Finished rereading Proust. It was an extremely worthwhile experience
Instead of getting to work this morning, I just took four hours and raced through the last third of Finding Time Again. I have to say: this is a series that really ends strong. The last setpiece in the book consists of a high society dinner party sometime in 1922. The narrator is returning to Paris after a long absence, spent recuperating from unnamed maladies in a sanitarium, and he’s shocked to find that all of his old friends and acquaintances are wearing what look like costumes, complete with white wigs and heavy makeup, only to realize that what he’s actually seeing is the effect of time on their faces and bodies. It sounds really hokey, but it’s not. Proust really conveys the physicality of aging in a marvelous way, and it’s made even more wondrous by the fact that you’ve seen all these characters before.
The final volume is so good. It’s really good reward for forcing yourself to go through the penultimate one, which is shockingly dull.
Well, I’m done! And I dunno. If there was a seventh volume, I’d read it. This was actually a really wonderful, pleasant reading experience. Shortly after finishing, I wrote a long email to a friend about it, and in lieu of composing an original blog entry I’m just going to duplicate the letter below.
Despite your example, I’d never imagined that I’d reread the book. I’m not much of a re-reader. My memory for what I read is pretty good, and it seems like there are too many books in the world for me to spend time going over what’s already inside me. But I have to say it was a good decision. I feel like this is one book that can only be reread.
For one thing, I don’t think it’s possible on the first reading to have the kind of trust in the author that you need to have if you’re going to fully enjoy it. I remember during my first reading, I enjoyed his observations about Combray and Swann and the hawthorne bushes and the steeples at Martinville. But I had no belief that any of this would come together in any significant way. I told people, as I was reading it, that this was a novel that had no structure or plot: a book that could be read only on the basis of the pleasures you got from each page. And by the time I finished and discovered how wrong I was, it was too late. I couldn’t re-experience the beginning sections with the knowledge that all of this was going to matter later on.
This is a book that’s about trying to capture time, and it’s much easier to get the effect if it goes both ways. On the first readthrough, the reader’s experience of his novel is exactly the opposite of the narrator’s. He is remembering, whereas you are experiencing for the first time. He is starting from the future and discovering the past, while you’re starting in the past and building up to the future. On the first readthrough, you’re surprised by the transformation of Charlus from proud aristocrat to lovesick old man. But on the second readthrough, you see the lovesick older man within the proud aristocrat.
On my first readthrough I was also prone to telling people that Proust was a sterile blossom. His work was beautiful, but he had nothing to teach the modern writer. Now I’m entirely of the opposite opinion. It’s true that if one were to learn structural lessons from him, one would most likely produce an unreadable book, but he has so much to teach us about characterization.
This time I was struck by the intricacy of the relationships between his characters. Take, for instance, the Duchesse de Guermantes’ relationship with her cousin, Saint Loup. She refuses to lift a hand for him with the generals, but she mourns his death and remembers him fondly. Or the relationship between the Duchesse and the Duke. He detests her, but he’s also proud of her, and when they appear in society he’s always careful to play off her wit and present her in the best light. And, later, when they’re separated, they’re both reduced. And in none of these relationships is there any contradiction or hypocrisy: it’s merely that the emotions they feel for each other are so multi-faceted and so different when in different settings.
On my last read, I found the philosophy of art expounded in the last book to be incomprehensible, so this time I was looking forward to paying more attention and perhaps coming to finally understand the purpose of this novel. But I still found myself a bit perplexed. When he stands on the uneven paving stones and experiences his epiphany regarding his life’s work (which I interpreted as being “to capture sensation”), I was confused, because largely his novel is not concerned with sensation. He might devote some few hundred pages to the sight of the sea at Balbec or to the flowers of the hawthorne bush or to other sense-impressions, but his book is largely concerned with exactly the thing he professes to despise the most: social relations.
The thing about the book that’s always baffled me the most is how he can possibly claim that his friendship with Robert de Saint Loup means nothing to him, when it’s clearly a relationship that gave him joy, and when the man’s death was clearly so devastating to him, and when, more importantly, the relationship forms one of the cornerstones of his life’s work. If friendship doesn’t matter then why spend a thousand pages describing it?
At the very end of the final book, when he clarifies further his mission, I was able to come to peace a little bit with the seeming contradiction (why write about society if it doesn’t matter?). His mission isn’t to capture sensation. It’s to capture time. The paradox of writing about society is the paradox of living. When you’re alive, the moment is so fleeting that it feels meaningless. For most of our lives, we are either swept up in the moment or we are bored. It’s only in memory that we’re able to feel the experience of having lived.
Writing about these strong, yet ephemeral, sensations (like the three trees on the road outside Balbec) is one way of capturing time, because these sensations allow one to experience, for the first time, the fullness of that moment. But it’s not the only way. Writing about society allows him to capture time as well, because describing the intricate relationships of people in society, and the way they change throughout time, allows him to give the reader a glimpse of what we all experience—the passage of a human lifetime—almost without being aware of it.
In this, I guess he’s a little like Bergotte or Mme de Villeparisis. He’s taking something banal and, by transforming it through art, he’s allowing the reader to experience something that is true. And since what we mostly experience in our life is a world that’s been falsified by our own minds, this experience of what is true is something shocking to us.
I guess the circle gets squared here by realizing that the narrator, Marcel, does not experience these scenes in anything like the way that the reader does. He experienced them in a very flat way, as a series of conversations and sense-impressions. But by chopping them up and describing them to us, he’s able to show them to us as something bigger: as part of a broader pattern. To him, each Charlus that he meets is the only Charlus. It’s only to us that all the Charluses are allowed to combine and turn into the fascinating, multivalent character who we experience in this book.