900, he wrote his obituary, followed it u p with several essays, and then undertook the immense task of translating Ruskin into French, a task all the more ambitious because he hardly spoke any English and, according to George de Lauris, would have had trouble correctly ordering a lamb chop in English in a restaurant.  However, he succeeded in producing highly accurate translations of both Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens and his Sesame and Lilies, adding an array of scholarly footnotes testifying to the breadth of his Ruskinian knowledge.  It was work he carried out with the fanaticism and rigour of a maniacal professor; in the words of his friend Marie Nordlinger:

‘The apparent discomfort in which he worked was quite incredible; the bed was littered with books and papers, his pillows were all over the place, a bamboo table on his left was piled high, and more often than not, there was no support for whatever he was writing (no wonder he wrote illegibly), with a cheap wooden penholder or two lying where it had fallen on the floor.’

Because Proust was such a good scholar and such an unsuccessful novelist, an academic career must have beckoned.  It was his mother’s hope.  After watching him waste years on a novel that had gone nowhere, she took pleasure in discovering that her son had the makings of a fine scholar.  Proust could not have ignored his own aptitude, and indeed, many years later, expressed sympathy with his mother’s judgement:

‘I always agree with Maman that I could have done only one thing in life, but a thing which we both valued so much that it is saying a lot:  namely, an excellent professor.’

ii.  The limitations of reading

However, needless to say, Proust did not become Professor Proust, Ruskin scholar and translator, a significant fact, given how well suited he was to academic discipline, how ill suited he was to almost everything else and how much he respected his beloved mother’s judgement.

His reservations could hardly have been more subtle.  He was in no doubt as to the immense value of reading and study, and could defend his Ruskinian labours against any vulgar arguments in favour of mental self-sufficiency.

‘The mediocre usually imagine that to let ourselves be guided by the books we admire robs our faculty of judgement of part of its independence.  ‘What can it matter to you what Ruskin feels:  feel for yourself.’  Such a view rests on a psychological error which will be discounted by all those who have accepted a spiritual discipline and feel thereby that their power of understanding and of feeling is infinitely enhanced, and their critical sense never paralysed…There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt.  In t his profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his.’

Yet something in this forceful defence of reading and scholarship intimated Proust’s reservations.  Without drawing attention to how contentious or critical the point was, he argued that we should be reading for a particular reason; not to pass the time, not out of detached curiosity, not out of a dispassionate wish to find out what Ruskin felt, but because, to back with italics, ‘there is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt’.  We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel, it is our own thoughts we should be developing even if it is another writer’s thoughts which help us to do so.  A fulfilled academic life would therefore require us to judge that the writers we were studying articulated in their books a sufficient range of our own concerns, and that in the act of understanding them through translation or commentary, we would simultaneously be understanding and developing the spiritually significant parts of themselves.

And herein lay Proust’s problem, because in his view, books could not make us aware of enough of the things we felt.  They might open our eyes, sensitize us, enhance our powers of perception, but at a certain point they would stop, not by coincidence, not occasionally, not out of bad luck, but inevitably, by definition, for the stark and simple reason that the author wasn’t us. There would come a moment with every book when we would feel that something was incongruous, misunderstood or constraining, and it would give us a responsibility to leave our guide behind and continue our thoughts alone.  Proust’s respect for Ruskin was enormous, but having worked intensely on his texts for six years, having lived with bits of paper scattered across his bed and his bamboo table piled high with books, in a particular burst of irritation at continually being tethered to another man’s words, Proust exclaimed that Ruskin’s qualities had not prevented him from frequently being ‘silly, maniacal, constraining, false and ridiculous.’

The fact that Proust did not at this point turn to translating George Eliot or annotating Dostoevsky signals a recognition that the frustration he felt with Ruskin was not incidental to this author, but reflected a universally constraining dimension to reading and scholarship, and was sufficient reason never to strive for the title of Professor Proust.

‘It is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books (which allows us to see the role, at once essential yet limited, that reading may play in our spiritual lives) that for the author they may be called ‘Conclusions’ but for the reader ‘Incitements’.  We feel very strongly that our wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off, and we would like him to provide us with answers when all he is able to is provide us with desires…That is the value of reading, and also its inadequacy.  To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement.  Reading in on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it:  it does not constitute it.'”

More to come…enjoy your weekend.


by Dennis Abrams

Clearly, we’re all going through Proust withdrawal.  In his book,  How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton’s last chapter is titled “How to Put Books Down.”  Herewith, a sampling, including an introduction and one of the signs of addiction and writer worship:

“How seriously should we take books?  ‘Dear friend,’ Proust told Andre Gide, ‘I believe, contrary to the fashion among our contemporaries, that one can have a very lofty idea of literature, and at the same time have a good-natured laugh at it.’  The remark may have been throwaway, but its underlying message was not.  For a man who devoted his life to literature, Proust manifested a singular awareness of the dangers of taking books too seriously, or rather of adopting a fetishistically reverent attitude towards them, which while appearing to pay due homage would in fact travesty the spirit of literary production; a healthy relationship to other people’s books would depends as much on an appreciation of their limitations as of their benefits.

Symptom no. 1:  That we mistake writers for oracles

As a boy, Proust has loved reading Theophile Gautier.  Certain sentences in Gautier’s Le Captitaine Fracasse had seemed so profound that he had started to think of the author as an extraordinary figure of limitless insight, who he would have wanted to consult on all his significant problems:

‘I would have wished for him, the one wise custodian of the truth, to tell me what I ought rightly to think of Shakespaeare, of Saintine, of Sophocles, of Euripides, of Silvio Pellico…Above all, I would have wished him to tell me whether I would have had a better chance of arriving at the truth by repeating my first-form year at school, or by becoming a diplomat or a barrister at the Court of Appeal.’

Sadly, Gautier’s inspiring, fascinating sentences had a habit of coming in the midst of some very tedious passages, in which the author would, for instance, spend an age describing a chateau, and show no interest in telling Marcel what to think of Sophocles, or whether he should go into the Foreign Office of the law.

It was probably a good thing, as far as Marcel’s career was concerned.  Gautier’s capacity for insights in one area did not necessarily mean that he was capable of worthwhile insights in another.  Yet how natural to feel that someone who has been extremely lucid on certain topics might turn out to be a perfect authority on other topics too, might indeed turn out to have the answers to everything.

Many of the exaggerated hopes which Proust harboured of Gautier as a boy cam in time to be harboured of him.  There were people who believed that he too might solve the riddle of existence, a wild hope presumably derived from the evidence of nothing more than his novel.  The staff of L’Intransigeant, those inspired journalists who had felt it appropriate to consult Proust on t he consequences of global apocalypse, were supreme believers in the oracular wisdom of writers, and repeatedly bothered Proust with their questions.  For example, they felt he might be the perfect person to answer this enquiry:

‘If for some reason you were forced to take up a manual profession, which one would you choose, according to your tastes, your aptitudes and your capacities?’

‘I think I would become a baker.  It is an honourable thing to give people their daily bread,’ replied Proust, who was incapable of making a piece of toast, after asserting that writing in any case constituted manual labour:  ‘You make a distinction between manual and spiritual professions which I couldn’t subscribe to.  The spirit guides the hand’ — which Celeste, whose job it was to clean the loo, might politely have contested.

It was a nonsensical reply, but then again, it was a nonsensical question, at least when addressed to Proust.  Why would an ability to write In Search of Lost Time in any way indicate an aptitude for advising recently dismissed white-collar workers on their career?  Why would the readers of L’Intransigeant need to be exposed to misleading notions of the baking life, put forward by a man who had never had a proper job and didn’t much like bread?  Why not let Proust answer the questions in his area of competence, and otherwise admit the need for a well-qualified career adviser?”

More to come…

by Dennis Abrams

I’ve been thinking back to one of my first posts, listing the ten reasons why people should join in the reading of reading Proust.  In it I quoted Virginia Woolf’s famous line, “My great adventure is really Proust.  Well — what remains to be written after that?”   In reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life,” I read about the danger that such feelings had for Woolf.

“Reading Proust nearly silenced Virginia Woolf.  She loved his novel, but loved it rather too much.  There wasn’t enough wrong with it, a crushing recognition when one follows Walter Benjamin in his assessment of why people become writers: because they are unable to find a book already written which they are completely happy with.  And the difficulty for Virginia was, for a time at least, she thought she had found one.

Virginia Woolf first mentioned Proust in a letter she wrote to Roger Fry in the autumn of 1919.  He was in France, she was in Richmond, where the weather was foggy and the garden in bad shape, and she casually asked him whether he might bring back a copy of Swann’s Way on his return.

It was 1922 before she next mentioned Proust .  She had turned forty and, despite the entreaty to Fry, still hadn’t read anything of Proust’s work, though in a letter to E.M. Forster, she revealed that others in the vicinity were being more diligent.  ‘Everyone is reading Proust.  I sit silent and hear their reports.  It seems to be a tremendous experience,’ she explained, though appeared to be procrastinating out of a fear of being overwhelmed by something in the novel, an object she referred to more as if it were a swamp than  hundreds of bits of paper stuck together with thread and glue; ‘I’m shivering on the brink, and waiting to be submerged with a horrid sort of notion that I shall go down and down and down and perhaps never come up again.’

She took the plunge nevertheless, and the problems started.  As she told Roger Fry, ‘Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence.  ‘Oh, if I could write like that!’ I cry.  And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures — there’s something sexual in it — that I feel I can write like that, and write seize my pen, and then I can’t write like that.’

In what sounded like a celebration of In Search of Lost Time, but was in fact a far darker verdict on her future as a writer, she told Fry:  ‘My great adventure is really Proust.  Well — what remains to be written after that?…How, at least, has someone solidified what has always escaped — and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp.’

In spite of the gasping, Woolf realized that Mrs Dalloway still remained to be written, after which she allowed herself a brief burst of elation at the thought that she might have produced something decent.  ‘I wonder if this time I have achieved something?’ she asked herself in her diary, but the pleasure was short-lived:  ‘Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust, in whom I am embedded now.  the thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity.  He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain.  He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom.  And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.’

But Woolf knew how to hate her sentences well enough even without Proust’s assistance.  ‘So sick of Orlando I can write nothing,’ she told her diary shortly after completing this book in 1928.  ‘I have corrected the proofs in a week:  and cannot spin another phrase.  I detest my own volubility.  Why be always spouting words?’

However, any bad mood she was in was liable to take a dramatic plunge for the worse after the briefest contact with the Frenchman.  The diary entry continued:  ‘Take up Proust after dinner and put him down.  This is the worst time of all.  It makes me suicidal.  Nothing seems left to do.  All seems insipid and worthless.’

Nevertheless, she didn’t yet commit suicide, though she did take the wise step of ceasing to read Proust, and was therefore able to write a few more books whose sentences were neither insipid nor worthless.  Then in 1934, when she was working on T he Years, there was a sign that she had at last freed herself from Proust’s shadow.  She told Ethel Smyth that she had picked up In Search of Lost Time again, ‘which is of course so magnificent that I can’t writ e myself within its arc.  For years I’ve put off finishing it; but now, thinking I may die one of these years, I’ve returned, and let my own scribble do what it likes.  Lord, what a hopeless bad book mine will be!’

The tone suggests that Woolf had at last made her peace with Proust.  He could have his terrain, she had hers to scribble in.  The path from depression and self-loathing to cheerful defiance suggests a gradual recognition that one person’s achievements did not have to invalidate another’s, that there would always be something left to do even if it momentarily appeared otherwise.  Proust might have expressed many things well, but independent thought and the history of the novel had not come to a halt with him.  His book did not have to be followed by silence, there was still space for the scribbling of others, for Mrs Dalloway, The Common Reader, A Room of One’s Own, and in particular there was space for what these books symbolized in this context, perceptions of one’s own.

More to come…

From The Cambridge Companion to Proust, William C. Carter’s essay “The vast structure of recollection:  from life to literature”:

In Paris, on Saturday, 3 September 1870, as news of the humiliating defeat of the French by the invading Prussian army at Sedan spread throughout the capital, Dr. Adrien Proust, a middle-aged Catholic bachelor, a grocer’s son originally from the small provincial town of Illiers, married Jeanne Weil, the Jewish daughter of a wealthy Parisian family.  At twenty-one, the beautiful, dark-haired woman was fifteen years younger than the bridegroom.  No one knows how they met, but is likely they were introduced at a government sponsored event or social gathering.  Adrien had recently risen to the top ranks in public health administration and Jeanne’s family had many connections in official circles.

Marcel was born the following July at Uncle Louis Weil’s estate at Auteuil where Jeanne’s family usually spent the summer months.  The house, built of quarrystones, was larbe, with spacious rooms, including a drawing room with a grand piano and a billiard room where the family sometimes slept to keep cool during heat waves.  In fine weather Louis and his guests enjoyed the large garden with a pond surrounded by hawthorn trees, whose blossoms Marcel was also to admire in his other uncle, Julies Amiot’s garden in Illiers.

Marcel’s mother possessed a lively mind, an unfailing sense of humour, a profound appreciation of literature and music, combined with common sense and a firm belief in traditional bourgeois values.  Her influence would be the most important in Proust’s life.  Jeanne and her mother, Adele, supervised his cultural education, exposing him to what they considered the best works in literature.  In Jean Santeuil, the mother initiates Jean into the love of poetry by reading to him from Lamartine’s Meditations, Corneville’s Horace, and Hugo’s Contemplations.  Jean’s mother believes that good books, even if poorly understood at first, provide the child’s mind with healthy nourishment that will later benefit him.  When Marcel was older, his mother and grandmother read with him the great seventeenth-century works, of which he acquired a special understanding and appreciation.  He came to love the tragedies of Jean Racine, whose masterpiece Phedre in its depiction of obsessive, destructive jealousy haunts the pages of In Search of Lost Time.

Adrien’s sist er, Elisabeth, had married Jules Amiot, who operated a successful notions shop in Illiers at 14, place du Marche, opposite the church of Saint-Jacques.  It was to the Amiots’ house in the rue du Saint-Esprit that Adrien returned with his wife and two young sons, Marcel and Robert, during the Easter holidays, when the town was at its best, offering wild flowers and trees in bloom that Marcel adored.  The Prousts travelled by rail from Paris to Chartres, where they changed trains for t he short ride to Illiers.  Seen from afar as the train approached, Illiers was contained in ints steeple, just as is  Combray in the Search:

[Combray at a distance…was no more than a church epitomising the town, representing it, speaking of it and for it to the horizon, and as one drew near, gathering close about its long dark cloak, sheltering from the wind, on the open plain, as a shepherdess gathers her sheep, the woolly grey backs of its  huddled houses]

Jules indulged his passion for horticulture by creating a large pleasure, just beyond the banks of the gently flowing Loir River.  He called it the Pre Catelan, after a section of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.  On the south end of the garden a magnificent row of hawthorn trees rose up a slope, leading to a large white gate that opened onto fields of blue cornflowers and brilliant red poppies fanning out to the west and south on the plain towards Mereglise and the chauteau of Tansonville.  The Pre Catelan became the model in Swann’s Way for Charles Swann’s park at Tansonville near Combray.  It must have seemed natural to Marcel, who often played in the Bois near Auteuil, for his Illiers uncle to name his own garden after the one in Paris.  The name held in common by the two principal gardens of his childhood may have provided the first linking in Marcel’s mind of the two spaces, Auteuil and Illier, that inspired Combray.

In Illiers, Marcel visited his elderly grandmother Proust who lived in a modest apartment.  Relatively little is known about her except that she was an invalid cared for by an old servant, which makes her a more likely model for the hypochondriacal Aunt  Leonie in the Search than Elisabeth Amiot, generally considered the original.  Adrien took his sons on walks to show them where he had played as a child.  He pointed out how two different topographies join at Illiers; the Beauce, a flat, windy plain that, as it moves westward, meets Le Perche, whose hilly terrain is ravined by streams rolling down to feed the Loir River.  The defining features of Combray’s fictional topography approximate those of Illiers where the two walks — one the landscape of an ideal plain, the other a captivating river view — embody, for the child Narrator, two separate worlds.

As Adrien and his boys made their way back from Tansonville, it was the steeple of Saint-Jacques, appearing now and then in the sky as they mounted a hillock or rounded a bend, that beckoned them home.  Proust later used a motif from the church’s sculpted wood as one of the most powerful symbols of his art.  On either wall behind the alter stands a wooden statue of a saint above whose head are placed scallop shells.  Such shells are the emblem of Saint James (Jacques in French) and, in the Middle Ages, were worn by the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Campostela.  The church of Saint Jacques was a stopping point on the route to Spain.  The shells also provide the form of the little cakes known as madeleines, symbol of a key revelation in the Narrator’s quest to find his vocation as writer.  Proust would remember the connection between the pilgrims and the madeleines, when he described the cakes in the Search: ‘the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds.’

On his walks through the river country north of Illiers, Marcel spied on Mirougrain, the large manor house built on a slope overlooking a water-lily pond.  Proust remembered the impressions evoked by this mysterious dwelling later when creating the composer Vinteuil’s house in the Search.  He took the name of the old mill, Montjouvin, but used the setting and atmosphere of Mirougrain for the lesbian love scene between Vinteuil’s daugher and her friend.  The names of the streets, old inns, manor houses and ruined church of Illiers and its surroundings, such as Tansonville, Mereglise, Montjouvin, Saint-Hilaire, rue de l’Oiseu flesche, were to live in Proust’s memory and imagination, until he used them, with slight alterations or at all, as part of the material out of which he constructed Combray, a place that exists only in his book.

A story that Proust wrote in his early twenties depicts the goodnight kiss drama from his childhood, generally thought to have taken place at Auteuil.  In ‘La Confession d’eune Jeune fille’ [‘A Girl’s Confession’], a woman, dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, confesses her weakness that led to tragedy.  Although she had given up her lewd behaviour to become engaged to a fine young man, she succumbed one evening to the temptations offered by an attractive guest.  Her mother, who happened to catch the daughter and visitor in a passionate embrace, fell dead from the shock.  As the girl lies dying, she recalls her childhood and the tender, loving relationship with her mother.  Until she reached fifteen, her mother left her every summer at a country home.  The child, like Marcel, dreaded more than anything separation from her mother.  Before departing, the mother used to spend two days with her, coming each evening to her bed to kiss her goodnight, a custom the mother had to abandon because [‘it caused me too much pleasure and too much pain, because due to my calling her back to say goodnight again and again I could never go to sleep’].   This is the prototype of the crucial goodnight kiss scene in the Search that send in motion the Narrator’s long quest to regain his lost will and become a creative person.

In the Search, it is the mother’s habit to give the child Narrator one last kiss before going to bed.  On nights when company prevents her from coming to his room, he is particularly upset.  On one such night, he waits up for her and then implores her to remain with him.  She does not want to yi8eld to his nervous anxiety, but the usually stern father intervenes and capriciously tells her to stay with the boy.  The child, incredulous at the easy violation of a strict rule, feels guilty for having caused his mother to abandon her convictions.  He will spend the rest of his life trying to recover the will he lost that night and to expiate the wrong done to his mother.  This scene illustrates how Proust eventually learned to make his private demons serve the plot and structure of the novel.”

More to come…but let me ask you this:  Do you think that if Marcel’s mother had not given in and given him the kiss, that none of the rest of the events in the book would have taken place?  That Marcel would have been entirely different?

Two reminders:

1.  Don’t forget that “I Spent a Year in Search of Lost Time” t-shirts, mugs and tote bags are now available — perfect for holiday giving to yourself and others!
Men’s tshirt: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089385
women’s tshirt: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089384
tote bag: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089383
mug: http://www.cafepress.com/pubperspectives.492089386

2.  And don’t forget that Project D will be starting up after the first of the year.  The site is up, with listings and links for the recommended translations we’ll be using:


Enjoy your weekend!

by Dennis Abrams

Today’s post was originally going to be my ruminations on my difficulty in writing coherently about  In Search of Lost Time.  Getting a perspective on it as a whole, while at the same time I’m enthralled with so many of the parts OF the whole — characters, style, structure, philosophy — all of which are so intertwined that trying to separate them reminds me of the scene towards the end in which Marcel ruminates about a relatively minor character but wonders, looking back, how large part of the tapestry of his life she actually was.

But fortunately, I don’t have to do that today.  Of the many things I’ve loved about doing this blog, very high on the list are the comments from you out there, all of you who have been reading along with me.  Today, I’d like to share for today’s post words from one our most loyal readers and posters, Patricia Nelson:

“I finished reading In Search of Lost Time on Sunday morning having begun it on November 2nd, 2009. Rationing and re-reading the last pages not even wanting to count the pages left. The final party at the Guermantes swirling into a pattern of resolution, revolving the ‘masks’ with an almost hectic flush, merciless portraits ultimately of love resolving kaleidoscopically around the utterly innocent undeveloped fragile new person Mlle de Saint-Loup through whom genealogy and geography radiate backward through her mother to ‘the way by Swann’ and Combray and through her father to Balbec where Marcel visualizes Robert by the shining sea. Is this the moment, really, the very heart of the story? “A life of Saint-Loup as portrayed by me would unfold in every sort of setting and involve the whole of my life.”
Psychology in space, the weaving of threads, time realized, re-shaped and re-actualized in the securer surroundings of a book, the vigorous grass of a fruitful work of art upon which we, the future readers, have spent a year as our déjeuner sur l’herbe.
I am struck by the echo of the psalms here, the Victor Hugo quote, the days are grass, the wind passes over them. And a fairy tale motif in Scheherazade securing another day by her story from the Sultan Shahriyar, and the unlucky thirteen at the barbaric festival of a dinner party, the utter contempt should one of the guests fail to turn up without time to invite another fourteenth, thinking of the thirteenth fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty and the possibility that one’s book will endure one hundred years.
“But, as Elstir found with Chardin, one can remake something one loves only by renouncing it.” –The theme Harold Bloom understood in Anxiety of Influence, Proust’s entirely new art breaking the mold of past forms.
That evening in the garden at Combray at the beginning hearing Swann at the door, the ‘shy, oval, golden double tinkling of the little visitor’s bell.’ Now as we end, Proust reveals a different beginning, Swann leaving by the garden gate, its iron creak ‘resilient, ferruginous, inexhaustible, shrill and fresh.’
Finally, this is just ravishingly tender, a rush of compassion for Marcel/Proust, his hair still black, weak upon the stairs, exhausted by the novel that he can now see ahead, “putting up with the work like tiredness, accepting it like a rule, constructing it like a church, following it like a regime, overcoming it like an obstacle, winning it like a friendship, feeding it up like a child, creating it like a world…” The next thirteen years, until the end of his life, this work that he compares to cutting out a dress, preparing an aspic, a craft respected more by Francoise’s steady understanding of the work involved than by the critic who has the wrong end of the telescope.
Eric Karpeles may be right that in reaching the end, we should begin again. I reread the visit to Venice thinking it was a kind of miniature, set apart from the whole (what was I thinking?) – and found a prelude to these last pages, to the masked ball as Mme Sazerat fails to recognize in the aged Mme de Villeparisis the beautiful woman who had destroyed her father; to the shape of the novel as Marcel wanders ‘like a character in the Arabian Nights; to the tangled incidents which will, at last and with the perspective of the whole, form the cathedral – Gilberte’s misunderstood telegram informing Marcel of her marriage to Saint-Loup which Marcel reads as a telegram from the dead Albertine promising the future he now no longer wants. Reading it again, I felt astonished. I thought of Francoise patiently mending the worn notebook pages, of Marcel/Proust pinning the manuscript together and of the whole edifice shimmering like the beautiful nocturnal campo Marcel discovers in Venice which centers the labyrinth of little streets only to seemingly disappear the next day when he tries to find the way again but turns off course.
The final image in Karpeles’ Paintings in Proust is a heartbreaking sketch of Proust on his deathbed in 1922. Finishing these last pages one feels a privilege to be in attendance on Proust in reading In Search of Lost Time.”

Marcel Proust – 20 novembre 1922

More tomorrow.

by Dennis Abrams

I just want to say that I’m still astonished by the essay by Anne Garreta that I posted yesterday.  The stilts…did anybody else make that connection?  Reading that, and the instant flash of memory about the church at Balbec and the “of course!” that raced through my mind made me wonder…just how many other connections, repeated ideas and images am I missing?  She’s the only person I’ve ever read who ever noted that connection…which gives an entirely new structure, a whole other way of looking at the books.  Fascinating.


From The Proust Project, “It Was My Life, Was In Fact Me,” by Wyatt Mason

How will it end?

Whether love, plunged into willingly, or life, thrust unwittingly upon us, nothing we begin evades the question very long.  And it needn’t even be worded to be heard.  Its empty echo is ever present, a creeping shadow, a kind of darkness through which we make our stumbling way.

Not, of course, that we believe in endings, however much we fear them, whether of life, or love, or books.  For who believes in things we cannot imagine?  Who believes the breath we draw will be withdrawn, the love we carry be lifted?  And who — one innocent afternoon noodling in a library, or browsing in a bookstore, or reclining into a bedside evening, would suspect, while sounding the iambic heartbeat of Proust’s big book’s first word — Longtemps — who would supposed that the long march through time it  untethers, the last word it promises, would ever really be within reach?

We can no more suppose, beginning the Search, that we will finish it than, while reaching its final pages, that we are truly ending it.  For how can a novel that defies the novelistic at every wide, slow, creeping turn — that chuckles at pace, that laughs at chronology, that tests the best reader’s most patient attentions — a novel, in short and without argument, unlike any other, how can such a book even have an end?

What would it mean to say:  ‘Today, I finished Proust’?

Who finished Proust?

For even if we do soldier across the continents of its richly remembered world, descending, as Marcel says, to a greater depth within myself; even if we plumb those depths in his tireless company; even if we do reach Proust’s big book’s small last word; we do not finish his book as we do others.

We finish The Great Gatsby.  We finish The Good Soldier.  We even finish Ulysses.  We cannot help it:  every page we read brings us nearer to the end.  Not so in Proust.

In Proust, even as we move forward, we grow no closer to the end than we were at the beginning.  This would be a paradox were our progress measured as it is in other books.

In Proust, as we quickly learn, although we move mechanically forward, we do so facing backward.  On the hot backseat of the family car we kneel and stare, asleep-awake, out its rear window at the rippling distance that unfolds there to include everywhere we once were.  Not in nearness to its end is our progress through Proust measured, but in our distance from its beginning:

‘In this vast dimension which I had not known myself to possess, the date on which I had heard the noise of the garden bell at Combray — that far-distant noise which nevertheless was within me — was a point from which I might start to make measurements.’

The sound of the bell was  heard from what seemed a safe haven.  The sound of the bell was heard, we recall, from bed.  There in the childhood dark, a boy longed for a kiss, knew with animal assurance that, with the bell rung, a maternal embrace could be claimed.  The march from bed begins the book just as the forward march backward leads us to its end, a place prolonged past measure.

And so, tucked back in, blankets to our chins, darkness kept behind us, the darkness that rests just beyond time, we, alone, in the dark, seek as the boy in his bed at the beginning did, the bright companionship of a book too mad to read.

Holding tightly to its edges, peering nightly at its pages, we see the darkness behind us take a human shape within us.  The world is rendered blank again, as unblemished as the first day of creation.  The black remains, of course, but now sown neatly into our welcoming field of white in page after page of tiny rows.  And as we approach the destination for which they slowly prepare us, we may not be surprised to find one of our hands hiding the lines just past the ones we are reading, lest we be tempted to skip forward, get ahead of ourselves, jump to conclusions we aren’t ready for.

But, after all, truly for once after all, we are ready.  Despite the fright of every other human end, we look forward to a book’s last word as we look forward to few last things.  We love a book’s last word, this book’s last word, a word contained in its first.  We love this book’s last word in equal measure and proportion to how we fear our last, forestalled, this time, in time, by Time.”

OK…so do we ever really finish reading Proust?  What are your thoughts?  And even more importantly…how many of you “finished” reading In Search of Lost Time?  I really want to know.  No need to write a long post, just a short “I did it” will do.  Let me know!

More tomorrow…

by Dennis Abrams

I was walking the dog yesterday evening and thinking about Proust.  It occurred to me as I was walking that of the many many things I take away from the experience is a new perspective on…perspective.  The idea of the shifting perspective, of how the person that I see somebody is very different from the person that somebody else does, yet both are correct as far our limited perspective goes; of the impossibility of really knowing anybody for that very reason, the near impossibility of love lasting for that very reason, of the way that time plays with and alters all of our perspectives.

This is a way of viewing the world that I think has always been with me, that I’ve always somehow known or at least sensed.  I remember when I was a teenager, reading Joan Didion’s The White Album for the first time and reading this report on her psychiatric state at the time:  “In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure,” and thinking…that’s right.

And as I was walking I thought about Proust and perspective in terms of Picasso and Einstein and the way the world around him was also shifting in perspective, as entirely new ways of looking at the world were emerging, and the thought hit me — Proust and Einstein…connection?

I found this essay and thought it definitely worth reading:

Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein: The Novel and General Relativity

By Kevin Novenario-Navea

The difficulty of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way stems from the fact that it is not an easy read as, say, Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels. Indeed, as one continues the thread of the narrative, it moves at a rather slow pace. One gets the impression of either a very long sketch or a Symbolist prose-poem after just the first few pages. I would, however, like to tackle the narrative content and style’s implications on theoretical physics as I find that its very difficulty becomes a necessary quality. In particular, I find that the novel’s technique carries suggestions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History Of Time describes general relativity as the “suggestion…that gravity is not a force like other forces, but it is a consequence of the fact that space-time is not flat [nor linear] as had been previously assumed: it is curved or “warped” by the distribution of mass and energy in it” (30). It would then follow naturally that each body, having its own mass and energy, will have space-time curved around it and hence its experience of time will be different from another body which has its own curvature. “A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of years and the worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a second the point on the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken” (Proust 5).  We see now in the novel that Proust seemingly has an idea (albeit more literary than mathematical) of what Einstein was going for in the mid 20th century.

Perhaps one can take the last quotation as Proust’s manner of introducing the reader to a heightened (and slower) experience of time, which is the main reason for the novel’s difficulty. Notice, for example, what the action is when the Marcel character first goes to bed: M. Swann arrives for dinner, then around the end of the meal Marcel is told to go to bed. In his room Marcel writes a note and asks Francoise to give it to his mother who tells Francoise, “There is no answer.” When the dinner is done and the main guest leaves, the mother goes up the stairs where she is blocked by a desperate Marcel. The father reaches the landing and says that the mother should sleep in Marcel’s room tonight. These are quick actions that other author’s could have done in a few short paragraphs. Proust, however, uses a great length of interjections existing in the mind of the narrator, thus making the reading rhythm of the actions much slower, making a different experience of time. This technique happens all throughout the novel, as when Marcel sees Francoise as representative of an older France, when Swann falls for Odette, sees her as a Botticelli painting, tries to bid her farewell; Marcel seems to be able to speak almost omnisciently, slowing down the rhythm of the narrative as each gesture made is discoursed upon, thus also positing that the novel is not only a space for narrative but also of philosophy.

Where Einstein uses Newton’s concept of gravity to prove his point, Proust uses memory (indeed, the entire novel comes out to be written in the sublime act of remembering in tranquillity, to borrow from the Romantics). This becomes very much foregrounded as when the Marcel character narrates: “They were only a thin slice among the contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but a regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years” (444). Proust then leaves Einstein’s mode of gravitational poles and points in space-time and enters instead relativity of experiences in time which is only knowable through memory. It seems that Proust is suggesting not only an inseparability of space-time as Hawking and Einstein believe but that a consciousness (with memory) must be exerted upon said space-time for it to exist—what Proust seems to forward is the inseparability of space-time-self in the experience of existence.


Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.

Proust, Marcel. Trans. Lydia Davis. Swann’s Way. New York, Penguin Books, 2004.

I also wanted to share Anne Garreta’s essay from The Proust Project, “A Feeling of Vertigo Seized Me As I Looked Down”  She makes connections that actually made me gasp out loud.  MUST READING!

“Time?  Is that the last word?

Yes, I remember, it was also the first one (almost).  Many say that at this last word of the last sentence of the last volume we are meant to loop back, in memory or in effect, to the first one of the first sentence of the first volume.  Then, you see, the book miraculously announced by a stumble on the cobblestones of the Guermantes’s courtyard and the tinkling of a spoon against porcelain, the book finally taking shape in Marcel’s mind and which he now fears he won’t have time to write before his death, is in fact the book we have been reading all along.  Some thus believe that the book ahead of him (and us) is the book we have just closed.  The end circles back to its beginning.  Eternal return.

But is it?

And how would know for sure?

What has Marcel told us about his future book?  That its most distinctive feature would be descriptions of men standing as if on the stilts of time, higher than church steeples, their faces lost among clouds, monstrous vacillating beings, giants immersed in time…But besides the tottering old Duc de Guermantes, have you encountered any other of these comical creatures perilously aspiring to the celestial realm, or grotesque leviathans wallowing below?

The portrait fits Marcel, at the very least.  It fits the book even better.

Maybe the sole hero of the book is the Book…

Wasn’t it what the Adoration perpetuelle intimated?  Life after all has been lived to culminate in a book, and the life of the book with which Marcel finds himself pregnant eclipses all human concerns and duties.  Forget love, discount friendship.  The book will be the story of a holy literary vocation; the creation shall dwarf the creatures and the creator.

Notice how the body of the work is the only true body; that is, the only body whose monstrous growth could fulfill the promise to incarnate Time.  And how the ‘immeasurable prolongation’ which Proust uses to describe men’s place in Time most exactly describes the altitude of a text raised on the stilts of sentences 4.27 meters long.  Besides, what could represent ‘those years that fell into place between the extremities’ but the thousands of pages piled between origin and ending…

Picture this:  the Great War had delayed publication of the two volumes Proust had intended after Swann’s Way.  So from the inside, between the two set extremities or matched bookends of Swann’s Way and Time Regained, grew this cathedral of a book, gaining volume, volumes prolonging, heightening (vertiginously) the body of the text.

But for that contretemps, time would have been regained more speedily and a measured, classical bildungsroman unfolded.   Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive, The Fugitive, are the true expansion secreted in time.  Quite literally, the time lost:  lost in love and mundane pursuits, lost for publication, lost even for the narrative, since we’re never told where and how (except for a few trips to Paris) Marcel spent the time (or contretemps) of the war.

But the entire revelation and holy promise of the Adoration perpetuelle is to offer the experience of ‘a little bit of Time in in its pure form.’  Marcel finally sees his true calling:  to capture in ‘the rings of a beautiful style’ the short circuit of past and present allowed by reminiscence to yield ‘a minute freed from the order of time.’

Doesn’t this amount in effect to knocking down the stilts?

I have often wondered how readers are supposed to savor the petite madeleine.  Is our imagination supposed to be strong and vivid enough that when we read of tea and cookies we might not only salivate but see Combray resurrected before our eyes in a cloud of cream?  Should we start in search of our own private petites madeleines and then too write a book testifying to the vanity of worldly and the true faith of Art?

Maybe the only experience available, within a book, of the transcending operation of time and memory prefigured in the taste of a madeleine, the tinkling of a spoon upon a plate, or the stumble on uneven pavement, must take the form of a textual analogon.  If the reader’s memory is like a giant immersed in pages, in the language of the text, and simultaneously touching widely separated passages, the experience of a pure moment in time, of a freeing from time, will then proceed from a collapse of textual distances.  For objects and images never occur just once in the vast expanse of Proust’s book and his reader’s experience of it:  they return.

Thus, if we were able to dive back into our memory for those stilts, or rather if suddenly they emerged from the depth of all the time that passed since we embarked long ago upon reading In Search of Lost Time, we would recognize the effigies perched on them, and then truly we would see the book we just finished reading as the cathedral it is intended to be.  And maybe we would worship…

For there they were, on the facade of Balbec church, visited  hundreds of pages ago in Within a Budding Grove:  ‘the tall saints’ statues perched on those stilts, forming a kind of avenue.’

But they were stilts only to the uninitiated, to Marcel, the disappointed narrator.  It took the eye of the painter Elstir to dispel Marcel’s error — and ours:  ‘If you had looked more carefully at what seemed to you to be stilts you could have named those who were perched on them.  For underneath the feet of Moses you would have recognized the Golden Calf, under the feet of Abraham the Ram, under those of Joseph, the devil advising Potiphar’s wife.’

Stilts are not stilts, and time is not time.  The artist shows them to be allegories, the allegories of all the detours and dead ends [jealousy, idolatry, vanity…] that obscure and defer the true calling, the recognition of the true law of life and art handed down from prophet to prophet, from Moses and Abraham on to Marcel.

I have sometimes felt a slight suspicion that Proust’s cathedral is, strangely enough, inverted.  It is as if he had turned it inside out:  while the masterpiece’s facade (and everything we’ve been taught to behold in it) proclaims the transcendence of creation realized in the sign of the petite madeleine and its communion, the monstrous substance of Time and worldly temptations is folded within (in the richly detailed nave of the Sodom and Albertine cycles).

But then again, is it a cathedral?

Among the many similes proffered by the Adoration perpetuelle, the book stands figured as flesh and stone, child and cemetery, boeuf en gelee and cathedral; writing veers from an activity as profane as cuisine or couture to one as sacred as transubstantiation, resurrection, and redemption.

Who knows…Those stilts of time could still very well be stilts or thin threads holding together a tattered harlequin’s coat; we would have mistaken for a cathedral a great circus, and the acrobat juggling the rings of style for a high priest.”

And finally, I hope you’ll all be joining me next year as we begin working our way through the four major works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.  We’ll be starting with Crime and Punishment, using the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle edition.    Here’s the link to the site, still under construction:



More tomorrow.