Reading Proust: A First-Timer Dives In

By John Williams
May 6, 2013

Sam and Caroline, it was my brilliant idea to tackle “Swann’s Way” for the first time as part of this enterprise. After reading your opening posts, you’ll understand if I feel like I decided to take up basketball by playing a full-court pickup game with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. My original goal was to complement your expertise with a set of fresh, eager eyes. Now I’m just afraid of getting dunked on.

I’m about 200 pages in, and hooked in a way I hadn’t expected. I thought gaining a foothold would take some doing. And it did. But as with any great work, it doesn’t take very long to acclimate to Proust’s rhythms and idiosyncrasies. This is not to say the reading experiencepicks up steam. A nearly extinct brand of patience is required. The pages don’t start turning any faster; I’m just more and more content to be immersed in them.

Like many who haven’t read the book, I had pictured the madeleine moment as a moment, but it’s not; it’s an extended scene that reads like a psychology textbook in miniature. It begins in a way that recalls the “oceanic feeling” described by the French writer Romain Rolland and discussed at length by Freud in “Civilization and Its Discontents.” Freud criticized the sensation as a vague helplessness that serves as a shaky foundation for religious belief, but in Proust the helplessness, stayed with, resolves into clarity. First there is the sense of being overwhelmed. (“An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.” “I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”) Then the narrator attempts, in vain, to recreate the moment through his senses. (“I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic.”) What follows is an inner concentration that borders on meditation. (“I ask my mind to make one further effort, to bring back once more the fleeting sensation. And so that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut out every obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit all attention against the sounds from the next room.”) After several attempts at this deep diving, the narrator gives up, and it’s only then that the memories so faintly summoned by the madeleine and tea fully return.

Having known the madeleine scene as shorthand for Proustian experience, I was surprised by the specificity of the ensuing recollection of his youth. There’s a lot of oceanic feeling in the book, but there’s a lot of inspecting individual grains of sand on the beach as well.

I’m hesitant to address Beckett’s remarks without reading the whole of his slim book (and with, oh, 3,200 pages to go in Proust), but “complete indifference to moral values and human justices” seems an odd judgment. If he means Proust ignored taboos — well, based on your descriptions of the later volumes, he clearly did. But I have the sense that some amount of moral discernment is at work in the book, even if it’s not of the hectoring variety, and even if the characters aren’t the most empathetic lot. I think here of the great description of the servant Françoise: “I came to recognize that, apart from her own kinsfolk, the sufferings of humanity inspired in her a pity which increased in direct ratio to the distance separating the sufferers from herself. The tears that flowed from her in torrents when she read in a newspaper of the misfortunes of persons unknown to her were quickly stemmed once she had been able to form a more precise mental picture of the victims.” In this scene, Françoise is impatient with a kitchen-maid suffering great pain right in front of her, but is found a short time later “violently sobbing” while reading about the similar symptoms of a faceless “prototype patient” in a medical dictionary.

And it’s true that the narrator writes: “I imagined, like everyone else, that the brains of other people were lifeless and submissive receptacles with no power of specific reaction to anything that might be introduced into them…” (That “like everyone else” is quite a clause.) This is not a statement of great moral attunement. But I’m not sure a conscious effort at the “moral education of the reader” is always the top priority — or effect — of fiction. If close observation is its own moral instruction, then Proust (as far as I’ve gotten with him) is as conscientious an instructor as any.

I’m reading the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation. Caroline, how close do any of the translations come to capturing the feeling of the original? Are English readers doomed to have an inferior encounter with Proust? And to both of you: Where do you see Proust’s influence now? It may be impossible to measure up, but is anyone even trying? Of the modernists, is Proust the least mimicked today? I have been sometimes reminded while reading of certain David Foster Wallace sentences, which are less lapidary but equally serpentine, and that also land on punch lines that are subtly hilarious, if there is such a category. Like this, from “Infinite Jest”:

He’d kept noticing mice scurrying around his room, mice as in rodents, vermin, and when he lodged a complaint and demanded the room be fumigated at once and then began running around hunched and pounding with the heel of a hand-held Florsheim at the mice as they continued to ooze through the room’s electrical outlets and scurry repulsively about, eventually a gentle-faced nurse flanked by large men in custodial whites negotiated a trade of shoes for Librium, predicting that the mild sedative would fumigate what really needed to be fumigated.

Who, if anyone, do you see as Proust’s progeny?

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