How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) melds literary biography with a self-help structure to argue that reading the work of twentieth-century French author Marcel Proust is not only culturally enriching, but potentially life-enhancing. Botton’s close reading of Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, offers up surprising and delightful insights into how to live better.
Motivation, Inspiration, Personal Development, Philosophy, Biography, Memoir, Humor, Personal Growth, Literature and Fiction, History, Criticism, Humor Literary Criticism, Theories of Humor, Author Biographies, French Literary Criticism
Introduction: Life advice from an unexpected source.
If you haven’t heard of the French author Marcel Proust, this summary is the perfect introduction. If you’ve been meaning to read Proust, this summary may give you the extra push you’ve been needing. And if you have no intention of ever reading Proust – well, you can still benefit from the delightful life lessons to be learned from Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, first published in 1913.
Our guide on this journey is British-Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton’s book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, a quirky blend of literary self-help and biography of Proust, published in 1997. It shows how Proust offers guidance to almost every conceivable problem you may have, no matter what time you’re living in.
This summary really has only one key message: read Proust. Because, as you’re about to find out, he’s not just a literary master – he can really change your life.
In these summaries, you’ll learn
- why reading offers more than mere escapism;
- how love is a little like a telephone; and
- Marcel Proust’s top tip for making friends.
Reading is therapeutic.
Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time follows its narrator, also named Marcel, as he remembers his life, from early childhood to imminent death, in aristocratic nineteenth-century France. Critics and readers alike have hailed it as a work of genius. But the critic whose approval Proust most desired died four years before the first volume was published in 1913. That critic was his father, Dr. Adrien Proust.
Adrien Proust was a physician and a medical professor. Like his son, his literary output was prodigious, though the 34 books the elder Proust wrote were on dry, medical topics like disease transmission.
The younger Proust often worried that he was a disappointment to his father. Marcel tried and failed to settle on a respectable career. He lasted barely two weeks working in a solicitor’s office. He eschewed a diplomatic career because he couldn’t bear to leave Paris. He quit his post at a library because the books were too dusty. The truth was, all Marcel wanted to do – much to Adrien’s chagrin – was write.
What’s more, the younger Proust thought literature was just as important, in its own way, as medicine. Marcel believed reading fiction had a therapeutic power. Dr. Proust would almost certainly have dismissed his son’s claim. A novel can offer escapism on a long train ride. It can’t diagnose a case of tuberculosis, or perform an appendectomy. But Dr. Proust couldn’t be more wrong.
So, what does Alain de Botton say are some of the therapeutic benefits to reading Proust?
Reading Proust will help you feel at home in works of art. When Proust looked at paintings, he didn’t stop at admiring their composition or the artist’s use of color – he habitually matched the people on the canvas with people from his own life. A friend recalled him studying a portrait of an elderly man by the Renaissance painter Ghirlandaio, painted in 1480, and remarking on its likeness to a well known contemporary aristocrat, the Marquis de Lau. Whether he was reading the latest novel or gazing at a four-hundred-year-old painting, Proust felt at home in works of art, because he was alive to the ways in which they paralleled his own life.
When you immerse yourself in Proust, you might begin to develop this habit, too. In Search of Lost Time is populated with the aristocrats, artists, socialites, workers, and peasants of Belle Époque France. At first, their manners might seem remote, their concerns irrelevant to you. But persist, and you will soon find points of resonance between their lives and yours. Persist long enough, and you will learn to see these resonances in other artworks, too. A whole world of culture, from Homer’s ancient epic poems to cutting-edge contemporary performance art, will throw its doors open to you.
Reading Proust will also make you less lonely. In the same way that an intense engagement with In Search of Lost Time will allow you to perceive similarities between your world and Proust’s, you will learn to find comfort in the experiences you share with his characters. Every day, we’re liable to experience emotions and impulses that range from the exquisite to the excruciating. How many of the people around us are privy to the full range of our feelings? How attuned are we to the emotions and thoughts of those around us? If you are simmering with resentment over a long-ago fight, or are occasionally gripped, out of the blue, with a keen awareness of your own mortality, do you express these feelings to your colleagues? Your neighbors? Your dentist? Likely not. This can leave you feeling alone and isolated – as though you are the only person who has ever felt or behaved in this specific way. The beauty of the novel is that it, potentially, offers a window onto the deepest, most intimate thoughts and feelings of a whole spectrum of characters. In Search of Lost Time realizes that potential on a grand scale. If you’ve ever felt alone in a thought or a feeling, in the pages of Proust you are certain to meet someone who has shared it.
Finally, when you read Proust, you will learn more about yourself. Proust himself expressed this idea simplest and best when he wrote, In reality every reader is, when he is reading, reading his own self. To meet yourself, try picking up the first volume of Proust and meeting Marcel in its pages.
Slowing down our reading teaches us to savor life.
There’s a reason people don’t read Proust – even people who’ll happily make their way through other canonically classic novels like Great Expectations or Anna Karenina. It’s long. The Penguin Clothbound Classics edition is, in total, 3,444 pages long. And those 3,444 pages aren’t exactly filled with short, snappy sentences. In fact, in volume 5, there’s a sentence so long it could wrap around the base of a wine bottle 17 times. In Search of Lost Time even inspired a Monty Python sketch: “All-England Summarize Proust Competition.” In the sketch, each contestant has 15 seconds to summarize all seven volumes – a comically impossible task.
But here’s the thing: the reason most people cite for not reading Proust is exactly the reason you should try reading Proust. You should read In Search of Lost Time because it’s really, really, really, really long.
These days we prize speed and efficiency over slow contemplation. We listen to podcasts at 1.5 speed, strive to answer emails within seconds, and read the news in tweets of 280 characters or fewer. Rather than reading books, we read summary. We know we should slow down, at least some of the time – but slowing down is hard.
Proust forces his reader to slow down. After all, it’s hard to speed-read a sentence that could wrap around a wine bottle 17 times. By favoring length, Proust creates space for nuance, shades of gray, contradictions, and complications. He was famously irritated by the news-in-brief section of the newspaper, where stories were summed up in a sentence or two: disgruntled wife murders husband; factory worker electrocuted on the job. They never contained enough information to satisfy him. These snippets flattened real people into stereotypes, obscured their motivations, and – worst of all, in Proust’s eyes – discouraged empathy in the reader.
In Search of Lost Time is a corrective to the news items that so bothered Proust: even the most minor characters are richly drawn and multifaceted. Encountering the empathy with which Proust treats his characters is a lesson in exercising our own empathic muscles.
There’s another reason In Search of Lost Time is so long – within its pages, Proust tries to render life
with complete freshness, free from clichéd description.
Around the same time Proust was writing In Search of Lost Time, a group of artists known as the Impressionists was making waves in the French art world. These days, we recognize blotchy canvases of lakes and harbors and sunrises by artists like Claude Monet as masterpieces. At the time, they were widely reviled. They weren’t realistic, ran the complaint. Those blurry blue and pink daubs of oil paint were hardly an accurate representation of a lily pond.
But Proust knew just what the Impressionists were doing – it’s no coincidence that one of his novel’s most sympathetic characters, Elstir, is a fictional Impressionist painter. The Impressionists weren’t trying to capture a photorealistic image of a lily pond. They were trying to capture a way of seeing that lily pond, one that was true to the viewer’s experience, if not to the pond’s exact contours. And Proust was trying to do just the same in his literary work. He didn’t want to use tired clichés. He didn’t want to write phrases like “the silvery moon” in a rush to get to the next plot point. Instead, he describes the moon like this:
Sometimes in the afternoon sky a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to “come on” for a while and so goes “in front” in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background not wishing to draw attention to herself.
Like the Impressionists, Proust wants us to think in new ways about things we see and experience, things like that late afternoon moon. If it took a few extra words here and there, well, Proust was okay with that.
Proust reminds us to not take love for granted.
The narrator of In Search of Lost Time spends a lot of time strolling the countryside, attending dinner parties, and trying to get to sleep. In fact, the novel famously opens with a meandering 17-page description of his struggle with insomnia. But in the thousands of pages of the novel, he never finds lasting love. Other relationships depicted in the book aren’t exactly aspirational. A lot of ink is spilled describing one of literature’s nastiest marriages, that between the shallow-in-love Charles Swann and his philandering wife Odette. As for Proust himself, apart from the fact that he was gay in a time and place where homosexuality was deemed socially unacceptable, we know very little of his romantic life.
Does that mean Proust has nothing to teach about love? Perhaps not directly. Indirectly, on the other hand, he has plenty to say on the topic, beginning with his narrator’s early encounter with Gilberte. As a boy, Marcel the narrator spies Gilberte playing in the Champs Élysées. He is instantly fascinated. He dreams in loving detail of becoming her friend, of having tea in her apartment. And then his dreams become reality. Gilberte invites Marcel to afternoon tea. Marcel spends the first fifteen minutes entranced but, as Gilberte pours tea and slices cake, Marcel is struck by the growing realization that, while Gilberte is wonderful, the Gilberte of his imagination was more wonderful still.
What’s the lesson here? People, in reality, rarely live up to our idealized versions of them. Moreover, it’s difficult to appreciate someone wholly or love them with unvarying intensity over a sustained period of time. Conversely, any expectations we have that our romantic partners should, or even could, consistently and passionately appreciate us are certainly unrealistic.
Familiarity, Proust argues, can dissipate even the most heated passions. In fact, this idea is a recurring motif in Proust’s life and work. Writing about the advent of the telephone, Proust observes how quickly something can move from a dazzling invention to an everyday object. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. By 1907, Proust described the telephone as: A supernatural instrument before whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream.
In Proust’s world everything – from love to telephones – loses its magic with familiarity and time. Does that mean lasting love is out of reach?
Proust had poor health. Well, that’s putting it mildly. His ailments ranged from asthma and indigestion to a debilitating phobia of mice. As a result, he was often bedridden. Once, when bed-bound, he began to think about Noah, from the biblical story. Perhaps, hidden away from the world, he was feeling a little like Noah adrift on his ark. At first, Proust pities Noah, who is so isolated from land. But soon, Proust grows to think that Noah, surrounded by water, must appreciate land more than anyone else on earth. He must imagine the bushes and mountains and trees of his homeland so vividly that, in a way, he sees them with far more accuracy in his ark than he ever would have on land. No one, Proust imagines, could love their home more than Noah does.
Through Noah, Proust suggests that even something which has become tediously familiar becomes precious when we are deprived of it. Of course, in a long term relationship it’s simply not feasible to, like Noah, sail away from your partner on an ark, and stay away for forty days and nights. But you can create an ark of your own. For Proust, a day or two ill in bed only sharpened his appetite to go out and see friends. Whether it’s a night away or a day spent out of contact, depriving yourself – even momentarily – of your partner affords you a chance to be dazzled by them anew.
Looking at the world through an artist’s perspective helps us see beauty in the ordinary.
In an unpublished essay, Proust imagines a gloomy young man sitting in his parents’ Parisian apartment. The remains of lunch are on the table. His mother knits in one corner. A cat curls on top of a cupboard. The young man is gloomy because he is an aesthete, obsessed with great art, fine food, inspiring landscapes. Yet he doesn’t have the funds to purchase great art, dine on fine food, or travel to inspiring landscapes. How can the young man overcome this dissatisfaction?
Proust suggests a visit to the Louvre. But not, as you might think, to vicariously experience the Venetian canals or Greek temples depicted on some of the canvases there. Instead, he directs the man to seek out the work of the French painter Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Chardin’s subject matter wasn’t grand but domestic. He painted workers, housewives, middle-class families. His still life canvases are simple arrangements of bread, fruit, fish, coffee pots, salt cellars.
Why, when the young man longed for a world beyond his reach, would Proust send him to examine these ordinary scenes? Because Chardin painted the world the young man lived in. What’s more, he made it look extraordinary. While art can unfold extraordinary scenes before us, in Proust’s view, it has a more vital role: to surface the magic in ordinary scenes. When art enchants the everyday, it invites us to take a second look at our own lives and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. Proust signs off the essay by explaining this to the young man: When you walk around a kitchen, you will say to yourself this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.
Another disconsolate young man appears in the pages of In Search of Lost Time: the narrator, Marcel. Like the young man in the essay, he sits at home, bored and unhappy with the monotony of his bourgeois existence. But everything changes when his mother brings him a tray of afternoon tea. On the tray sits a now-famous pastry. It is a sponge cake, fluted like a seashell. It is, of course, a madeleine. Marcel bites into it – and his life changes.
Not because of the taste, exactly. At the turn of the twentieth century, Parisian patisseries offered sweet treats far more indulgent and elaborate than the simple madeleine. Rather, because it recalls exactly the madeleines Marcel’s Aunt Leonie used to feed him when he was a child, staying with her in the village of Combray. All at once, he is transported back to the tastes, sights, and sounds of his childhood. Cue thousands of pages of Marcel’s musings and remembrances.
But the madeleine doesn’t just recall Marcel’s childhood. It does something more powerful. Minutes ago, as Marcel sat contemplating his life’s trajectory, his existence had seemed dull and dreary. Now, his childhood strikes him as a far more idyllic period than he remembered. The madeleine had re-enchanted Marcel’s own recollections of his life, transforming it from dull to enchanting.
But what if you want to re-enchant your life? Should you wait until you encounter your own version of the madeleine, whatever that may be? You could – but you might be waiting a while.
At another point in the book, the now-adolescent Marcel visits a seaside resort. Before he arrives, he is all anticipation. He imagines a romantically atmospheric setting: stark cliffs, dark ocean, brooding clouds. He is, in a prototypical Instagram-versus-reality situation, disappointed to find a fairly run-of-the-mill seaside town. The gap between Marcel’s expectations and the town’s reality threatens to ruin his holiday. Luckily he meets Elstir – remember him? He’s the fictional Impressionist artist. Elstir invites Marcel to his studio. There, Marcel marvels at Elstir’s depictions of fishing boats shrouded in dawn clouds, and village women sitting like mermaids on seaside rocks. Elstir has found the beauty in the surroundings. Looking at Elstir’s perspective, Marcel begins to perceive that beauty too.
Proust knows that ordinary life can be magical; a humble madeleine can be as exquisite as a three-course meal in Paris’s best restaurant. But here’s the thing. He doesn’t expect you to one day wake up and spontaneously see beauty all around you. He doesn’t even expect that you will one day be offered a madeleine – or whatever your madeleine equivalent may be – that will jolt you into a new appreciation of your life. But he does believe you can come by that appreciation through careful study of artists who have made it their life’s project to illuminate the extraordinary within the ordinary. Artists like Chardin, and Elstir, and, of course, Proust himself.
Proust has advice for nearly every occasion.
Hungry for more advice from Proust? Luckily, he was liberal with his ideas and opinions. So, I’ll leave you with a few more of Marcel Proust’s instructions for living.
Insomnia is, for some of us, unfortunately unavoidable. But it’s not without its merits. Here’s what Proust offers: A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a light upon that darkness.
With a little imagination, anything makes for good reading material. Proust reached his early twenties without having read Dostoevsky or Dickens – reading gaps which he later redressed – and was known to favor the French regional train timetable as bedtime reading. He was reported to find this pamphlet as evocative as any novel on provincial French life.
Intellectual snobbery is to be avoided. And besides, the fact that you share a favorite Tolstoy novel with someone doesn’t mean they’re good friendship material. In fact, when Proust met James Joyce, the two men found very little to say to each other. And when Proust was asked whether he considered his friends his intellectual peers, he retorted, I do my intellectual work within myself and once with other people it’s more or less irrelevant to me that they’re intelligent as long as they’re kind.
When it comes to dating, playing hard to get is a failsafe strategy. Proust wrote: There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: No, this evening I shan’t be free.
There’s a simple hack that will ensure you get the most out of any dinner party you host. Proust made a habit of moving around the table with each course, eating his soup while conversing with one guest and finishing his fish while conversing with another. As one friend recalled, One can imagine that by the fruit he had gone all the way around.
Doctors, and the medical establishment in general, are an unfortunate necessity. Proust says: To believe in medicine would be the height of folly, if not to believe it were not a greater folly still.
Want to win friends and influence people? Do as Proust did and ask more questions than you answer. Friends remember him drawing out his conversational partners on all kinds of topics, up to and including the correct maintenance of motor cars. He was, says one friend, the best of listeners.
And, when all else fails, there are always books. Here’s Proust: In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend an evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.
The key message in these summaries is that:
In Search of Lost Time is not just a literary masterpiece, but a treasury of characters who will expand your empathy, language that will make you see the world afresh, and ideas that remain as relevant today as when they were written. Committing to reading this work, and to engaging with Proust’s ideas, will change the ways in which you think, perceive, and live.
And here’s some more actionable advice:
Be inspired to stop reading.
It was Proust’s firmly held belief that reading should be an incitement to living. If that means tossing a book temporarily aside, that’s okay. Has reading Proust inspired you to try something new or return to an old project? Don’t wait until you’ve finished the novel to get started. Instead, act like Virginia Woolf, who famously paused her reading of In Search of Lost Time to write another novel you may have heard of – Mrs. Dalloway.
About the author
Alain de Botton was born in 1969. He is the author of the novels On Love, The Romantic Movement, and Kiss and Tell; his work has been translated into sixteen languages. He lives in Washington, D.C., and London.
Table of Contents
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
1. HOW TO LOVE LIFE TODAY
2. HOW TO READ FOR YOURSELF
3. HOW TO TAKE YOUR TIME
4. HOW TO SUFFER SUCCESSFULLY
5. HOW TO EXPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS
6. HOW TO BE A GOOD FRIEND
7. HOW TO OPEN YOUR EYES
8. HOW TO BE HAPPY IN LOVE
9. HOW TO PUT BOOKS DOWN
ABOUT HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE
A bestselling author draws on the work of one of history’s most important writers to show us how to best live life in a book that’s “delightfully original…. A self-help book in the deepest sense of the term” (The New York Times).
Alain de Botton combines two unlikely genres—literary biography and self-help manual—in the hilarious and unexpectedly practical How Proust Can Change Your Life.
Who would have thought that Marcel Proust, one of the most important writers of our century, could provide us with such a rich source of insight into how best to live life? Proust understood that the essence and value of life was the sum of its everyday parts. As relevant today as they were at the turn of the century, Proust’s life and work are transformed here into a no-nonsense guide to, among other things, enjoying your vacation, reviving a relationship, achieving original and unclichéd articulation, being a good host, recognizing love, and understanding why you should never sleep with someone on a first date. It took de Botton to find the inspirational in Proust’s essays, letters and fiction and, perhaps even more surprising, to draw out a vivid and clarifying portrait of the master from between the lines of his work.
Here is Proust as we have never seen or read him before: witty, intelligent, pragmatic. He might well change your life.
Video and Podcast
“Delightfully original…. As well as being criticism, biography, literary history, and a reader’s guide to Proust’s masterpiece, this is a self-help book in the deepest sense of the term.” – The New York Times
“One of my favorite books of the year…. Seriously cheeky, cheekily serious.” – Julian Barnes
“Curious, humorous, didactic, and dazzling…. It contains more human interest and play of fancy than most fiction.” – John Updike, The New Yorker
“A witty, elegant book that helps us learn what reading is for.” – Doris Lessing
“A wonderful meditation on aspects of Proust in the form of a self-help book. Very enjoyable.” – Sebastian Faulks
“Funny and very refreshing.” – San Francisco Chronicle
This is a genius-level piece of writing that manages to blend literary biography with self-help and tongue-in-cheek with the profound. The quirky, early 1900s French author Marcel Proust acts as the vessel for surprisingly impressive nuggets of wisdom on down-to-earth topics such as why you should never sleep with someone on the first date, how to protect yourself against lower back pain, and how to cope with obnoxious neighbors. Here’s proof that our ancestors had just as much insight as the gurus du jour and perhaps a lot more wit. De Botton simultaneously pokes fun at the self-help movement and makes a significant contribution to its archives. – Amazon.com Review
Generally writers fall into one of two camps: those who feel that one can’t write without having a firm grasp on Proust, and those who, like Virginia Woolf, are crippled by his influence. De Botton, the author of On Love, The Romantic Movement and Kiss and Tell, obviously falls into the former category. But rather than an endless exegesis on memory, de Botton has chosen to weave Proust’s life, work, friends and era into a gently irreverent, tongue-in-cheek self-help book. For example, in the chapter titled “How to Suffer Successfully,” de Botton lists poor Proust’s many difficulties (asthma, “awkward desires,” sensitive skin, a Jewish mother, fear of mice), which is essentially a funny way of telling the reader quite a lot about the man’s life. Next he moves on to Proust’s little thesis that because we only really think when distressed, we shouldn’t worry about striving for happiness so much as “pursuing ways to be properly and productively unhappy.” De Botton then cheerily judges various characters of A la recherche against their author’s maxims. At the beginning, when de Botton drags his own girlfriend into a tortuous and not terribly successful digression, readers may be skeptical, but they will be won over by his whimsical relation of Proust’s lessons?essentially an exhortation to slow down, pay attention and learn from life. Is it profound? No. Does this add something new to Proust scholarship? Probably not. But it’s a real pleasure to read someone who treats this sacrosanct subject as something that is still vital and vigorous. 25,000 first printing; author tour. – From Publishers Weekly
Here’s an antidote for readers paralyzed by the anxiety of influence. Novelist and literary biographer de Botton (Kiss & Tell, Picador, 1996) sets out to exorcise the influence of Marcel Proust, using the words of the great French author of In Search of Lost Time most engagingly for and against him. In the process, de Botton fashions a hilarious work of authorial self-help. Like Julian Barnes in his Flaubert’s Parrot, de Botton knows his author intimately, from what newspaper snippets he would have read each morning to what he and James Joyce said to each other the one time they met (“Non.”). In pithy sections, spliced with kitschy photos and plenty of white space, he takes on Proust’s personal and writerly idiosyncrasies: the length of his sentences; his loving devotion to minutiae; his elevation of the quotidian; his hypochondria. De Botton might not make us better people (he quotes the perennially miserable Proust on love in a Q-and-A format: “how to be happy in love”), but he will make us more careful readers. For all literature collections.?Amy Boaz, “Library Journal” – From Library Journal
For the era of the self-help bestseller, novelist de Botton delivers a witty, entertaining literary appreciation of the author of Remembrance of Things Past. Can you find real-life lessons in one and a half million words spread over seven volumes, written by a hypochrondriacal asthmatic Frenchman who divided his life almost exclusively between dinner parties and bed rest? De Botton says you can, whether “How to Love Life Today” or “How to Suffer Successfully.” De Botton has self-consciously mixed genres in his fiction, e.g., biography and the novel in Kiss and Tell (1996), which hinted at his Proust worship. This blend of literary criticism by both de Botton and Proust, snippets from Remembrance of Things Past, biographic tidbits, and self-improvement pastiches is not as unserious as it appears. Proust, after all, was an almost-epigone of John Ruskin- -the embodiment of seriousness about art in one’s life–as well as of philosopher Henri Bergson (who goes, thankfully, unremarked). De Botton even turns up a gem of Proust’s miscellaneous criticism in an essay on the artist Chardin, whose closely observed paintings of ordinary people and objects Proust recommends as an aesthetic tonic to an imaginary depressed “young man of limited means and artistic tastes.” Elsewhere de Botton discusses the hang-ups of Proust’s characters Mme. Verdurin and Charles Swann, Proust on love, and the verb “to proustify” (“to express a slightly too conscious attitude of geniality, together with what would vulgarly have been called affectations”). Quoted selectively, Proust himself proves aphoristic–“In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.” For a painless crib, de Botton’s tongue-in-cheek tract beats out Harold Bloom on the Western canon and David Denby on Great Books without even a madeleine break. (b&w illustrations, not seen) (Author tour) – From Kirkus Reviews
… [a] delightfully original work of literary criticism…. By characterizing In Search of Lost Time with amusing superficiality, he has succeeded in showing us some of the novel’s greatest depths. – New York Times Book Review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
ALSO IN VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness. Had we been placed on earth by a malign creator for the exclusive purpose of suffering, we would have good reason to congratulate ourselves on our enthusiastic response to the task. Reasons to be inconsolable abound: the frailty of our bodies, the fickleness of love, the insincerities of social life, the compromises of friendship, the deadening effects of habit. In the face of such persistent ills, we might naturally expect that no event would be awaited with greater anticipation than the moment of our own extinction.
Someone looking for a paper to read in Paris in the 1920s might have picked up a title called L’Intransigeant. It had a reputation for investigative news, metropolitan gossip, comprehensive classifieds, and incisive editorials. It also had a habit of dreaming up big questions and asking French celebrities to send in their replies. “What do you think would be the ideal education to give your daughter?” was one. “Do you have any recommendations for improving traffic congestion in Paris?” was another. In the summer of 1922, the paper formulated a particularly elaborate question for its contributors:
An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people. If this prediction were confirmed, what do you think would be its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm? Finally, as far as you’re concerned, what would you do in this last hour?
The first celebrity to respond to the grim scenario of personal and global annihilation was a then distinguished, now forgotten man of letters named Henri Bordeaux, who suggested that it would drive the mass of the population directly into either the nearest church or the nearest bedroom, though he himself avoided the awkward choice, explaining that he would take this last opportunity to climb a mountain, so as to admire the beauty of alpine scenery and flora. Another Parisian celebrity, an accomplished actress called Berthe Bovy, proposed no recreations of her own, but shared with her readers a coy concern that men would shed all inhibitions once their actions had ceased to carry long-term consequences. This dark prognosis matched that of a famous Parisian palm reader, Madame Fraya, who judged that people would omit to spend their last hours contemplating the extraterrestrial future and would be too taken up with worldly pleasures to give much thought to readying their souls for the afterlife—a suspicion confirmed when another writer, Henri Robert, blithely declared his intention to devote himself to a final game of bridge, tennis, and golf.
The last celebrity to be consulted on his pre-apocalypse plans was a reclusive, mustachioed novelist not known for his interest in golf, tennis, or bridge (though he had once tried checkers, and twice aided in the launching of a kite), a man who had spent the last fourteen years lying in a narrow bed under a pile of thinly woven woolen blankets writing an unusually long novel without an adequate bedside lamp. Since the publication of its first volume in 1913, In Search of Lost Time had been hailed as a masterpiece, a French reviewer had compared the author to Shakespeare, an Italian critic had likened him to Stendhal, and an Austrian princess had offered her hand in marriage. Though he had never esteemed himself highly (“If only I could value myself more! Alas! It is impossible”) and had once referred to himself as a flea and to his writing as a piece of indigestible nougat, Marcel Proust had grounds for satisfaction. Even the British Ambassador to France, a man of wide acquaintance and cautious judgment, had deemed it appropriate to bestow on him a great if not directly literary honor, describing him as “the most remarkable man I have ever met—because he keeps his overcoat on at dinner.”
Enthusiastic about contributing to newspapers, and in any case a good sport, Proust sent the following reply to L’Intransigeant and its catastrophic American scientist:
I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.
But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.
The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.
Feeling suddenly attached to life when we realize the imminence of death suggests that it was perhaps not life itself which we had lost the taste for so long as there was no end in sight, but our quotidian version of it, that our dissatisfactions were more the result of a certain way of living than of anything irrevocably morose about human experience. Having surrendered the customary belief in our own immortality, we would then be reminded of a host of untried possibilities lurking beneath the surface of an apparently undesirable, apparently eternal existence.
However, if due acknowledgment of our mortality encourages us to reevaluate our priorities, we may well ask what these priorities should be. We might only have been living a half-life before we faced up to the implications of death, but what exactly does a whole life consist of? Simple recognition of our inevitable demise does not guarantee that we will latch on to any sensible answers when it comes to filling in what remains of the diary. Panicked by the ticking of the clock, we may even resort to some spectacular follies. The suggestions sent by the Parisian celebrities to L’Intransigeant were contradictory enough: admiration of alpine scenery, contemplation of the extraterrestrial future, tennis, golf. But were any of these fruitful ways to pass the time before the continent disintegrated?
Proust’s own suggestions (Louvre, love, India) were no more helpful. For a start, they were at odds with what one knows of his character. He had never been an avid museum visitor, he hadn’t been to the Louvre in over a decade, and preferred to look at reproductions rather than face the chatter of a museum crowd (“People think the love of literature, painting and music has become extremely widespread, whereas there isn’t a single person who knows anything about them”). Nor was he known for his interest in the Indian sub continent, which was a trial to reach, requiring a train down to Marseilles, a mail boat to Port Said, and ten days on a P&O liner across the Arabian Sea, hardly an ideal itinerary for a man with difficulty stepping out of bed. As for Miss X, to his mother’s distress, Marcel had never proved receptive to her charms, nor to those of the Misses A to Z; and it was a long time since he had bothered to ask if there was a younger brother at hand, having concluded that a glass of well-chilled beer offered a more reliable source of pleasure than lovemaking.
But even if he had wanted to act according to his proposals, Proust turned out to have little chance. Only four months after sending his answer to L’Intransigeant, having predicted that something like this would happen for years, he caught a cold and died. He was fifty-one. He had been invited to a party and, despite the symptoms of a mild flu, he wrapped himself in three coats and two blankets and went out all the same. On his way home, he had to wait in a glacial courtyard for a taxi, and there caught a chill. It developed into a high fever that might have been contained if Proust hadn’t refused to take the advice of doctors summoned to his bedside. Fearing that they would disrupt his work, he turned down their offer of camphorated oil injections, and continued to write, failing to eat or drink anything besides hot milk, coffee, and stewed fruit. The cold turned into bronchitis, which snowballed into pneumonia. Hopes of recovery were briefly raised when he sat up in bed and requested a grilled sole, but by the time the fish was bought and cooked, he was seized by nausea and was unable to touch it. He died a few hours later from a burst abscess in his lung.
Fortunately, Proust’s reflections on how to live were not limited to an all-too-brief and somewhat confusing reply to a fanciful question from a newspaper—because, right up to his death, he had been at work on a book that set out to answer, albeit in a rather extended and narratively complex form, a question not dissimilar to the one provoked by the predictions of the fictional American scientist.
The title of the long book hinted as much. Though Proust never liked it, and referred to it variously as “unfortunate” (1914), “misleading” (1915), and “ugly” (1917), In Search of Lost Time had the advantage of pointing directly enough to a central theme of the novel: a search for the causes behind the dissipation and loss of time. Far from a memoir tracing the passage of a more lyrical age, it was a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting time and start to appreciate life.
Though the announcement of an imminent apocalypse could no doubt make this a concern uppermost in anyone’s mind, the Proustian guidebook held out a hope that the topic could detain us a little before personal or global destruction was at hand; and that we might therefore learn to adjust our priorities before it was time to have a last game of golf and keel over.
Proust was born into a family where the art of making people feel better was taken very seriously indeed. His father was a doctor, a vast, bearded man with a characteristic nineteenth-century physiognomy, who had the authoritative air and purposeful glance that might readily have made one feel a sissy. He exuded the moral superiority available to the medical profession, a group whose value to society is unquestionably apparent to anyone who has ever suffered from a tickly cough or ruptured appendix, and which may hence provoke an uncomfortable sense of superfluity in those with less certifiably worthwhile vocations.
Dr. Adrien Proust had started modestly, the son of a provincial grocer specializing in the manufacture of wax candles for the home and church. After pursuing brilliant medical studies, culminating in a thesis on The Different Forms of Softening of the Brain, Dr. Proust had devoted himself to improving standards of public sanitation. He was especially concerned with arresting the spread of cholera and bubonic plague, and had traveled widely outside France, advising foreign governments on infectious diseases. He was appropriately rewarded for his efforts, becoming a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur and a professor of hygiene at the Medical Faculty in Paris. The mayor of the once cholera-prone port of Toulon presented him with the keys to the city, and a hospital for quarantined victims was named after him in Marseilles. By the time of his death in 1903, Adrien Proust was a doctor of international standing, who could almost be believed when he summed up his existence with the thought, “I have been happy all my life.”
No wonder Marcel should have felt somewhat unworthy next to his father, and feared that he had been the bane of this contented life. He had never harbored any of the professional aspirations that constituted a badge of normality in a late-nineteenth-century bourgeois household. Literature was the only thing he cared for, though he did not, for much of his youth, seem too willing, or able, to write. Because he was a good son, he tried at first to do something his parents would approve of. There were thoughts of joining the Foreign Ministry, of becoming a lawyer, a stockbroker, or an assistant at the Louvre. Yet the hunt for a career proved difficult. Two weeks of work experience with a solicitor horrified him (“In my most desperate moments, I have never conceived of anything more horrible than a law office”), and the idea of becoming a diplomat was ruled out when he realized it would involve moving away from Paris and his beloved mother. “What is there left, given that I have decided to become neither a lawyer, nor a doctor, nor a priest …?” asked an increasingly desperate twenty-two-year-old Proust.
Perhaps he could become a librarian. He applied and was chosen for an unpaid post at the Mazarine library. It might have been the answer, but Proust found the place too dusty for his lungs and asked for an ever-longer series of sick leaves, some of which he spent in bed, others on holiday, but few at a writing desk. He led an apparently charmed life, organizing dinner parties, going out for tea, and spending money like water. One can imagine the distress of his father, a practical man who had never displayed much interest in the arts (though he had once served in the medical corps of the Opéra Comique and had charmed an American opera singer, who sent him a picture of herself dressed as a man in frilly, knee-length pantaloons). After he repeatedly failed to report for work, showing up one day a year or less, even Marcel’s unusually tolerant library employers finally lost their patience and dismissed him five years after he had first been taken on. It had by this time become evident to all, not least his disappointed father, that Marcel would never have a proper job—and would remain forever reliant on family money to pursue his unremunerative and dilettantish interest in literature.
Which could make it hard to understand an ambition Proust confided to his maid once both his parents had died and he had finally started work on his novel.
“Ah, Céleste,” he said, “if I could be sure of doing with my books as much as my father did for the sick.”
To do with books what Adrien had done for those ravaged by cholera and bubonic plague? One didn’t have to be the mayor of Toulon to realize that Dr. Proust had it in his power to effect an improvement in people’s condition, but what sort of healing did Marcel have in mind with the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time? The opus might be a way to pass a slow-moving train journey across the Siberian steppes, but would one wish to claim that its benefits matched those of a properly functioning public sanitation system?
If we dismiss Marcel’s ambitions, it may have more to do with a particular skepticism about the therapeutic qualities of the literary novel than with all-encompassing doubts as to the value of the printed word. Even Dr. Proust, in many ways unsympathetic to his son’s vocation, was not hostile toward every published genre, and indeed turns out to have been a prolific author himself, for a long time far better known in the bookshops than his offspring.
However, unlike his son’s, the utility of Dr. Proust’s writings was never in question. Across an output of thirty-four books, he devoted himself to considering a multitude of ways in which to further the physical well-being of the population, his titles ranging from a study of The Defense of Europe against the Plague to a slim volume on the specialized and, at the time, novel problem of Saturnism as Observed in Workers Involved in the Making of Electric Batteries. But Dr. Proust was perhaps best known among the reading public for a number of books conveying in concise, lively, and accessible language all that one might wish to know about physical fitness. It would in no way have contravened the tenor of his ambitions to describe him as a pioneer and master of the keep-fit self-help manual.
His most successful self-help book was entitled Elements of Hygiene; it was published in 1888, was fully illustrated, and was aimed at teenage girls, who were deemed to need advice on enhancing their health in order to produce a vigorous new generation of French citizens, of whom there was a shortfall after a century of bloody military adventures.
With interest in a healthy lifestyle having only increased since Dr. Proust’s day, there may be value in including at least a few of the doctor’s many insightful recommendations.
HOW DR. PROUST
CAN CHANGE YOUR HEALTH
Almost always due to incorrect posture. When a teenage girl is sewing, she must take care not to lean forward, cross her legs, or use a low table, which will squash vital digestive organs, interrupt the flow of her blood, and strain her spinal cord, the problem illustrated in a cautionary drawing:
She should instead be following this lady’s example:
Dr. Proust did not hide his distaste for these fashion items, describing them as self-destructive and perverse (in an important distinction for anyone worried about the correlation between slimness and attractiveness, he informed readers that “the thin woman is far from being the svelte woman”). And in an attempt to warn off girls who might have been tempted by corsets, Dr. Proust included an illustration showing their catastrophic effect on the spinal cord:
Rather than pretend to be slim and fit through artificial means, Dr. Proust proposed that girls follow a regime of regular exercise and included a number of practical, unstrenuous examples—like, for instance, jumping off walls …
hopping around …
swinging one’s arms …
and balancing on one foot.
With a father so masterful at aerobic instruction, at providing advice on corsets and sewing positions, it seems as if Marcel may have been hasty or simply overambitious in equating his life’s work with that of the author of Elements of Hygiene. Rather than blame him for the problem, one might ask whether any novel could genuinely be expected to contain therapeutic qualities, whether the genre could in itself offer any more relief than could be gained from an aspirin, a country walk, or a dry martini.
Charitably, one could suggest escapism. Marooned in familiar circumstances, there may be pleasure in buying a paperback at the station newsstand (“I was attracted by the idea of reaching a wider audience, the sort of people who buy a badly printed volume before catching a train,” specified Proust). Once we’ve boarded a carriage, we can abstract ourselves from current surroundings and enter a more agreeable, or at least agreeably different, world, breaking off occasionally to take in the passing scenery while holding open our badly printed volume at the point where an ill-tempered monocle-wearing baron prepares to enter his drawing room—until our destination is heard on the loudspeaker, the brakes let out their reluctant squeals, and we emerge once more into reality, symbolized by the station and its group of loitering slate-grey pigeons pecking shiftily at abandoned confectionery (in her memoirs, Proust’s maid Celeste helpfully informs those alarmed not to have made much ground in Proust’s novel that it is not designed to be read from one station to the next).
Whatever the pleasures of using a novel as an object by which to levitate into another world, it is not the only way of handling the genre. It certainly wasn’t Proust’s way, and would arguably not have been a very effective method of fulfilling the exalted therapeutic ambitions expressed to Céleste.
Perhaps the best indication of Proust’s views on how we should read lies in his approach to looking at paintings. After his death, his friend Lucien Daudet wrote an account of his time with him, which included a description of a visit they had once made together to the Louvre. Whenever he looked at paintings, Proust had a habit of trying to match the figures depicted on the canvases with people he knew from his own life. Daudet tells us that they went into a gallery hung with a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio. It was called Old Man and Boy, it had been painted in the 1480s, and it showed a kindly-looking man with a set of carbuncles on the tip of his nose.
Proust considered the Ghirlandaio for a moment, then turned to Daudet and told him that this man was the spitting image of the Marquis de Lau, a well-known figure in the Parisian social world.
How surprising to identify the Marquis, a gentleman in late-nineteenth-century Paris, in a portrait painted in Italy in the late fifteenth century. However, a snap of the Marquis survives. It shows him sitting in a garden with a group of ladies wearing the kind of elaborate dress you would need five maids to help you into. He has on a dark suit, a winged collar, cuff links, and a top hat, and despite the nineteenth-century paraphernalia and the poor quality of the photo, one imagines that he might indeed have looked strikingly similar to the carbuncled man painted by Ghirlandaio in Renaissance Italy, a long-lost brother dramatically separated from him across countries and centuries.
The possibility of making such visual connections between people circulating in apparently wholly different worlds explains Proust’s suggestion:
Aesthetically, the number of human types is so restricted that we must constantly, wherever we may be, have the pleasure of seeing people we know.
And such pleasure is not simply visual, for the restricted number of human types also means that we are repeatedly able to read about people we know, in places we might never have expected to do so.
For instance, in the second volume of Proust’s novel, the narrator visits the Normandy seaside resort of Balbec, where he meets and falls in love with someone I know, a young woman with an impudent expression, brilliant laughing eyes, plump matt cheeks, and a fondness for black polo caps. Here is Proust’s portrait of what Albertine sounds like when she is talking:
In speaking, Albertine kept her head motionless and her nostrils pinched, and scarcely moved her lips. The result of this was a drawling, nasal sound, into the composition of which there entered perhaps a provincial heredity, a juvenile affectation of British phlegm, the teaching of a foreign governess and a congestive hypertrophy of the mucus of the nose. This enunciation which, as it happened, soon disappeared when she knew people better, giving place to a girlish tone, might have been thought unpleasant. But to me it was peculiarly delightful. Whenever I had gone for several days without seeing her, I would refresh my spirit by repeating to myself: “We don’t ever see you playing golf,” with the nasal intonation in which she had uttered the words, point blank, without moving a muscle of her face. And I thought then that there was no one in the world so desirable.
It is difficult when reading the description of a fictional character not at the same time to imagine the real-life acquaintance whom he or she most closely, if often unexpectedly, resembles. It has, for example, proved impossible for me to separate Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes from the image of the fifty-five-year-old stepmother of an ex-girlfriend, even though this unsuspecting lady speaks no French, has no title, and lives in Devon. What is more, when Proust’s hesitant, shy character Saniette asks if he can visit the narrator in his hotel in Balbec, the proud defensive tone with which he masks his friendly intentions seems exactly that of an old college acquaintance of mine who had a manic habit of never putting himself in a situation where he might encounter rejection.
“You don’t happen to know what you’ll be doing in the next few days, because I will probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of Balbec? Not that it makes the slightest difference, I just thought I’d ask,” says Saniette to the narrator, though it could equally well have been Philip proposing plans for an evening.
How helpful of Proust to remark that “one cannot read a novel without ascribing to the heroine the traits of the one we love.” It lends respectability to a habit of imagining that Albertine, last seen walking in Balbec with her brilliant laughing eyes and black polo cap, bears a striking resemblance to my girlfriend Kate, who has never read Proust and prefers George Eliot, or Marie-Claire after a difficult day.
Such intimate communion between our own life and the novels we read may be why Proust argued:
In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.
But why would readers seek to be the readers of their own selves? Why does Proust privilege the connection between ourselves and works of art, as much in his novel as in his museum habits?
One answer is because it is the only way in which art can properly affect rather than simply distract us from life, and that there are a stream of extraordinary benefits attached to what might be termed the Marquis de Lau phenomenon (MLP), attached to the possibility of recognizing Kate in a portrait of Albertine, Philip in a description of Saniette, and, more generally, ourselves in badly printed volumes purchased in train stations.
THE BENEFITS OF THE MLP
(I) TO FEEL AT HOME EVERYWHERE
The fact that we might be surprised to recognize someone we know in a portrait painted four centuries ago suggests how hard it is to hold on to anything more than a theoretical belief in a universal human nature. As Proust saw the problem:
People of bygone ages seem infinitely remote from us. We do not feel justified in ascribing to them any underlying intentions beyond those they formally express; we are amazed when we come across an emotion more or less like what we feel today in a Homeric hero.… [I]t is as though we imagined the epic poet … to be as remote from ourselves as an animal seen in a zoo.
It is perhaps only normal if our initial impulse on being introduced to the characters of The Odyssey is to stare at them as though they were a family of duck-billed platypuses circling their enclosure in the municipal zoo. Bewilderment might be no less intense at the thought of listening to a louche character with a thick mustache, standing in the midst of antiquated-looking figures:
But an advantage of more prolonged encounters with Proust or Homer is that worlds that had seemed threateningly alien reveal themselves to be essentially much like our own, expanding the range of places in which we feel at home. It means we can open the zoo gates and release a set of trapped creatures from the Trojan War or the Faubourg Saint-Germain, whom we had previously considered with unwarranted provincial suspicion because they had names like Eurycleia and Telemachus or had never sent a fax.
(II) A CURE FOR LONELINESS
We might also let ourselves out of the zoo. What is considered normal for a person to feel in any place at any point is liable to be an abbreviated version of what is in fact normal, so that the experiences of fictional characters afford us a hugely expanded picture of human behavior, and thereby a confirmation of the essential normality of thoughts or feelings unmentioned in our immediate environment. After we have childishly picked a fight with a lover who had looked distracted throughout dinner, there is relief in hearing Proust’s narrator admit to us that “as soon as I found Albertine not being nice to me, instead of telling her I was sad, I became nasty,” and revealing that “I never expressed a desire to break up with her except when I was unable to do without her,” after which our own romantic antics might seem less like those of a perverse platypus.
Similarly, MLPs can make us feel less lonely. After we have been abandoned by a lover who has expressed in the kindest way imaginable a need to spend a little more time on her own, how consoling to lie in bed and witness Proust’s narrator crystallizing the following thought:
When two people part it is the one who is not in love who makes the tender speeches.
How comforting to witness a fictional person (who is also, miraculously, ourselves as we read) suffering the same agonies of a saccharine dismissal and, importantly, surviving.
(III) THE FINGER-PLACING ABILITY
The value of a novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life; it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognize as our own, but could not have formulated on our own.
We might have known someone like the fictional Duchesse de Guermantes and felt there was something superior and insolent in her manner, without knowing quite what, until Proust discreetly pointed out in parentheses how the Duchesse reacted when, during a smart dinner, a Madame de Gallardon made the error of being a little overfamiliar with the Duchesse, known also as Oriane des Laumes, and addressed her by her first name:
“Oriane” (at once Mme des Laumes looked with amused astonishment towards an invisible third person, whom she seemed to call to witness that she had never authorised Mme de Gallardon to use her Christian name) …
An effect of reading a book which has devoted attention to noticing such faint yet vital tremors is that once we’ve put the volume down and resumed our own life, we may attend to precisely the things the author would have responded to had he or she been in our company. Our mind will be like a radar newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness; the effect will be like bringing a radio into a room that we had thought silent, and realizing that the silence only existed at a particular frequency and that all along we in fact shared the room with waves of sound coming in from a Ukrainian station or the nighttime chatter of a minicab firm. Our attention will be drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend, or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about. The book will have sensitized us, stimulated our dormant antennae by evidence of its own developed sensitivity.
Which is why Proust proposed, in words he would modestly never have applied to his own novel:
If we read the new masterpiece of a man of genius, we are delighted to find in it those reflections of ours that we despised, joys and sorrows which we had repressed, a whole world of feeling we had scorned, and whose value the book in which we discover them suddenly teaches us.
Whatever the merits of Proust’s work, even a fervent admirer would be hard pressed to deny one of its awkward features: length. As Proust’s brother, Robert, put it, “The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time.” And as they lie in bed with their limb newly encased in plaster or a tubercle bacillus diagnosed in their lungs, they face another challenge in the length of individual Proustian sentences, snakelike constructions, the very longest of which, located in the fifth volume, would, if arranged along a single line in standard-sized text, run on for a little short of four meters and stretch around the base of a bottle of wine seventeen times:
Alfred Humblot had never seen anything like it. As head of the esteemed publishing house Ollendorf, he had, early in 1913, been asked to consider Proust’s manuscript for publication by one of his authors, Louis de Robert, who had undertaken to help Proust get into print. “My dear friend, I may be dense,” replied Humblot after taking a brief and clearly bewildering glance at the opening of the novel, “but I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.”
He wasn’t alone. Jacques Madeleine, a reader for the publishing house Fasquelle, had been asked to look at the same bundle of papers a few months earlier. “At the end of seven hundred and twelve pages of this manuscript,” he had reported, “after innumerable griefs at being drowned in unfathomable developments and irritating impatience at never being able to rise to the surface—one doesn’t have a single, but not a single clue of what this is about. What is the point of all this? What does it all mean? Where is it all leading? Impossible to know anything about it! Impossible to say anything about it!”
Madeleine nevertheless had a go at summarizing the events of the first seventeen pages: “A man has insomnia. He turns over in bed, he recaptures his impressions and hallucinations of half-sleep, some of which have to do with the difficulty of getting to sleep when he was a boy in his room in the country house of his parents in Combray Seventeen pages! Where one sentence (at the end of page 4 and page 5) goes on for forty-four lines.”
Since all other publishers sympathized with these sentiments, Proust was forced to pay for the publication of his work himself (and was left to enjoy the regrets and contrite apologies that flowed in a few years later). But the accusation of verbosity was not so fleeting. At the end of 1921, his work now widely acclaimed, Proust received a letter from an American, who described herself as twenty-seven, resident in Rome, and extremely beautiful. She also explained that for the previous three years she had done nothing with her time other than read Proust’s book. However, there was a problem. “I don’t understand a thing, but absolutely nothing. Dear Marcel Proust, stop being a poseur and come down to earth. Just tell me in two lines what you really wanted to say.”
The frustration of the Roman beauty suggests that the poseur had violated a fundamental law of length stipulating the appropriate number of words in which an experience could be related. He had not written too much per se; he had digressed intolerably given the significance of the events under consideration. Falling asleep? Two words should cover it, four lines if the hero had indigestion or if a Labrador was giving birth in the courtyard below. But the poseur hadn’t digressed simply about sleep; he had made the same error with dinner parties, seductions, jealousies.
It explains the inspiration behind the “All-England Summarise Proust Competition,” once hosted by Monty Python in a south coast seaside resort, a competition that required contestants to précis the seven volumes of Proust’s work in fifteen seconds or less, and to deliver the results first in a swimsuit and then in evening dress. The first contestant was Harry Baggot from Luton, who hurriedly offered the following:
Proust’s novel ostensibly tells of the irrevocability of time lost, of innocence and experience, the reinstatement of extra-temporal values and time regained. Ultimately the novel is both optimistic and set within the context of human religious experience. In the first volume, Swann visits—
But fifteen seconds did not allow for more. “A good attempt,” declared the game-show host with dubious sincerity, “but unfortunately he chose a general appraisal of the work before getting on to specific details.” The contestant was thanked for his attempt, commended on his swimming trunks, and shown off stage.
Despite this personal defeat, the contest as a whole remained optimistic that an acceptable summary of Proust’s work was possible, a faith that what had originally taken seven volumes to express could reasonably be condensed into fifteen seconds or less, without too great a loss of integrity or meaning, if only an appropriate candidate could be found.
What did Proust have for breakfast? Before his illness became too severe, two cups of strong coffee with milk, served in a silver pot engraved with his initials. He liked his coffee tightly packed in a filter with the water made to pass through drop by drop. He also had a croissant, fetched by his maid from a boulangerie that knew just how to make them, crisp and buttery, and which he would dunk in his coffee as he looked through his letters and read the newspaper.
He had complex feelings about this last activity. However unusual the attempt to compress seven volumes of a novel into fifteen seconds, perhaps nothing exceeds, in both regularity and scope, the compression entailed by a daily newspaper. Stories that would comfortably fill twenty volumes find themselves reduced to narrow columns, competing for the reader’s attention with a multitude of once profound, now etiolated dramas.
“That abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper,” wrote Proust, “thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty-thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of café au lait.”
Of course, it shouldn’t surprise us how naturally the thought of another sip of coffee could derail our attempt to consider with requisite care those closely packed, perhaps now crumb-littered pages. The more an account is compressed, the more it seems that it deserves no more space than it has been allocated. How easy to imagine that nothing at all has happened today, to forget the fifty thousand war dead, sigh, toss the paper to one side, and experience a mild wave of melancholy at the tedium of daily routine.
It was not Proust’s way. An entire philosophy, not only of reading but of life, could be said to emerge from Lucien Daudet’s passing remark, informing us:
He read newspapers with great care. He wouldn’t even overlook the news-in-brief section. A news-in-brief told by him turned into a whole tragic or comic novel, thanks to his imagination and his fantasy.
The news-in-brief in Le Figaro, Proust’s daily paper, were not for the fainthearted. On a particular morning in May 1914, readers would have been treated to some of the following:
- At a busy crossing in Villeurbanne, a horse leapt into the rear carriage of a tram, overturning all the passengers, of whom three were seriously injured and had to be taken to the hospital.
- While introducing a friend to the workings of an electric power station in Aube, Mr. Marcel Peigny put a finger on a high-voltage cable and was at once fatally electrocuted.
- A teacher, Mr. Jules Renard, committed suicide yesterday in the Métropolitain, in the République station, by firing a single revolver shot into his chest. Mr. Renard had been suffering from an incurable disease.
What sort of tragic or comic novels would these have swelled into? Jules Renard? An unhappily married, asthmatic chemistry teacher employed by a Left Bank girls’ school, diagnosed with colon cancer. The electrocuted Marcel Peigny? Killed while impressing a friend with a knowledge of electrical hardware in order to encourage a union between his harelipped son, Serge, and his friend’s uncorseted daughter, Mathilde. And the horse in Villeurbanne? A somersault into the tram provoked by misjudged nostalgia for a show-jumping career, or vengeance for the omnibus that had recently killed its brother in the market square, later put down for horse steak, suitable for feuilleton format. Echoes of Balzac, Dostoyevsky, and Zola.
A more sober example of Proust’s inflationary efforts survives. In January 1907 he was reading the paper when his eye was caught by a headline of a news-in-brief, which read A TRAGEDY OF MADNESS. A bourgeois young man, Henri van Blarenberghe, had, “in a fit of madness,” butchered his mother to death with a kitchen knife. She had cried out, “Henri, Henri, what have you done to me?” raised her arms to the sky, and collapsed on the floor. Henri had then locked himself in his room and tried to cut his throat with the knife, but he had had difficulty severing the right vein, and so had put a revolver to his temple. Yet he wasn’t an expert with this weapon either, and when the police officers (one of whom happened to be called Proust) arrived at the scene, they found him in his room, lying on his bed, his face a mess, one eye dangling by connecting tissue out of a blood-filled socket. They began to interrogate him about the incident with his mother outside, but he died before an adequate statement could be drawn up.
Proust might quickly have turned the page and taken an extra gulp of coffee had he not happened to be an acquaintance of the murderer. He had met the polite and sensitive Henri van Blarenberghe at a number of dinner parties, they had exchanged a few letters thereafter; indeed, Proust had received one only a few weeks earlier, in which the young man had inquired about his health, wondered what the new year would bring for them both, and hoped he and Proust would be able to meet up again soon.
Alfred Humblot, Jacques Madeleine, and the beautiful American correspondent from Rome would possibly have judged that the correct literary response to this grim crime was an appalled word or two. Proust wrote a five-page article instead, in which he attempted to place the squalid tale of dangling eyeballs and daggers back into a broader context, judging it not as a freak murder defying precedent or understanding, but rather as a manifestation of a tragic aspect of human nature which had been at the center of many of the greatest works of Western art since the Greeks. For Proust, Henri’s delusion while he stabbed his mother linked him to the confused fury of Ajax massacring the Greek shepherds and their flocks. Henri was Oedipus, his dangling eye an echo of the way Oedipus had used the gold buckles from the dead Jocasta’s dress to puncture his own eyeballs. The devastation Henri must have felt at seeing his dead mother reminded Proust of Lear embracing the body of Cordelia and crying out: “She’s gone for ever. She’s dead as earth. No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all?” And when police officer Proust had arrived to question Henri as he lay expiring, the author Proust had felt like acting as Kent had done when telling Edgar not to awaken the unconscious Lear: “Vex not his ghost: O! let him pass; he hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer.”
These literary quotations were not simply designed to impress (though Proust did happen to feel that “one must never miss an opportunity of quoting things by others which are always more interesting than those one thinks up oneself”). Rather, they were a way of alluding to the universal implications of matricide. For Proust, we could not judge Blarenberghe’s crime as though we were wholly unrelated to its dynamics. Even if we had only forgotten to send Mother a birthday card, we would have to recognize a trace of our guilt in the death cries of Madame van Blarenberghe. “‘What have you done to me! What have you done to me!’ If we wanted to think about it,” wrote Proust, “perhaps there is no really loving mother who could not, on her dying day, and often long before, address this reproach to her son. The truth is that as we grow older, we kill all those who love us by the cares we give them, by the anxious tenderness we inspire in them and constantly arouse.”
By such efforts, a story that had seemed to deserve no more than a gruesome few lines in a news-in-brief had been integrated into the history of tragedy and mother-son relationships, its dynamics observed with the complex sympathy one would usually accord to Oedipus on stage, but consider inappropriate, even shocking, when lavished on a murderer from the morning paper.
It shows how vulnerable much of human experience is to abbreviation, how easily it can be stripped of the more obvious signposts by which we guide ourselves when ascribing importance. Much literature and drama would conceivably have proved entirely unengaging, would have said nothing to us had we first encountered its subject matter over breakfast in the form of a news-in-brief.
- Tragic end for Verona lovebirds: after mistakenly thinking his sweetheart dead, a young man took his life. Having discovered the fate of her lover, the woman killed herself in turn.
- A young mother threw herself under a train and died in Russia after domestic problems.
- A young mother took arsenic and died in a French provincial town after domestic problems.
Unfortunately, the very artistry of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Flaubert has the tendency to suggest that it would have been apparent even from a news-in-brief that there was something significant about Romeo, Anna, and Emma, something which would have led any right-thinking person to see that these were characters fit for great literature or a show at the Globe, whereas of course there would have been nothing to distinguish them from the somersaulting horse in Villeurbanne or the electrocuted Marcel Peigny in Aube. Hence Proust’s assertion that the greatness of works of art has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter. And hence his associated claim that everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensées.
Blaise Pascal was born in 1623, and was recognized from an early age—and by more than just his proud family—to be a genius. By twelve, he had worked out the first thirty-two propositions of Euclid; he went on to invent the mathematics of probability; he measured atmospheric pressure, constructed a calculating machine, designed an omnibus, got tuberculosis, and wrote the brilliant and pessimistic series of aphorisms in defense of Christian belief known as the Pensées.
It should come as no surprise to discover things of value in the Pensées. They are written with seductive immediacy, broaching topics of universal concern with modern succinctness. “We do not choose as captain of a ship the most highly born of those aboard,” runs one aphorism, and we can admire the dry irony of this protest against inherited privilege, which must have been so galling in the unmeritocratic society of Pascal’s day. The habit of putting people into important offices simply because they had important parents is quietly ridiculed in an analogy between statecraft and navigation: Pascal’s readers might have been intimidated and silenced by an aristocrat’s elaborate argument that he had a divine right to determine economic policy, even though he had failed to master the upper reaches of the seven-times table, but they would be unlikely to swallow a similar argument from him if he knew nothing of sailing and was proposing to take the wheel on a journey around the Cape of Good Hope.
How frothy soap looks beside this. How far we have drifted from the spiritual realm with this long-haired maiden, clutching her bosom in rapture at the thought of her toilet soap, handily kept with the necklaces in a padded jewelry box.
It seems difficult to argue that soapy bliss is truly as significant as Pascal’s Pensées. But such was not Proust’s intention; he was merely saying that a soap advertisement could be the starting point for thoughts which might end up being no less profound than those already well-expressed, already well-developed in the Pensées. If we were unlikely to have had deep thoughts inspired by toilet soaps before, it could merely have been out of adherence to conventional notions about where to have such thoughts, a resistance to the spirit that had guided Flaubert in turning a newspaper story about the suicide of a young wife into Madame Bovary, or the spirit that had guided Proust in taking on the initially unprepossessing topic of falling asleep and devoting thirty pages to it.
A similar spirit appears to have guided Proust in his reading matter. His friend Maurice Duplay tells us that what Marcel most liked reading when he couldn’t get to sleep was a train timetable.
The document was not consulted for practical advice; the departure time of the Saint-Lazare train was of no immediate importance to a man who found no reason to leave Paris in the last eight years of his life. Rather, this timetable was read and enjoyed as though it were a gripping novel about country life, because the mere names of provincial train stations provided Proust’s imagination with enough material to elaborate entire worlds, to picture domestic dramas in rural villages, shenanigans in local government, and life out in the fields.
Proust argued that enjoyment of such wayward reading matter was typical of a writer, someone who could be counted on to develop enthusiasms for things that were apparently out of line with great art, a person for whom
a terrible musical production in a provincial theatre, or a ball which people of taste find ridiculous, will either evoke memories or else be linked to an order of reveries and preoccupations, far more than some admirable performance at the Opéra or an ultra smart soirée in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. The names of northern railway stations in a timetable, where he would like to imagine himself stepping from the train on an autumn evening, when the trees are already bare and smelling strongly in the keen air, an insipid publication for people of taste, full of names he has not heard since childhood, may have far greater value for him than fine volumes of philosophy, and lead people of taste to say that for a man of talent, he has very stupid tastes.
Or at least, unconventional tastes. This often became apparent to people who met Proust for the first time and were quizzed on aspects of their life which they had previously considered with all the meager spiritual attention usually paid to ads for household goods and timetables from Paris to Le Havre.
In 1919 the young diplomat Harold Nicolson was introduced to Proust at a party at the Ritz. Nicolson had been posted to Paris with the British Delegation at the peace conference following the Great War, an assignment he found interesting, but clearly not as interesting as Proust ended up finding it. In his diary, Nicolson reported of the party:
A swell affair. Proust is white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced. He asks me questions. Will I please tell him how the Committees work. I say, “Well we generally meet at 10.00, there are secretaries behind …” “Mais non, mais non, vous allez trop vite. Recommencez. Vous prenez la voiture de la Délégation. Vous descendez au Quai d’Orsay. Vous montez I’escalier. Vous entrez dans la Salle. Et alors? Précisez, mon cher, précisez.” So I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all: the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons. He listens enthralled, interrupting from time to time—“Mais précisez, mon cher monsieur, n’allez pas trop vite.”
It might be a Proustian slogan: n’allez pas trop vite. And an advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process. For Nicolson, an early morning that had been summed up by the terse statement “Well we generally meet at 10.00” had been expanded to reveal handshakes and maps, rustling papers and macaroons—the macaroon acting as a useful symbol, in its seductive sweetness, of what gets noticed when we don’t go by trop vite.
Less greedily, more importantly, going by slowly may entail greater sympathy. We are being a good deal more sympathetic to the disturbed Mr. van Blarenberghe in writing an extended meditation on his crime than in muttering “crazy” and turning the page.
And expansion brings similar benefits to noncriminal activity. Proust’s narrator spends an unusual number of pages of the novel describing a painful indecision; he doesn’t know whether to propose marriage to his girlfriend Albertine, whom he sometimes thinks he couldn’t live without, and at other times is certain he never wants to see again.
The problem could be resumed in under two seconds by a skilled contestant from the All-England Summarise Proust competition: Young man unsure whether or not to propose marriage. Though not as brief as this, the letter the narrator one day receives from his mother expresses his marriage dilemma in terms that make his previous, copious analysis look shamefully exaggerated. After reading it, the narrator tells himself:
I’ve been dreaming, the matter is quite simple.… I am an indecisive young man, and it is a case of one of those marriages where it takes time to find out whether it will happen or not. There is nothing in this peculiar to Albertine.
Simple accounts are not without their pleasures. Suddenly, we are just “insecure,” “homesick,” “settling in,” “facing up to death,” or “afraid of letting go.” It can be soothing to identify with a description of a problem which makes a previous assessment look needlessly complicated.
But it usually isn’t. A moment after reading the letter, the narrator reconsiders and realizes that there must be more to his story with Albertine than his mother has suggested, and so once again sides with length, with the hundreds of pages he has devoted to charting every shift in his relation with Albertine (n’allez pas trop vite), and comments:
One can of course reduce everything, if one regards it in its social aspect, to the most commonplace item of newspaper gossip. From outside, it is perhaps thus that I myself would look at it. But I know very well that what is true, what at least is also true, is everything that I have thought, what I have read in Albertine’s eyes, the fears that torment me, the problem that I continually put to myself with regard to Albertine. The story of the hesitant suitor and the broken engagement may correspond to this, as the report of a theatrical performance made by an intelligent reporter may give us the subject of one of Ibsen’s plays. But there is something beyond those facts that are reported.
The lesson? To hang on to the performance, to read the newspaper as though it were only the tip of a tragic or comic novel, and to use thirty pages to describe a fall into sleep when need be. And if there is no time, at least to resist the approach of Alfred Humblot at Ollendorf and Jacques Madeleine at Fasquelle, which Proust defined as “the self-satisfaction felt by ‘busy’ men—however idiotic their business—at ‘not having time’ to do what you are doing.”
A good way of evaluating the wisdom of someone’s ideas might be to undertake a careful examination of the state of their own mind and health. After all, if their pronouncements were truly worthy of our attention, we should expect that the first person to reap their benefits would be their creator. Might this justify an interest not simply in a writer’s work but also in their life?
Sainte-Beuve, the respected nineteenth-century critic, would have eagerly concurred:
Until such time as one has put to oneself a certain number of questions about an author, and has answered them, be it only to oneself alone and under one’s breath, one cannot be sure of having grasped him completely, even though the questions may seem quite foreign to the nature of his writings: What were his religious ideas? How did the spectacle of nature affect him? How did he behave in the matter of women, of money? Was he rich, poor; what was his diet, his daily routine? What was his vice or his weakness? None of the answers to these questions is irrelevant.
Even so, the answers tend to be surprising. However brilliant, however wise the work, it seems that the lives of artists can be relied upon to exhibit an extraordinary, incongruous range of turmoil, misery, and stupidity.
It accounts for why Proust dismissed Sainte-Beuve’s thesis, and argued forcefully that it was the books, not the lives, that mattered. That way, one could be sure of appreciating what was important (“It’s true that there are people who are superior to their books, but that’s because their books are not Books”). Balzac may have been ill-mannered, Stendhal conversationally dull, and Baudelaire obsessive, but why should this color our approach to their works, which suffer from none of the faults of their creators?
Whatever the persuasiveness of the argument, it is easy to see why Proust should have been especially keen on it. Whereas his writing was logical, well constructed, often serene, even sagelike, he led a life of appalling physical and psychological suffering. While it is clear why someone might be interested in developing a Proustian approach to life, the sane would never harbor a desire to lead a life like Proust’s.
Could this degree of suffering really be allowed to pass by without raising suspicion? Could Proust really have known much, could he have had anything valid to say to us, and still have led such a difficult, unexemplary life? Can the proof be allowed to stand so far from Sainte-Beuve’s pudding?
The life certainly was a trial. The psychological problems were exhaustive enough:
THE PROBLEM OF A JEWISH MOTHER: Proust was born into the clutches of a recklessly extreme example. “I was always four years old for her,” said Marcel of Madame Proust, otherwise known as Maman, or more usually “chère petite Maman.”
“He never said ‘ma mère’ nor ‘mon père’, but always only ‘Papa’ and ‘Maman’ in the tone of an emotional little boy, with tears automatically welling up in his eyes as soon as these syllables had been uttered, while the hoarse sound of a strangled sob could be heard in his tightened throat,” recalled Proust’s friend Marcel Plantevignes.
Madame Proust loved her son with an intensity that would have put an ardent lover to shame, an affection that created, or at the very least dramatically aggravated, her eldest son’s disposition toward helplessness. There was nothing she felt he could do properly without her. They lived together from his birth until her death, by which time he was thirty-four. Even so, her greatest anxiety was whether Marcel would be able to survive in the world once she had gone. “My mother wanted to live in order not to leave me in the state of anguish which she knew I was in without her,” he explained after her death. “All of our life had been simply a training, she for teaching me how to do without her the day she would leave me.… And I, for my part, I persuaded her that I could quite well live without her.”
Though well-meaning, Madame Proust’s concern for her son was never far from bossy intervention. At the age of twenty-four, in a rare moment when they were apart, Marcel wrote to tell her that he was sleeping quite well (the quality of his sleep, his stool, and his appetite was a constant concern in their correspondence). But Maman complained that he was not being precise enough: “My darling, your ‘slept so many hours’ continue to tell me nothing or rather nothing that counts. I ask and ask again:
“You went to sleep at …
“You got up at …”
Marcel was usually happy to fulfill his mother’s controlling desire for corporeal information (she and Sainte-Beuve would have had much to talk about). From time to time, Marcel spontaneously offered something up for general family consideration: “Ask Papa what it means to feel a burning sensation at the moment of peeing which forces you to interrupt, then to restart, five or six times in quarter of an hour. As I’ve been drinking oceans of beer these days, perhaps it comes from that,” he mused in a letter to his mother—at which point Maman was fifty-three, Papa was sixty-eight, and Marcel thirty-one.
In answer to a questionnaire asking him for “your notion of unhappiness,” Proust replied, “To be separated from Maman.” When he couldn’t sleep at night and his mother was in her bedroom, he would write letters that he would leave at her door for her to find in the morning: “My dear little Maman,” ran a typical example, “I am writing you a note while I’m finding it impossible to sleep, to tell you that I am thinking of you.”
Despite such correspondence, there were necessarily underlying tensions. Marcel sensed that his mother preferred him to be ill and dependent rather than healthy and peeing well. “The truth is that as soon as I am better, because the life which makes me get better annoys you, you ruin everything until I am ill again,” he wrote in a rare, though significant, outburst against Madame Proust’s crippling desire to enact a nurse-patient relationship with him. “It is sad not to be able to have at the same time affection and health.”
AWKWARD DESIRES: Then came the slow recognition that Marcel was not like other boys. “No one can tell at first whether he is an invert, or a poet, or a snob, or a scoundrel. The boy who has been reading erotic poetry or looking at obscene pictures, if he then presses his body against a schoolfriend, only imagines himself to be communing with him in an identical desire for a woman. How should he suppose that he is not like everybody else when he recognises the substance of what he feels in reading Mme de La Fayette, Racine, Baudelaire, Walter Scott?”
Yet gradually, Proust realized that the prospect of a night with Scott’s Diana Vernon held none of the attractions of being pressed up against a school friend, a difficult realization given the unenlightened state of the France of his day, and a mother who continued to hope that her son would marry, and displayed a habit of asking his male friends to bring along young women when they took Marcel out to the theater or a restaurant.
DATING PROBLEMS: If only she had poured her energies into inviting the other gender, for it wasn’t easy to find young men similarly disenchanted with Diana Vernon. “You think me jaded and effete. You are mistaken,” Proust protested to one recalcitrant candidate, a pretty sixteen-year-old classmate called Daniel Halévy. “If you are delicious, if you have lovely eyes …, if your body and mind … are so lithe and tender that I feel I could mingle more intimately with your thoughts by sitting on your lap …, there is nothing in all that to deserve your contemptuous words.”
Rebuffs led Proust to justify his desire with selective appeals to the history of Western philosophy. “I am glad to say that I have some highly intelligent friends, distinguished by great moral delicacy, who have amused themselves at one time with a boy,” Proust informed Daniel. “That was the beginning of their youth. Later on they went back to women.… I would like to speak to you of two masters of consummate wisdom, who in all their lives plucked only the bloom, Socrates and Montaigne. They permit men in their earliest youth to ‘amuse themselves,’ so as to know something of all pleasures, and so as to release their excess tenderness. They held that these at once sensual and intellectual friendships are better for a young man with a keen sense of beauty and awakened ‘senses’, than affairs with stupid, corrupt women.”
Nevertheless, the blinkered boy continued in his pursuit of the stupid and corrupt.
ROMANTIC PESSIMISM: Proust’s romantic pessimism was at least partly founded on the combination of an intense need for love and a tragicomic clumsiness in securing it. “My only consolation when I am really sad is to love and to be loved,” he declared, and defined his principal character trait as: “The need to be loved; more precisely, a need to be petted and spoilt more than a need to be admired.” But an adolescence filled with misguided seductions of school friends led to an equally fruitless adulthood. There were a succession of crushes on young men who didn’t call back. In the seaside resort of Cabourg in 1911, Proust expressed his frustration to the young Albert Nahmias: “If only I could change sex and age, take on the looks of a young and pretty woman in order to embrace you with all my heart.” For a time, there was a modicum of happiness with Alfred Agostinelli, a taxi driver who moved into Proust’s flat with his wife, but Alfred met a premature end in a plane crash off Antibes, and thereafter there were to be no profound emotional engagements, merely further pronouncements as to the inseparability of love and suffering: “Love is an incurable disease.” “In love, there is permanent suffering.” “Those who love and those who are happy are not the same.”
FAILURE OF THEATRICAL CAREER: Despite the pitfalls of psychobiographical speculation, it seems that there were underlying emotional difficulties focused on the integration of amorous and sexual emotions, a claim best illustrated by quoting a proposal for a play which Proust sent to Reynaldo Hahn in 1906. It was to run as follows:
A couple adore each other, immense affection, saintly, pure (needless to say, chaste) of the husband for his wife. But this man is a sadist and, besides the love for his wife, he has relations with whores, where he finds pleasure in soiling his own feelings. Finally, the sadist, always needing something stronger, comes to soil his wife in talking to these whores, in asking them to say bad things about her, and to say them himself (he is sickened five minutes later). While he is talking like this once, his wife comes into the room without him hearing. She can’t believe her eyes or ears, falls. Then she leaves her husband. He begs, to no avail. The whores want to come back, but sadism would be too painful for him now, and after a last attempt to reconquer his wife, who doesn’t even answer him, he kills himself.
Sadly, no Paris theater expressed an interest.
THE INCOMPREHENSION OF FRIENDS: A characteristic problem for geniuses. When Swann’s Way was ready, Proust sent copies to his friends, many of whom had difficulty opening the envelope.
“Well, my dear Louis, have you read my book?” Proust recalled asking the aristocratic playboy Louis d’Albufera.
“Read your book? You’ve written a book?” answered a surprised d’Albufera.
“Yes of course, Louis, and I even sent you a copy.”
“Ah, my little Marcel, if you sent it to me, I’ve certainly read it. Only I wasn’t sure I’d received it.”
Madame Gaston de Caillavet was a more grateful recipient. She wrote to thank the author for his gift in the warmest terms. “I constantly re-read the passage in Swann about first Communion,” she told him, “as I experienced the same panic, the same disillusionment.” It was a touching thought for Madame Gaston de Caillavet to share; it might have been kinder had she taken the trouble to read the book and noticed that there was no such religious ceremony within it.
Proust concluded, “About a book published only a few months earlier, people never speak to me without mistakes proving either that they’ve forgotten it or that they haven’t read it.”
AT THIRTY, HIS OWN ASSESSMENT: “Without pleasures, objectives, activities or ambit ions, with the life ahead of me finished and with an awareness of the grief I cause my parents, I have little happiness.”
As for a list of the physical afflictions:
ASTHMA: Attacks start when he is ten, and continue all his life. They are particularly severe, the fits lasting over an hour, as many as ten a day. Because they occur more in the daytime than at night, Proust takes up a nocturnal routine: he goes to sleep at seven in the morning and wakes up at four or five in the afternoon. He finds it impossible to go outdoors much, particularly in the summer, and when he has to, it is only within the confines of a sealed taxi. The windows and curtains of his flat are kept perennially shut; he never sees the sun, breathes any fresh air, or takes any exercise.
DIET: He gradually becomes unable to eat more than a single, and unhelpfully gargantuan, meal a day, which has to be served at least eight hours before his bedtime. Describing a typical meal to a doctor, Proust details a menu of two eggs in a cream sauce, a wing of a roast chicken, three croissants, a plate of french fries, some grapes, some coffee, and a bottle of beer.
DIGESTION: “I go frequently—and badly—to the loo,” he tells the same doctor unsurprisingly. Constipation is quasi-permanent, relieved only by a strong laxative every two weeks, which usually brings on stomach cramps. Urinating is no easier: it is accompanied by a sharp burning sensation, isn’t possible often, and the results display an excess of urea and uric acid. His conclusion: “To ask pity of our body is like discoursing in front of an octopus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the tides.”
UNDERPANTS: Needs to have these circling him tight around the stomach before he has any chance of getting to sleep. They have to be fastened with a special pin whose absence, when Proust accidentally loses it early one morning in the bathroom, keeps him awake all day.
SENSITIVE SKIN: Can’t use any soap, or cream or cologne. He has to wash with finely woven, moistened towels, then pat himself dry with fresh linen (an average wash requires twenty towels, which Proust specifies must be taken to the only laundry that uses the right non-irritant powder, the blanchisserie Lavigne, which also does Jean Cocteau’s laundry). He finds that older clothes are better for him than new ones, and develops deep attachments to old shoes and handkerchiefs.
MICE: Proust has a terror of these. When Paris is bombed by the Germans in 1918, he confides that he is more terrified of mice than of cannons.
COLD: Is always feeling it. Even in midsummer, he wears an overcoat and four jumpers if forced to leave the house. At dinner parties, he usually keeps a fur coat on. Nevertheless, people who greet him are surprised to find how cold his hands are. Fearing the effects of smoke, he doesn’t allow his room to be properly heated, and keeps himself warm mostly through hot-water bottles and pullovers. It means he often has colds and, more particularly, a runny nose. At the end of one letter to his friend Reynaldo Hahn, he mentions that he has wiped his nose eighty-three times since starting the letter. The letter is three pages long.
SENSITIVITY TO ALTITUDE: On returning to Paris after visiting his uncle in Versailles, Proust experiences a malaise and is unable to climb the stairs to his apartment. In a letter to his uncle, he later attributes the problem to the change in altitude he has undergone. Versailles is eighty-three meters above Paris.
COUGHING: Does it very loudly. He reports of one fit in 1917: “The neighbours, on hearing a continuous thundering and spasmodic barking, will think that I have bought either a church organ or a dog, or else that by some immoral (and purely imaginary) liaison with a lady, I have fathered a child who happens to have whooping cough.”
TRAVEL: Sensitive to any disruption of routine or habit, Proust suffers from homesickness and fears that every journey will kill him. He explains that in the first few days in a new place, he is as unhappy as-certain animals when night comes (it is not clear which animals he has in mind). He formulates a wish to live on a yacht and thereby move around without having to get out of bed. He suggests this idea to the happily married Madame Straus: “Would you like us to hire a boat in which there will be no noise and from which we shall watch all the most beautiful cities in the universe parade past us on the sea-shore without our leaving our bed (our beds)?” The proposal is not taken up.
UNWILLINGNESS TO GET OUT OF BED: Proust preferred to spend most of his time in bed. He turned it into his desk and office. Did it provide a defense against the cruel world outside? “When one is sad, it is lovely to lie in the warmth of one’s bed, and there, with all effort and struggle at an end, even perhaps with one’s head under the blankets, surrender completely to wailing, like branches in the autumn wind.”
NOISE FROM THE NEIGHBORS: A manic sensitivity to it. Life in a Parisian block of flats is hellish, particularly when someone is doing a little music practice upstairs. “There is an inanimate object which has a capacity to exasperate which no human being will ever attain: a piano.”
He is nearly killed by aggravation when redecoration starts in the flat adjoining his in the spring of 1907. He explains the problem to Madame Straus: the workmen arrive at seven in the morning, “insist on manifesting their matinal high spirits by hammering ferociously and scraping their saws behind my bed, then idle for half an hour, then start hammering ferociously again so I can’t get back to sleep.… I’m at the end of my tether and my doctor advises me to go away because my condition is too serious to go on putting up with all this.” What is more, “(excuse me, Madame!) they are about to install a basin and a lavatory seat in her WC which is next to my bedroom wall.” And to finish him off: “There’s another gentleman who’s moving in on the fourth floor of the same house, from which I can hear everything as though it were in my bedroom.” He resorts to calling his neighbor a cow, and when the workmen alter the size of her toilet seat three times, insinuates that it is to accommodate her enormous behind. Such is the noise, he concludes that there must be a pharaonic dimension to the redecoration, and tells the keen Egyptologist Madame Straus: “A dozen workers a day hammering away with such frenzy for so many months must have erected something as majestic as the Pyramid of Cheops which passers-by must be astonished to see between the Printemps and Saint-Augustin.” No pyramid is sighted.
OTHER AILMENTS: “One thinks that people who are always ill don’t also have the illnesses of other people,” Proust tells Lucien Daudet, “but they do.” In this category, Proust includes fevers, colds, bad eyesight, an inability to swallow, tooth ache, elbow ache, and dizziness.
DISBELIEF OF OTHERS: Proust frequently has to suffer distressing insinuations that he is not as ill as he suggests. At the outbreak of the First World War, the medical army board calls him up for an examination. Though the man has been lying in bed more or less continuously since 1903, he is terrified that the severity of his illness will not be appropriately considered, and that he will be made to fight in the trenches. The prospect delights his stockbroker, Lionel Hauser, who sportingly tells Proust that he has not given up hope of one day seeing a Croix de Guerre on his chest. His client takes the remark badly: “You know very well that in my state of health, I would be dead in 48 hours.” He is not called up.
A few years after the war, a critic accuses Proust of being a worldly fop who self-indulgently lies in bed the entire day dreaming of chandeliers and grand ceilings, and only leaves his room at six in the evening to attend posh parties with nouveaux-riches types who would never buy his books. Enraged, Proust replies that he is an invalid, a man who is physically unable to get out of bed, either at six in the evening or at six in the morning, and is too ill even to walk around his own room (not even to open a window, he adds), let alone go to a party. A few months later, he nevertheless staggers to the opera.
DEATH: Whenever he informs others of his health, Proust loses no time in declaring that he is about to die. He announces the fact with unwavering conviction and regularity for the last sixteen years of his life. He describes his customary state as “suspended between caffeine, aspirin, asthma, angina pectoris, and, altogether between life and death every six days out of seven.”
Was he an extraordinary hypochondriac? His stockbroker, Lionel Hauser, thought so, and eventually decided to be frank with him in a way that no one else had dared. “Allow me to tell you,” he ventured, “that even though you are approaching fifty, you’ve stayed what you were when I first knew you, namely a spoilt child. Oh, I know you’re going to protest by seeking to show me that according to A + B – C, far from having been spoilt, you’ve always been a martyr child who no one has ever understood, but that is much more your fault than that of others.” If he had always been so ill, Hauser charged that the damage was largely self-inflicted, the result of staying in bed all the time with the curtains shut, and thereby refusing the two constituents of health: sun and fresh air. In any case, with Europe engulfed in chaos after the First World War, Hauser urged Proust to get a little distance from his physical afflictions: “You will have to admit that your health must be a lot better than that of Europe, even if it is still extremely precarious.”
Whatever the rhetorical power of the argument, Proust nevertheless succeeded in dying the following year.
Was Marcel exaggerating? The same virus can put one person to bed for a week, and only register in another as a mild drowsiness after lunch. Faced with someone who curls up in pain after scratching his finger, an alternative to condemning the theatrics is to imagine that this scratch may be experienced by the delicate-skinned creature as no less painful than a machete swing would be for us—and that we cannot therefore allow ourselves to judge the legitimacy of another’s pain simply on the basis of the pain we would have suffered had we been similarly afflicted.
Proust was certainly delicate-skinned; Léon Daudet called him a man born without a skin. It can be hard to fall asleep after a copious meal. The digestive processes keep the body busy, the food lies heavy on the stomach, it seems more comfortable to be sitting up than lying down. But in Proust’s case, the merest particle of food or liquid was enough to interrupt his sleep. He informed a doctor that he could drink a quarter of a glass of Vichy water before he went to bed, but that if he drank so much as a whole glass, he would be kept awake by intolerable stomach pains. A confrere of the princess whose nights were ruined by a single pea, the author was cursed by a mystic’s ability to detect every milliliter swilling in his intestinal sac.
Compare him to his brother, Robert Proust, two years younger than he, a surgeon like his father (the author of an acclaimed study of The Surgery of the Female Genitalia), and built like an ox. Whereas Marcel could be killed by a draft, Robert was indestructible. When he was nineteen, he was riding a tandem bicycle in Reuil, a village on the Seine a few miles north of Paris. At a busy junction, he fell from his tandem and slipped under the wheels of an approaching five-ton coal wagon. The wagon rolled over him, he was rushed to the hospital, his mother hurried from Paris in panic, but her son made a rapid and remarkable recovery, suffering none of the permanent damage the doctors had feared. When the First World War broke out, the ox, now a grown-up surgeon, was posted to a field hospital at Étain near Verdun, where he lived in a tent and worked in exhausting and unsanitary conditions. One day, a shell landed on the hospital, and shrapnel scattered around the table where Robert was operating on a German soldier. Though hurt himself, Dr. Proust single-handedly moved his patient to a nearby dormitory and continued the operation on a stretcher. A few years later, he suffered a grave car accident when his driver fell asleep and the vehicle collided with an ambulance. Robert was thrown against a wooden partition and fractured his skull, but almost before his family had had time to be informed and grow alarmed, he was back on the road to recovery and active life.
So who would one wish to be, Robert or Marcel? The advantages of being the former can be briefly summed up: immense physical energy, aptitude for tennis and canoeing, surgical skill (Robert was celebrated for his prostatectomies, an operation henceforth known in French medical circles as proustatectomies), financial success, father of a beautiful daughter, Suzy (whom Uncle Marcel adored and spoilt, nearly buying her a flamingo when she expressed a passing desire for one as a child). And Marcel? No physical energy, couldn’t play tennis or canoe, made no money, had no children, enjoyed no respect until late in life, then felt too sick to derive any pleasure from it (a lover of analogies drawn from illness, he compared himself to a man afflicted with too high a fever to enjoy a perfect soufflé).
However, an area in which Robert appeared to trail his brother was in the ability to notice things. Robert did not show much reaction when there there was a window open on a pollen-rich day or five tons of coal had run over him; he could have traveled from Everest to Jericho and taken little note of an altitude change, or slept on five tins of peas without suspecting that there was anything unusual under the mattress.
Though such sensory blindness is often rather welcome, particularly when one is performing an operation during a shell barrage in the First World War, it is worth pointing out that feeling things (which usually means feeling them painfully) is at some level linked to the acquisition of knowledge. A sprained ankle quickly teaches us about the body’s weight distribution; hiccups force us to notice and adjust to hitherto unknown aspects of the respiratory system; being jilted by a lover is a perfect introduction to the mechanisms of emotional dependency.
In fact, in Proust’s view, we don’t really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped.
Infirmity alone makes us take notice and learn, and enables us to analyse processes which we would otherwise know nothing about. A man who falls straight into bed every night, and ceases to live until the moment when he wakes and rises, will surely never dream of making, not necessarily great discoveries, but even minor observations about sleep. He scarcely knows that he is asleep. A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness. An unfailing memory is not a very powerful incentive to study the phenomena of memory.
Though we can of course use our minds without being in pain, Proust’s suggestion is that we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer, therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context. It helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence.
It follows that ideas that have arisen without pain lack an important source of motivation. For Proust, mental activity seems divided into two categories; there are what might be called painless thoughts, sparked by no particular discomfort, inspired by nothing other than a disinterested wish to find out how sleep works or why human beings forget, and painful thoughts, arising out of a distressing inability to sleep or recall a name—and it is this latter category which Proust significantly privileges.
He tells us, for instance, that there are two methods by which a person can acquire wisdom, painlessly via a teacher or painfully via life, and he proposes that the painful variety is far superior—a point he puts in the mouth of his fictional painter Elstir, who treats the narrator to an argument in favor of making some mistakes:
There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or even lived in a way which was so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. But he shouldn’t regret this entirely, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as any of us can be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be reached. I know there are young people … whose teachers have instilled in them a nobility of mind and moral refinement from the very beginning of their schooldays. They perhaps have nothing to retract when they look back upon their lives; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.
Why can’t they? Why is this painful journey so indispensable to the acquisition of true wisdom? Elstir does not specify, though it may be enough that he has defined a relationship between the degree of pain a person experiences and the profundity of thought he or she may have as a result. It is as if the mind were a squeamish organ that refused to entertain difficult truths unless encouraged to do so by difficult events. “Happiness is good for the body,” Proust tells us, “but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” These griefs put us through a form of mental gymnastics which we would have avoided in happier times. Indeed, if a genuine priority is the development of our mental capacities, the implication is that we would be better off being unhappy than content, better off pursuing tormented love affairs than reading Plato or Spinoza.
A woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than does a man of genius who interests us.
It is perhaps only normal if we remain ignorant when things are blissful. When a car is working well, what incentive is there to learn of its complex internal functioning? When a beloved pledges loyalty, why should we dwell on the dynamics of human treachery? What could encourage us to investigate the humiliations of social life when all we encounter is respect? Only when plunged into grief do we have the Proustian incentive to confront difficult truths, as we wail under the bedclothes, like branches in the autumn wind.
This may explain Proust’s suspicion of doctors. Doctors are in an awkward position according to the Proustian theory of knowledge, for they are people who profess to understand the workings of the body, even though their knowledge has not primarily emerged from any pain in their own body. They have merely attended years of medical school.
It was the arrogance of this position which rankled the ever-ailing Proust, an arrogance all the more unfounded given the shaky foundations of medical knowledge in his day. As a child, he had been sent to see a certain Dr. Martin, who claimed to have discovered a permanent cure for asthma. It involved burning off the erectile tissue of the nose in a two-hour-long session. “You can go off to the countryside now,” an assured Dr. Martin told young Proust after he had inflicted this painful operation on him. “You cannot have hay fever any longer.” But, of course, at the first sight of a lilac in bloom, Proust was assaulted by such a violent, lengthy attack of asthma that his hands and feet turned purple and there were fears for his life.
The doctors in Proust’s novel inspire little more confidence. When the narrator’s grandmother is taken ill, her worried family summons a renowned and celebrated medical figure, the Docteur du Boulbon. Though the grandmother is in extraordinary pain, du Boulbon conducts a rapid examination before deciding that he has hit upon the perfect solution.
“You will be cured, Madame, on the day, whenever it comes—and it rests entirely with you whether it comes today—on which you realise that there is nothing wrong with you and resume your ordinary life. You tell me that you have not been eating, not going out?”
“But, Doctor, I have a temperature.”
“Not just now at any rate. Besides, what a splendid excuse! Don’t you know that we feed up tuberculosis patients with temperatures of 102 and keep them out in the open air?”
Unable to resist the arguments of this exalted medical man, the grandmother forces herself out of bed, takes her grandson with her, and painfully negotiates her way to the Champs-Élysées for the sake of fresh air. Naturally, the trip kills her.
Should a convinced Proustian ever visit a doctor? Marcel, the son and brother of surgeons, ended up with an equivocal, even surprisingly generous, verdict on the profession:
To believe in medicine would be the height of folly, if not to believe in it were not a greater folly still.
Proustian logic would nevertheless point to the wisdom of seeking out doctors who are themselves frequently afflicted by grave illness.
It now seems as if the magnitude of Proust’s misfortunes should not be allowed to cast doubt on the validity of his ideas. Indeed, it is the very extent of his suffering that we should take to be evidence of the perfect precondition for insights. It is when we hear that Proust’s lover died in a plane crash off the coast of Antibes, or that Stendhal endured a series of agonizing unrequited passions, or that Nietzsche was a social outcast taunted by schoolboys, that we can be reassured of having discovered valuable intellectual authorities. It is not the contented or the glowing who have left many of the profound testimonies of what it means to be alive. It seems that such knowledge has usually been the privileged preserve of, and the only blessing granted to, the violently miserable.
Nevertheless, before subscribing uncritically to a Romantic cult of suffering, it should be added that suffering has, on its own, never been quite enough. It is, unfortunately, easier to lose a lover than complete In Search of Lost Time, to experience unrequited desire than write De l’amour, to be socially unpopular than the author of The Birth of Tragedy. Many unhappy syphilitics omit to write their Fleurs du mal, and shoot themselves instead. Perhaps the greatest claim one can therefore make for suffering is that it opens up possibilities for intelligent, imaginative inquiry—possibilities that may quite easily be, and most often are, overlooked or refused.
How can we do neither? Even if the creation of a masterpiece plays no part in the ambition, how can we learn to suffer more successfully? Though philosophers have traditionally been concerned with the pursuit of happiness, far greater wisdom would seem to lie in pursuing ways to be properly and productively unhappy. The stubborn recurrence of misery means that the development of a workable approach to it must surely outstrip the value of any utopian quest for happiness. Proust, a veteran of grief, knew as much.
The whole art of living is to make use of the individuals through whom we suffer.
What would such an art of living involve? For a Proustian, the task is to gain a better understanding of reality. Pain is surprising: we cannot understand why we have been abandoned in love or left off an invitation list, why we are unable to sleep at night or wander through pollinating meadows in spring. Identifying reasons for such discomforts does not spectacularly absolve us of pain, but it may form the principal basis of a recovery. While assuring us that we are not uniquely cursed, understanding grants us a sense of the boundaries to, and bitter logic behind, our suffering.
Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our heart.
However, only too frequently, suffering fails to alchemize into ideas and, instead of affording us a better sense of reality, pushes us into a baneful direction where we learn nothing new, where we are subject to many more illusions and entertain far fewer vital thoughts than if we had never suffered to begin with. Proust’s novel is filled with those we might call bad sufferers, wretched souls who have been betrayed in love or excluded from parties, who are pained by a feeling of intellectual inadequacy or a sense of social inferiority, but who learn nothing from such ills, and indeed react to them by engaging a variety of ruinous defense mechanisms which entail arrogance and delusion, cruelty and callousness, spite and rage.
Without doing them an injustice, it may be possible to lift a number of these unfortunate sufferers from the novel, so as to consider what is ailing them, the Proustian inadequacy of their defenses, and to propose, in a gently therapeutic spirit, certain more fruitful responses.
PATIENT NO. 1: Madame Verdurin, the bourgeois mistress of a salon that gathers to discuss art and politics, and which she calls her “little clan.” Very much moved by art, she develops headaches when overcome by the beauty of music, and on one occasion dislocates her jaw by laughing too much.
PROBLEM: Madame Verdurin has dedicated her life to rising in the social world, but she finds herself ignored by those she most desires to know. She is not on the invitation lists of the best aristocratic families; she would be unwelcome at the salon of the Duchesse de Guermantes; her own salon is filled only with members of her social class; and the President of the French Republic has never invited her to have lunch in the Élysée Palace—though he has invited Charles Swann, a man she considers to be no more elevated in the world than she is.
RESPONSE TO PROBLEM: There are few outward signs that Madame Verdurin is bothered by her situation. She asserts with apparent conviction that anyone who refuses to invite her or come to her salon is merely a “bore.” Even the President, Jules Grévy, is a bore.
The word is perversely appropriate, for it is the direct opposite of what Madame Verdurin in fact judges any grand figure to be. These figures excite her so much and yet are so inaccessible to her that all she can do is camouflage her disappointment in an unconvincing display of insouciance.
When Swann carelessly lets slip at the Verdurin salon that he is lunching with President Grévy, the envy of the other guests is palpable, and so as to dispel it, Swann quickly adopts a deprecating line:
“I assure you, his luncheon-parties are not in the least bit amusing. They’re very simple affairs too, you know—never more than eight at table.”
Others might have recognized Swann’s remark to be mere politeness, but Madame Verdurin is too distressed to ignore any suggestion that what she does not have is not worth having:
“I can easily believe that you don’t find them amusing, those luncheons. Indeed, it’s very good of you to go to them.… I’ve heard [the President] is as deaf as a post and eats with his fingers.”
A BETTER SOLUTION: Why is Madame Verdurin suffering badly? Because we always lack more than we have, and because there are always more people who don’t invite us than who do. Our sense of what is valuable will hence be radically distorted if we must perpetually condemn as tedious everything we lack, simply because we lack it.
How much more honest to keep in mind that although we might like to meet the President, he doesn’t want to meet us, and that this detail is no reason to reinvent our level of interest in him. Madame Verdurin might come to understand the mechanisms by which people are excluded from social circles; she could learn to make light of her frustration, confess to it directly, even throw out a teasing remark to Swann asking him to return with a signed menu, and in the process might become so charming that an invitation to the Élysée would make its way to her after all.
PATIENT NO. 2: Françoise, who cooks for the narrator’s family, producing wonderful asparagus and beef in aspic. She is also known for her stubborn personality, her cruelty toward the kitchen staff, and her loyalty to her employers.
PROBLEM: She doesn’t know much. Françoise has never had any formal education, her knowledge of world affairs is scanty, and she is badly acquainted with the political and royal events of her time.
RESPONSE TO PROBLEM: Françoise has acquired a habit of suggesting that she knows everything. In short, she is a know-it-all, and her face registers the know-it-all’s panic whenever she is informed of something that she has no clue about, though the panic is quickly suppressed so that she can maintain her composure.
Françoise would refuse to appear surprised. You could have announced that the Archduke Rudolf who she had never suspected of existing, was not, as was generally supposed, dead, but alive and kicking, and she would only have answered, “Yes” as though she had known it all the time.
Psychoanalytic literature tells of a woman who felt faint whenever she sat in a library. Surrounded by books, she would develop nausea and could gain relief only by leaving their vicinity. It was not, as might be supposed, that she was averse to books, but rather that she wanted them and the knowledge they contained far too badly, that she felt her lack of knowledge far too strongly and wanted to have read everything on the shelves at once—and because she could not, needed to flee her unbearable ignorance by surrounding herself with a less knowledge-laden environment.
A precondition of becoming knowledgeable may be a resignation and accommodation to the extent of one’s ignorance, an accommodation which requires a sense that this ignorance need not be permanent, or indeed need not be taken personally, as a reflection of one’s inherent capacities.
However, the know-it-all has lost faith in acquiring knowledge by legitimate means, which is perhaps not a surprising loss of faith in a character like Françoise, who has spent a lifetime cooking asparagus and beef in aspic for frighteningly well-educated employers, who have whole mornings to read the newspaper properly and are fond of wandering through the house quoting Racine and Madame de Sévigné—whose short stories she perhaps at some point claimed to have read.
A BETTER SOLUTION: Though Françoise’s knowingness is a distorted reflection of a sincere desire for knowledge, Archduke Rudolf’s true status will sadly remain a mystery until she accepts the momentary, painful loss of face required when asking who on earth this could be.
PATIENT NO. 3: Alfred Bloch, a school friend of the narrator. Intellectual, bourgeois, Jewish, his appearance is compared to that of Sultan Mahomet II in Bellini’s portrait.
PROBLEM: Prone to making gaffes and embarrassing himself on important occasions.
RESPONSE TO PROBLEM: Bloch acts with extreme self-assurance where lesser mortals would offer humble apologies, experiencing no apparent shame or embarrassment.
The narrator’s family invite him for dinner, for which he arrives an hour and a half late, covered with mud from head to toe because of an unexpected rain shower. He might have excused himself for the delay and his muddy appearance, but Bloch says nothing, and instead launches into a speech expressing his disdain for the conventions of arriving clean and on time:
“I never allow myself to be influenced in the smallest degree either by atmospheric disturbances or by the arbitrary divisions of what is known as time. I would willingly reintroduce the use of the opium pipe or the Malay kris, but I know nothing about those infinitely more pernicious and moreover flatly bourge