“I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.”—Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (1913), Vol. I of Remembrance of Things Past (also known as In Search of Lost Time), translated by from the French by C. K. Scott Moncrieff
This month marks the centennial of the publication of Swann's Way, the opening volume in Marcel Proust’s exhaustive mining of his life for fictional purposes. I thought of using for today’s Quote of the Day the novel’s famous opening sentence (“For a long time, I used to go to bed early”), and perhaps the even more famous passage on tea and madeleines. But the above sentences struck me with unexpected force because, as someone of Irish descent who, like so many readers, has lost a loved one, I have longed to bring back to life the spirit of that person.
In an irony of literary history, someone contrived to bring together the two 20th-century figures who helped transform the modern novel, Proust and James Joyce. The latter didn’t think much of the Frenchman’s work, lamenting to a friend that it “didn’t surprise me.”
As it happened, there was plenty about the Irishman to surprise Proust. The night of their meeting, at a (very) late-night dinner, the two shared a Parisian cab home with some others. The drunken Joyce lit up a cigarette, then opened a window—terrifying the asthmatic Proust, who hated fresh air and, consequently, addressed none of his remaining many remarks of the evening to him.
Oddly enough, for all his frequent obscurity, I found it easier to make my way through Joyce's Ulysses than Swann’s Way when I tried it some years ago. With his long, languid sentences, the dandyish, snobbish Proust made the work of Henry James, in his late, Baroque-era phase (e.g., The Wings of the Dove) read like the screenplay for Die Hard by comparison.
Yet I vow to return to it someday and, in this age of distraction, bear down and finish it. It’s not just passages such as the one above that convince me I have been missing something. It’s also what I read about the work and the novelist himself in the delightful How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain De Botton. (For instance, this piece of advice: “When Proust urges us to evaluate the world properly, he repeatedly reminds us of the value of modest scenes.”) Proust was an extraordinary figure: hypochondriacal, mother-fixated, secluded in a soundproof, cork-lined bedroom, and obsessed with his work to the point where he would write all through the night.
I also want to understand why several novelists I admire were influenced so much by him. I’m thinking, in particular, of Graham Greene, who labeled him “the greatest novelist of the 20th century,” and Anthony Powell, whose 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time, in its chronicling of Britain’s upper class through the consciousness of a narrator not unlike himself, bears more than a few resemblances to Proust. The critic Clive James, in his Cultural Amnesia, writes that it is a book that "leads everywhere: a building made of corridors, and the walls of the corridors are made of doors."
Lastly, I want to experience how "involuntary memory" informed his work. The madeleine passage is only the most famous example in his work, I gather. (I witnessed an incident like this some years ago, in a Starbucks a few miles from my home. Bent down, deep in a book, I was startled by the noise of shoes on the floor. The sound transported me 30 years before to something I'd forgotten entirely: the entrance of my elementary school principal, a nun, into our classroom. Sure enough, when I looked up, it was to find another elderly nun walking slowly in similar footwear in the coffee shop!)
One hundred years after publication and 90 after its author’s death, In Search of Lost Time shows all signs that it has “overcome death.”