A Narrator Who Wins Us

By Adam Gopnik
May 8, 2013

I suppose that by now to announce that I first read Proust with the woman now my wife — or the man now my husband, or the woman now my partner, or however it might work out — is to participate in a cliché, touched by a not-entirely-appealing local color. Only in America has the experience of Proust become a ritual of courtship. But, as it happened, I did.

The girl I was in love with in college and I went out and, in a second-hand bookstore in Montreal, bought the old Random House two-volume version of the Moncrieff translation. What surprised me in that first reading, up on Mount Royal, was not how impressed I was by Proust’s command, the beauty of his sentences and the confidence of his psychological generalizations. It was, rather, that, expecting a profound but slightly forbidding, even “estranging,” literary tour de force, on the order of “Ulysses” or “Paradise Lost” — a text like a mountain to be scaled, with the reader arriving at last wearily at the top, panting for oxygen with a Sherpa-like companion; glad to have made the ascent and yet haunted by the frozen bodies seen fallen short of the summit, those who never made it past “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” — given that expectation, I was shocked by how much I liked Marcel, to give the narrator the name he only once gives himself.

We are taught sternly to announce, and tumidly to lecture our creative writing students, that our favorite characters need not be our favorite people. Good characters, from Becky Sharp to Satan in Milton, can be rotten to the core and still delicious to the bite. But, at the risk of letting the waistband of my bourgeois boxers show too largely above my borrowed modernist pants, I do think that narrators need to win us if they are to hold us. Nick Carraway, Huck Finn, and even poor Charles Ryder — the truth is that just as heroes are better when they are heroic, narrators in long tales are best when we are charmed by their company and are given reasons to trust their sensations. Narrators need not be likeable, in the sense of touched by moral rectitude, but it does seem necessary in any successful full-length tale for the narrator to be lovable — exactly as, say, Humbert Humbert in “Lolita” is lovable, in his own horrible way.

Well, the narrator in Proust — let us defy academic fastidiousness and call him Marcel — struck me then, and strikes me still, as the most high-hearted, self-deprecating, joyously observant, tender, frequently funny, always attentive voice I had encountered in literature. (Far more, doubtless, than Proust would have been himself.) Frankly neurotic in his anxieties, the narrator’s neurosis on the page registers above all as sensitivity, mindfulness. His wide-eyed appreciations illuminate those first volumes with affection: appreciations of his aunt Léonie, of Françoise, the cook, of his Madame Sévigné-loving grandmother, above all of his well-meaning father and loving mother. Even the secondary characters, satiric targets, are on the whole treated with a malice rendered affectionate by understanding: Madame Verdurin is chiefly silly, not wicked; in over her social head.

And are there, in the old-fashioned sense, more admirable characters in literature than Saint-Loup, the aristocrat trying to struggle out of the limitations of his inherited world view without sacrificing its elegance — or, above all, than Swann, whose tragedy in love does not diminish our admiration for his tact, his delicacy, his essential kindness, and his readiness to make himself look shallow in order to avoid betraying a friend? The book is, among other things, a manifesto against malicious speech, and Swann moves us because he understands that true aristocracy lies in a readiness to refrain from malice, even at the price of having others think him simple.

And then there is, well, so much pure Charlie Brown in the narrator’s voice: his worrying desperately in front of the pillar with the poster of Berma’s next appearance about how he will feel when he actually sees her act; his anxieties about Gilberte — the original Little Red-Haired Girl — and her possible presence in the playground on the Champs-Élysées. That he buys his cravat intending to impress her at Charvet rather than at Sears does not diminish the universality of his unrequited ardor.

My first sense, confirmed by two subsequent readings (one, in French, that did indeed have some of the exhausting aspects of an Everest expedition) is that the philosophical and psychological theories registered in the book are the least interesting thing about it, and the charm and humor and social observation evident on every page, the most. Yes, indeed, Proust’s conclusions about human love are sadly persuasive: We invent the people we love as much as we experience them; our infatuations, even those that shape our lives, are our own inventions. And he’s right to advance nostalgia as an organizing principle: we agree with him that time is the first principle of life, devouring our experience, in all its intensity and heartbreak, and leaving us wondering, aghast, not just where life has passed but where the world has gone.

But it’s not the profundity of these ideas that matters. It’s the joy of their enactment, which cuts the edge of Proust’s official pessimism on every page. Joyce, in “Finnegan’s Wake,” another expedition That Woman and I attempted, ends by asserting simply that there is a mountainous male principle in life, and a fluid female one, and life is best when one flows nimbly round the other, as rivers round cities — and one need not endorse this rather old-fashioned, patriarchal Irish view to appreciate the passion, the infinite resourcefulness, of its expression. Great writing, like first love, works best as an obvious idea freshly enacted — an old book, newly bought.

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