Reading Proust from Start to Finish, #2


I’m still working my way, slowly but surely, through volume one of In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way. As expected the book’s plot (I’m assuming there will be something of a plot sometime soon) develops at a glacial pace, however Proust has announced his themes of time, memory, dream, and epiphany clearly and quickly. Without the forward momentum of a plot it is hard to read at anything but a leisurely pace, which is fine by me. The book is also so dense as to be nearly impassible from one micro-plot to the next; it’s as if you were dropped at a river delta and told to walk your way to the source, somewhere high up in the jungle-covered mountains, and you don’t have a map. You are simply told to follow the river to its end. You walk, and walk, following the river, but every so often you come to a fork, and then you must explore each fork, for you don’t know which will bring you to the source. But up each fork is another fork, and so on and so on, until by the time you’ve explored each little creek and made your way back to the main body of the river, you’ve forgotten what the hell you were ever doing in the first place. Most will say, oh, the hell with this and walk back down to the delta and tell the guy who set them off on this journey to go flour his nuts. But you, and by you I mean me, are an intrepid explorer and like Stanley, or Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, you become desperate to discover the mysteries that await you at the end of the river, even if it’s Colonel Kurtz’ creepy bald head (probably not what is waiting for me in Proust, but who knows?!). You are also assuming, maybe naively, that there are mysteries waiting for you at all.

This is what Proust does. Linguists talk about the human ability to “nest” language; that is to say, insert descriptive clauses or phrases inside other phrases – as a sign of our special cognitive abilities, one facet of our essential humanness. If this is so, Proust is some sort of advanced linguistic mutant whose special power is the semicolon. Not only are clauses nestled in clauses, to create monstrous, endless sentences and paragraphs; but ideas are nestled inside epiphanies; epiphanies in metaphors; metaphors inside ideas; ideas inside encounters; encounters inside other encounters; those encounters inside plots; plots inside memories; memories inside plots; plots inside memories inside epiphanies; and so on, and so on, and so on. I know what I’m reading about right now in Proust – the Narrator’s encounter with M. Legrandin and his fairly overt homosexual vibes; but I could not for the life of me tell you how I got here from the beginning of the book where the narrator is starting to fall asleep. There was some lime tea and a madeline cookie involved somewhere. My only hope is that I’ll cross to the opposite bank at some point and begin heading back out toward the river delta, and all will become clear, or at least slightly less befuddling.

I suppose this would be annoying if I cared at all about the path that let me here; but like any good explorer I’m focused on the journey forward, not way back, and reasonably confident the whole thing will work itself out in the end, or not, no matter. Proust’s prose is sparkling and full of wonder and life, and is utterly pleasant to read page after page, so that you barely recognize that you’re hopelessly lost in his jungle. Whatever little thing the Narrator finds himself getting into, it’s bound to be vividly described, dutifully retold, and interesting to read, even if it is often something very trifling. However if there is anything to be learned about the nature of epiphany in Modern literature (see Joyce, Woolf, Mansfield, etc.), it is precisely the trifling thing that triggers the wash of color and memory and insight; so behind every blase encounter in the sleepy French village of Combray there lurks the promise of a mystery revealed, or a moment of rejoicing. That’s why I keep reading.

Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”
Raymond Carver, “Looking for Work”

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