Proust: An Informal Guide

August 20, 2013

A la recherché du temps perdu rises up before me,  the Himalayas of literature. I have started the climb and am keeping a journal of the adventure. Since Proust allows metaphors to cross and conflict,  I will permit myself the same liberty. Thus: climbing into rarified regions of language and letters, I go for swim and this is the first coming up for air.

I have not swum terribly far in this hyper-enriched atmosphere, this otherworldly yet utterly of this world, place in space/time. I have finished the first book, Swann’s way, which gets me about an eighth of the way, and I may drown yet. I am writing this to give shape to some early observations. For my own mental record, an impressionistic bit of note taking.

In thinking about the book, I want to invoke the enchanted world of Coleridge, “in Xanadu..”  or the Beatles “magical mystery tour”, or perhaps some combination of the two, to hint at the multiplicities and dimensions of the Proustian experience.

Proust is creating a world that is like an enormous lace bedcover, a counterpane, one assembled over a lifetime by an obsessive seamstress with the most deft fingers, but a work so obsessive as to make the maker seem a bit mad. But she is mad with a difference in that she is always lucid. It is a work, a fabrication, that will only reveal its pattern if one sees the whole thing, as from a long way off (meaning finishing the book.) Yet this seemingly borderless fabric, often precious and fussy, as befits the class of people it describes, is always solidly grounded in psychology, in the understanding of society and manners, even in neurology.

Proust is the poet of neurology.

But the work transcends “realism.” Though Balzac has a far wider range of acquaintances and subjects to draw from, beside Proust he, like Dickens, seems to have written melodramas inhabited by cut-out figures. (In fairness though, Balzac and Flaubert had to come first, to clear the path of the inhibitions.)

A la recherche is like an opium reverie that goes on and on, a perfumed hallucination of place and gesture, of life, but one in which everything is crystal clear, every social interaction, every class distinction, every emotion, even emotions that by their nature can never be clear. Love. Jealousy. Cruelty. And, of course, memory itself.

The two hundred of pages of “Swann in Love” are the most amazing navigation of the emotion of love I’ve ever encountered. Every nuance, every self-deception, every idealization and projection, every suffering.


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