proustabout

I referred glancingly in my last post (once upon a time) to my summer tradition of reading Proust. I’m on my third year of this annual project, which I began with little knowledge about In Search of Lost Time. I had some fond memories of reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, well-timed towards the very end of high school. After picking up a public library copy of Swann’s Way I realized that if I read one volume every summer, I’d reach the end around the time I turn 30: another arbitrary checkpoint on the route to real adulthood. It seemed like a good reason to read something about remembering and recapturing youth, I reckoned. Now, three summers in, I’ve finally committed myself closely enough to purchase the books and make marginal notes: Proust demands those in a way that few other authors do, in my experience. Much of my marginalia for The Guermantes Way is sarcastic and questioning (a couple “huh”s and “oh really”s; the heavily inked interrobang next to a mention of men who insist that their lovers dress as nuns). Many of the other notes make connections that are vividly alive in everyday matters now, though: In Search of Lost Time is largely about how it is to experience art in various forms, and to define oneself based on tastes and passions. The narrator bases his friendships on discussions of paintings and novels and music, which isn’t so unfamiliar for me. He constantly illustrates (in his sprawling sentences) the ways that life imitates art and vice-versa, and the textures of relationships between those who love art and those who love artifice.

The surprises and joys in the Proust project so far have clustered around a couple themes: the many meditations on how art affects life, and the manifold ways that we all repeat the mental struggles of previous generations in the world. My very favorite example so far, for the latter, is when the narrator receives a phone call from his grandmother:

The telephone was not so commonly used then as it is today. And yet habit is so quick to demystify the sacred forces with which we are in contact that, because I was not connected immediately, my only reaction was to see it all as very time-consuming and inconvenient, and to be on the point of lodging a complaint: like everybody nowadays, I found it too slow for my liking, with its abrupt transformations, this admirable magic that needs only a few seconds to bring before us, unseen but present, the person to whom we wish to speak…

Here I was delighted to find, in both content and tone, an echo of a relatively recent (though ancient to the internet) Louis C.K. aphorism: Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy. Like everybody nowadays, the comedian and the narrator both say, we neglect to notice the miraculous things we’ve made for ourselves. This realization – not only does each successive generation iterate through the same complaints, but we each delude ourselves into thinking our particular whines are novel – is one of the bits that buoys me through some long slogs with Proust. Just when you think it’s all a dull dinner party stocked densely with now-obscure French politicians (which seemed like about two-thirds of The Guermantes Way), a parenthetical aside will strike out as a reminder that people don’t really change. We’ll always treat each other badly in certain unthinking ways, baffle those who love us, be ridiculed by those who don’t, and become enamored (a bit irrationally) of beautiful people and beautiful things, however our ages define them.

A peculiarity of Proust that I noticed more clearly this time around is his constant comparisons between art and any action. “Life imitates art again,” said many of my marginal notes. Maybe primed by this, I started noticing how the novel’s descriptions resembled art I’ve seen and heard: a blood-red void of a sunset like one in the Art Institute, a film, a PJ Harvey lyric. One line reminded me of a poem about a painting about Icarus, a poem that always comes to mind at difficult times, for me: imagining any personal tragedy as something small in time, an isolated splash.

Time passes and art’s there to illuminate and focus it: there’s the obvious purpose of something as massive as In Search of Lost Time. It’s right there in the title, however you translate it. One sneaky way that Proust got to me, though: a reminder that art takes people – conflicted, flawed, sometimes wholly un-brilliant people – to make it. In a very meta-hand-wringing bit about writer’s block, the narrator acknowledges “I was merely the instrument of habits of not working.” I recognized myself in that right away: the constant struggle of writing, then not writing; fits of diligence and long stretches of indolent excuse-making. It’s at once satisfying and a little dismaying that we’re all the instruments of our crappy habits sometimes.

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