On Marcel Proust
I started reading Proust when I was 14. I read the first few hundred pages of Swann’s Way a few times, quitting each time. Finally, I realized that I wasn’t the right age to be able to comprehend the book, and I gave up til later. I remember my older brother teasing me for owning the book a few years later, but I knew it wasn’t the right time of life to be reading them. For some reason I have lost that elegant and literary translation of Terence Killmartin I owned then. Perhaps it still sits in my mother’s shed or sister’s bookcase.
Peter, with whom I lived in Queensland, was to give me in my late 20s the first edition in the original English translation in a dozen little blue and white books that looked like mecidinal lollies and read like car wrecks. I didn’t stick at Swann’s very long with them; perhaps I will collect the four missing volumes one day solely for the pleasure of having collected them.
Finally at perhaps 29 years (the memory escapes me precisely when) I got snared into Swann’s terrible romance with Odette. Then Marcel’s first holiday at Balbec. The glamor of the Guermantes had time to decay into a more realistic view, then after the final straw of de Charlus screwing Jupien at the start of book number four, I found I couldn’t possibly tolerate yet more socialising. I quit.
Then this week, the stars were right for reading Proust. I was ill in bed for several days. I was preparing for a social event where I knew he would be mentioned. So infirmity and snobbery temporarily combined in me much as they did in the author, and quite suddenly all that socialising made sense:
You see, once Marcel discovers that de Charlus is gay, being such a naïve and curious guy he is compelled to review everything and everyone he has met in society in the context of their sexuality. It is this compulsive curiosity that might be said to be a condition for Marcel’s insane jealousy.
In fact, the entire novel sequence is marked by a growing awareness of human connectivity. The invisible realm of emotional connections is revealed first through Marcel’s aunts and mother, then Francois, Combray, Swann and Odette’s romance, then suddenly Marcel’s awareness of an entirely new continent of human relations, gay and lesbian, appears with Charlus. So he is compelled to test his observations about human nature against this new information; and his testing is what the 150 pages of socialising is all about after he spies on de Charlus screwing Jupien.
I read here a deeper clarification of what the rest of the novel is to be about. Harold Bloom writes about how Time Regained “reaches toward a new sense of self” of some kind. I’m not sure about that claim, but it clarifies what Proust is doing somewhat.
Marcel’s mad attachments to others prove useless and illusory when others die; he admits as much in book four. The tragedy of A La Rechere is that he lives on after the things that he feels made his soul truly live are gone. The comedy of the same, of course, is that he can re-experience, re-create, and regain the past, but it is never accurate. Finally, then, does Proust experience a sense of self which is “representational” in the sense that it is the sum of the perspectives and skepticisms about these perspectives. Is Proust identifying self, then, with the substance of his book? I will have to read on and see.