On the cruise, I was able to take a bite out of Within a Budding Grove, the second of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past. Those of you who remember my obsession last year with the first volume, Swann’s Way, are by turns cheering and groaning, aware of the lengthy meditations which are sure to follow over the course of the next month as I complete this book.
You may think I jest when I profess adoration for Proust; and, in truth, I do make light of my affection simply because, to many of you, it seems so absurd. But I really do have a fondness for his work, the marvelously complex sentences, the haunting introspection, the profound observations of daily life.
Reading Proust is like running a marathon: it’s a mixture of pleasure and pain. Yes, even for ardent devotees such as myself, Proust’s lengthy sentences and pages-long paragraphs can be, at times, almost impenetrable. Frequently I must pause and reread, then re-reread, and even re-re-reread passages in order to decipher them.
However, as with running a marathon, reading Proust offers fantastic rewards, can provide a rush unavailable in reading smaller, easier works.
My favorite bit from the first hundred pages is as follows:
Young Marcel has grown older, is now a young man (he’s between fourteen and seventeen years old — I can’t tell precisely). He longs to attend the theater, in particular to see a performance by the legendary Berma. At the suggestion of the diplomat Norpois, Marcel’s father agrees, reluctantly, that Marcel may accompany his grandmother to see Berma in a perfromance of Phèdre, one of her most famous roles.
In preparation, Marcel reads Phèdre repeatedly, each time attempting to interpret the role in a different way, impart new nuances and inflections in his mind. He knows that his attempts are juvenile, cannot possibly hope to match the manner in which the incomparable Berma will read the lines on stage.
As the date of the theater trip approaches, Marcel’s excitement turns to apprehension. He begins to fear that there’s no way Berma could possibly meet his expectations. Though he longs to forego the trip, he cannot because it’s something he’s requested for many years.
The theater isn’t what Marcel expected: all the actors move together and interact on one stage instead of reading their lines from separate positions. (Strange naiveté, no? But it’s in keeping with the character.) He’s mesmerized by the supporting actors.
Then Berma takes the stage in the second act. Marcel is disappointed. This is greatness? he wonders. It seems to him that Berma is merely going through the motions. There’s no subtlety to her performance. She brings nothing to the part that his imagination had not already surpassed. Can this be the great actress of whom he has read so much?
After the performance, Marcel overanalyzes the situation (like somebody else you all know). He decides that while he enjoyed the production, it did not meet his expectations, and how could it? Then he hears others, including the ambassador Norpois (whose opinion Marcel holds in high esteem) praise Berma, and Marcel’s own opinion of her performance improves. He reads glowing reviews of the production, and now even his memory of it begins to glow a little.
I’ve related all that (a summary of the first seventy pages, really) just to set up this lengthy excerpt, a passage with which I identify. (I’ve edited this to make it more readable for my audience.):
After M. de Norpois had gone my father cast an eye over the evening paper; I dreamed once more of Berma. The pleasure which I had found in listening to her required to be made complete, all the more because it had fallen far short of what I had promised myself; and so it at once assimilated everything that was capable of giving it nourishment, those merits, for instance, which M. de Norpois had admitted that Berma possessed, and which my mind had absorbed at one draught, like a dry lawn when water is poured on it. Then my father handed me the newspaper, pointing out a paragraph which ran more or less as follows: —
“The performance of Phèdre, given this afternoon before an enthusiastic audience, which included the foremost representatives of society and the arts, as well as the principal critics, was for Mme. Berma, who played the heroine, the occasion of a triumph as brilliant as any that she has known in the course of her phenomenal career. We shall discuss more fully in a later issue this performance, which is indeed and event in the history of the stage; for the present we need only add that the best qualified judges are unanimous in the pronouncement that such an interpretation sheds an entirely new light on the part of Phèdre, which is one of the finest and most studied of Racine’s creations, and that it constitutes the purest and most exalted manifestation of dramatic art which it has been the privilege of our generation to witness.”
Immediately my mind had conceived this new idea of “the purest and most exalted manifestation of dramatic art”, it, the idea, sped to join the imperfect pleasure which I had felt in the theatre, added to it a little of what was lacking, and their combination formed something so exalting that I cried out within myself: “What a great artist!”
It may doubtless be argued that I was not absolutely sincere. But let us bear in mind, rather, the numberless writers who, dissatisfied with the page which they have just written, if they read some eulogy of the genius of Chateaubriand, or evoke the spirit of some great artist whose equal they aspire to be, by humming to themselves, for instance, a phrase of Beethoven, the melancholy of which they compare with what they have been trying to express in prose, are so filled with that idea of genius that they add it to their own productions, when they think of them once again, see them no longer in the light in which at first they appeared, and, hazarding an act of faith in the value of their work, say to themselves: “After all!” without taking into account that, into the total which determines their ultimate satisfaction, they have introduced the memory of marvelous pages of Chaeaubriand which they assimilate into their own, but of which, in cold fact, they are not the authors; let us bear in mind the numberless men who believe in the love of a mistress on evidence only of her betrayals; all those, too, who are sustained by the alternative hopes, either of an incomprehensible survival of death, when they think, inconsolable husbands, of the wives whom they have lost but have not ceased to love, or artists, of the posthumous glory which they may thus enjoy; or else the hope of complete extinction which comforts them when their thoughts turn to the misdeeds that otherwise they must expiate after death; let us bear in mind also the travelers who come home enraptured by the general beauty of a tour of which, from day to day, they have felt nothing but the tedious incidents; and let us then declare whether, in the communal life that is led by our ideas in the enclosure of our minds, there is a single one of those that make us most happy which has not first sought, a very parasite, and won from an alien but neighboring idea the greater part of the strength that it originally lacked.
Wonderful stuff, the very insightful and meditative qualities which make Proust a marathon worth running.
But it gets better.
A propos of nothing — or nearly so — Proust, in the form of his protagonist, Marcel, launches into the following meditation. (Again, edited for mass consumption.):
My mother appeared none too well pleased that my father no longer thought of “the career” for myself. I fancy that, anxious before all things that a definite rule of life should discipline the eccentricity of my nervous system, what she regretted was not so much seeing me abandon diplomacy as the prospect of my devoting myself to literature.
But “Let him alone!” my father protested; “the main thing is that a man should find pleasure in his work. He is no longer a child. He knows pretty well now what he likes, it is not at all probable that he will change, and he is quite capable of deciding for himself what will make him happy in life.”
That evening, as I waited for the time to arrive when, thanks to the freedom of choice which they allowed me, I should or should not begin to be happy in life, my father’s words caused me great uneasiness. At all times his unexpected kindnesses had, when they were manifested, prompted in me so keen a desire to kiss, above where his beard began, his glowing cheeks, that if I did not yield to that desire, it was simply because I was afraid of annoying him.
And on that day, as an author becomes alarmed when he sees the fruits of his own meditation, which do not appear to him to be of great value since he does not separate them from himself, oblige a publisher to choose a kind of paper, to employ a fount of type finer, perhaps, than they deserve, I asked myself whether my desire to write was of sufficient importance to justify my father in dispensing so much generosity. But apart from that, when he spoke of my inclinations as no longer liable to change, he awakened in me two terrible suspicions.
The first was that (at a time when, every day, I regarded myself as standing upon the threshold of a life which was still intact and would not enter upon its course until the following morning) my existence was already begun, and that, furthermore, what was yet to follow would not differ to any extent from what had already elapsed.
The second suspicion, which was nothing more, really, than a variant of the first, was that I was not situated somewhere outside the realm of Time, but was subject to its laws, just like the people in novels who, for that reason, used to plunge me in such depression when I read of their lives, down at Combray, in the fastness of my wicker sentry-box. In theory one is aware that the earth revolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can live undisturbed.
So it is with Time in one’s life. And to make its flight perceptible novelists are obliged, by wildly accelerating the beat of the pendulum, to transport the reader in a couple of minutes over ten, or twenty, or even thirty years. At the top of one page we have left a lover full of hope; at the foot of the next we meet him again, a bowed old man of eighty, painfully dragging himself about the courtyard of an almshouse, scarcely replying to what is said to him, oblivious of the past.
In saying of me, “He is no longer a child,” “His tastes will not change now”, and so forth, my father had suddenly made me apparent to myself in my position in Time, and caused me the same kind of depression as if I had been, not yet the enfeebled old pensioner, but one of those heroes of whom the author, in a tone of indifference which is particularly galling, says to us at the end of a book: “He very seldom comes up now from the country. He has finally decided to end his days there.”
How horrible are those moments in which we realize that we are not exempted from the laws of nature, from the passages of time, those moments in which we find ourselves painfully aware of our own mortality. I pass most of my life blissfully unaware of my impending doom; there are moments, though, when my human nature is brought into focus, and I am made aware of the finite time before me.