Still Life with Conversation: How Proust Changes Time Perception, and Why:
In the middle of a fascinating conversation with a biography of Proust by Richard H. Barker, talking about Proust's charming obsessive composition of the first two books of his great novel, describing how he milked everything and everyone around him obsessively for information and experience, I suddenly came upon a newspaper clipping which made my heart sink.
The clipping was by Robert Chapman. Robert writes "Before he died, Proust was the center of a cult; now, at the fiftieth anniversary of his death, there is a whole mythology of Proust..." and as it goes on to evoke the charming mythos of the man and his times, my eyes chanced on the date for the newspaper clipping.
Written in red ink, now faded to a bright homosexual pink, the date reads "9/73". My heart lurched. I count the months on my fingers. This article, written by a bright man, young no doubt at the time, now long dead, - this article, I was saying, was written two months before my birth! And then I turned to the copyright page. I needed to know the sad facts.
The publication date was 1958. The dust made me sneeze as I snapped the book shut, but I counted the intervening years. 54 years, I counted, from 1958 to 2014. I was holding in my hands a 54 year old book, with a 41 year old newspaper clipping in it. I had just inhaled the living and dead dust of a reader or readers some time in the last 54 years.
And then like Francesca de Remimi, I could read no more that day. The knowledge of the intervening years between me and the dazzling conversation about Proust stopped up my enthusiasm.
Why did it effect me so? Because I fell out of the present moment into an awareness of time, perhaps.
Or perhaps the 1973 newspaper clipping, which comments wittily on Proust, refers not to the books publication in 1958 but rather alludes directly to the death of Proust in 1923, just after the paroxym of the Great War, an event as far away from me as the Napoleonic Wars were from Marcel Proust.
To really feel for yourself what I am saying, feel it in your heart, look at it another way: I am as far as I am from Monsieur Proust, and that same distance between myself and Marcel, that same distance times three is how far I am from the Elizabethan Age and from Shakespeare.
Let me put it still another way, one last way. Just as Marcel and I, together historically (unthinkable!) are a four hundred year distance from Shakespeare, so he and I are five times the distance between Shakespeare and ourselves as we are from Horace, Virgil, and Catullus. We are twice that distance from Dante and two and a half times that distance from Aquinas and the Middle Ages proper.
And how is it that we touch? How is it that the intervening ages have no power? How is that?
Can you feel that mysterious burden of time? Can you feel that distance, which at once establishes intimacy and forever separates us - makes us contemporaries in terms of our relations to time but makes us forever alien to one another in relation to place, irreversably distinct from our forebears by virtue of our unbearable foreknowledge of their natures existing now within our own, while they lie long dead and long gone?
That is the specific burden of Proust's cumulative presence on us.
That is why we are forever unwilling to finish Proust's novel.