At a party in Paris in 1919, a British diplomat found himself describing, at some length, the intricacies of committee work. His interlocutor, Marcel Proust, "an unshaven, grubby, slipfaced" novelist, took an unusual interest in the protocol of the peace conference after the Great War-"the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons"-and he kept interrupting him to ask for more details: "Mais précisez, mon cher monsieur, n'allez pas trop vite.
" Alain de Botton, who tells this story in his charming study, How Proust Can Change Your Life
, suggests the Proustian slogan-n'allez pas trop vite
-as central to the task of redeeming time.
Slowing down to pay attention to seemingly mundane details-rustling papers, macaroons-was how the novelist taught himself and generations of readers to see the mystery inherent in each moment. What better antidote to the accelerating pace of modern life, the sense that time is fleeting, than to immerse oneself in the languorous seven volumes of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu?
Marcel Proust was born during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the sickly child of a doctor famous for his books on physical fitness and for promoting the idea of a cordon sanitaire around Europe to keep out cholera. The boy was very close to his Jewish mother, the cultured daughter of a stockbroker, and in his short biography of Proust, Edmund White reports that her dying words came from La Fontaine: "If you're not a Roman, at least act worthy of being one." Proust was not, strictly speaking, a member of the aristocracy. Asthmatic, gay, and Jewish (though he was confirmed as a Catholic), for all his social brilliance he was always an outsider. Nevertheless he paid such close attention to the salons and drawing rooms he visited before his early death at the age of fifty-one that he proved himself far worthier than the aristocrats he depicted with such savage psychological insight.
Proust was an invalid, with a broad acquaintance of the world. He seemed to understand everyone-and everything. No wonder de Botton (author of Essays in Love, The Romantic Movement, and Kiss and Tell) turns to him for advice on love, suffering, friendship, and so on. The elevation of a trash form into a serious literary work is a time-honored tradition, and de Botton has transformed the self-help genre into a serious meditation on the ways in which a book can shape a life. The British writer treats us not only to such tidbits as that Proust, a regular at the Ritz, would add a 200 per cent service charge to his bill, but also, for example, his marvelous philosophical objection to clichés: "The problem is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or moon, we will end up believing that this is the last rather than the first word on the subject. Clichés are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it."
A la recherche du temps perdu encourages readers to attend to their experience in an altogether different fashion, living in fear of clichés, both in their experiences and in their descriptions of them. Who can look at their beloved without a shudder of recognition-and at least a glimpse of possibility-after reading the following sentence from La Prisonnière: "The lie, the perfect lie, about people we know, about the relations we have had with them, about our motive for some action, formulated in totally different terms, the lie as to what we are, whom we love, what we feel with regard to people who love us and believe that they have fashioned us in their own image because they keep on kissing us morning, noon and night-that lie is one of the few things in the world that can open windows for us on to what is new and unknown, that can awaken in us sleeping senses for the contemplation of universes that otherwise we should never have known."
Of course, what most interested Proust was the universe of a remembered vista, awakened by a taste (most famously, that of a madeleine dipped in tea), a smell, or other sensations through the agency of his involuntary memory-what White calls "one of his chief principles of literary architecture". Proust liked to say he had a bad memory-which makes his 4,300-page hymn to memory all the more remarkable-and, to buttress his powers of recall, he wrote thousands of letters eliciting information on everything from dress styles to witticisms uttered in the belle époque. He crisscrossed Paris in search of details, pestered waiters for stories, recorded in his ever-expanding novel a dizzying array of facts, all to flesh out a picture of what he feared was gone. But what he resurrected through memory, metaphor, and research reveals that nothing is ever truly lost.
In Proust Among the Stars, Malcolm Bowie, a professor of French Literature at Oxford, offers what he describes as "a series of return routes to the dazzling procession of Proust's paragraphs, and a series of modest shrines to plurality, paradox and contradiction." The author of books on Mallarmé and Michaux, Freud and Lacan, Bowie explores the "majestic respiratory rhythm" at work in Proust's novel, in chapters on the self, time, art, politics, morality, sex, and death. Here is a detailed analysis of the imagery, ideas, rhetorical strategies, juxtapositions, literary and artistic allusions, and patterns of meaning crucial to the novel's development-in short, the manifold ways in which Proust captures reality: "This is the time of human desire, and the time that Proust's book inhabits sentence by sentence." Bowie discovers correspondences between the suspended syntax of Proust's long sentences and the state of being in love; between musical structures and the structures of desire; between wishful fantasies and political forces. And he is a superb phrase maker: "To be economical with the truth is to be prodigal with pleasure." And: "Proust is to sexuality what Talleyrand is to diplomacy and statesmanship." And: "Contradiction conquers all."
What is more contradictory, in a world given over to jump cuts and sound bites, than the recent upsurge of interest in a novel that no one has the time to read? A new annotated translation of A la recherche du temps perdu is in the works, along with an English version of Jean-Yves Tadié's acclaimed biography of Proust (due out by Penguin). From Paris comes word of a successful film adaption of the novel, starring Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich. Chilean director Raul Ruiz chose to adapt the last volume, Time Regained, in which the advent of the Great War, the deaths of several characters, and the stripping bare of illusions lead to the redemption of time.
It is in these concluding pages that the narrator recognizes his vocation: to write the very novel the reader is about to finish, the book that draws from White the assertion that "[a]ll of the greatest minds of every country have been trained sooner or later on Proust." The metaphor is apt. Athletes speak of being in "the zone", a heightened state of physical awareness in which the action seems to unfold as if in slow motion. A la recherche du temps perdu inspires a similar heightening of imaginative awareness. Messieurs Bowie, de Botton, and White have produced loving guides to the world according to Proust.
Christopher Merrill's latest book is Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars. He is a poet, a translator, and a visiting professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.