November 21, 2013

In Search of Marcel Proust

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By HENRY STALEY

“You are getting ready for a very sad life,” a young T.S. Eliot was once told regarding his ambition to be a poet. Professor and poet Ishion Hutchinson remembered this advice to a group of students attending the panel discussion titled “How to Make it as a Creative Writer” last afternoon. The darker tropes of being a writer — loneliness, poverty, alcoholism, depression — are well known, yet a crowd of students filed into an overcrowded Goldwin Smith room to examine the profession’s potential and pay homage to the romantic image of being a writer.

This November is an especially appropriate time to celebrate this image as it marks the hundredth anniversary of the publication of “Swann’s Way”, the first edition of the volume “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust. Proust is a man we are perhaps most indebted to for our romantic portrait of the writer. The cult he and his volumes have amassed in the century since (Proustmania) has redefined the self-consciousness of being a writer or a reader. Predating the idealization of Hemingway, Proust’s myth fashioned our commonplace understanding of writers, such as:

The idea that writers are romantics and nostalgics. Obviously, no writer is more pre-occupied with the past than Proust, who was a conservative champion of France’s former glory and whose life was spent reliving his childhood. Just as Faulkner never left Lafayette County, Mississippi (which he renamed Yoknapatawhpha County in his work) and Updike couldn’t leave Shillington, Pennsylvania (which he called the “center of the world” in his “subjective geography”), Proust confines himself to the figures and places of his past, to whom he dedicates titles and affection: the eccentric family friend Charles Swann; the Gueremantes family, his neighbors; Combray, etc.

The idea of the writer as a tortured solitary figure. Proust’s contemporaries often accused him of being a sycophant and a literary amateur. When dining with James Joyce, he reportedly refused to ask Joyce any questions. Whether out of his social shortcomings, motivation to prove himself or love for his work, Proust dedicated himself to his project at the expense of his social or romantic life. Day and night, he locked himself in his cork-lined room (to prevent sound) on Boulevard Hausmann in Paris to create the appropriate environment for memory and writing. The entirety of “In Search of Lost Time” is said to be about 4,300 pages, depending on the translation.

The idea of the author or narrator as the subject of psychoanalysis. Adam Gopnik recently called young Marcel “the most high-hearted, self-deprecating, joyously observant, tender, frequently funny, always attentive voice I had encountered in literature.” While living through Marcel, the reader forms a dialogue between reader as spectator and Marcel as spectator. When comparing yourself to him, Marcel gets just as much out of you as you get out of him. The detail, intimacy and honesty of his writing provides the reader with an unequaled opportunity to get to know the author; to investigate the framework of Proust’s mental life and development. Because of its psychological clarity, “In Search of Lost Time” famously lends itself to analysis. Handing a testimony to Freud’s Oedipal Complex system (Freud’s seminal works would be released alongside Proust’s; Totem and Taboo also appeared in 1913), “Swann’s Way” begins with an account of how the sleepless young narrator would invent excuses to usher his mother from social gatherings to his upstairs bedroom so that he could see her one last time before going to sleep — “Why, I must have gone to sleep after all, and Mamma never came to say goodnight!”

In Frances Ha, the protagonist says, “I guess I’ll read Proust because that’s what you’re supposed to read in Paris.” Reading Proust has likewise become its own paradigm. This month, its trademarks have found expression. Yale University will hold a 20-hour overnight reading of Proust inside a recreation of his cork-lined bedroom. The New York Botanical Gardens will hold Proust readings in its forest. The French Embassy’s cultural division will host Radio Host Ira Glass and 120 other readers for a “nomadic reading” of “Swann’s Way” from a bedroom in a Brooklyn hotel.

In the past, the this paradigm has given way to solitary expression, often as ritual: Leslie Epstein, son of Casablanca screenwriter Phillip Epstein, noted that he reads two pages of “In Search of Lost Time” for five minutes before bedtime. He explained this ritual as such: “It is not a bad idea to keep a nightly appointment with a noble mind; it has the power to purify even the most wasted day.” Novelist and Historian Shelby Foote claims that each time he finished a book of his own, he would revisit “In Search of Lost Time.” Shelby explains: “I’ve always given myself a reward when I finish something and the reward I give myself is always the same thing. I read “À la recherche du temps perdu.” That’s my big prize. C’est mon grand prix. I think I’ve read it nine times now. It’s like a two-month vacation because it takes that long to read Proust. I like it better than going to Palm Beach.” Perhaps the reader’s experience explains the image of the writer, who becomes a christ-like figure. For the the reader’s enjoyment, the romantic writer goes through the pain of revisiting the past, self-abnegation, social alienation and psychological turmoil. Does this mean that by wanting to become a writer, one wishes for enjoyment that they cannot enjoy? Potentially. So, for simplicity and celebration, we’ll measure Proust’s selflessness by his page count.

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