The other day, walking by the high school near my house, I came upon a teenage boy throwing a javelin, and, as I watched him practice, a thing happened that I’ve lately noticed happening more and more. I felt time flatten, and myself flatten with it.
Seeing the boy with the javelin took me back to my own days running track, so that it was like I were somehow watching myself across the decades. At the same time, my mind filled with another set of associations, hazy, historical ones—Egypt, ancient Greece—with these calling up still others—galleries of red-figure pottery, midweek visits to the Met, the long New York afternoons of my underemployed youth.
The field was bound at one end by a tall stone wall, the school set back on a hill above it, and the wall sparked memories, as well—of family vacations traipsing through New England visiting battlefields and monuments and living history demonstrations. There had been a Revolutionary War skirmish on the other side of town by the train station and the CVS where I’d picked up medicine one night a few years before when my son woke up with croup. For a moment this was all with me, the lines I’d necessarily drawn to order and navigate the world grown faint, leaving me to drift about the confluence of my experience.
Anyway, yes, I have been reading Proust. Why ever do you ask?
My history with In Search of Lost Time has been almost laughably to type. I was assigned Swann’s Way in college but never made it even as far as the madeleine scene. I took it up another handful of times throughout my twenties and thirties but always stalled out a short way in. My forties descended, and I decided to give the book another try. It was wonderful, wholly absorbing in a way I had never found it before.
Famously, Proust, who was born 150 years ago this month, didn’t get around to working on the novel until relatively late in his life, when he was 37 or 38. He was 42 when the first volume came out in 1913. It’s an age at which, if my experience is any guide, you begin to feel yourself fraying at the edges. I don’t mean physically, though certainly there is that to some degree. Rather, the basic assumptions that underpin your identity, the notion of yourself as a discrete, well-defined individual, start to seem a little shaky.
About halfway through the novel’s fourth volume, there is a section that, even by Proustian standards, comes off as a bit digressive. The academic Brichot, one of the regulars at Mme Verdurin’s salon, is explaining to the narrator, Marcel, the etymologies of various place-names in the region surrounding Balbec, the seaside resort where they are staying.
The town of Douville, for instance, was formerly Doville, from Eudonis villa, the village of Eudes after Eudes le Bouteiller, the onetime lord of the village. The names Montmartin-sur-Mer and Montmartin-en-Graignes, meanwhile, reflect not the glory of St. Martin but the former presence in the area of Roman temples to the god Mars. Néhomme refers to the island or peninsula—the holm—of the Viscount Nigel, whose name can likewise be found in Néville. St. Laurent-en-Bray is named for St. Lawrence O’Toole, the Archbishop of Dublin…
It goes on like this for several pages, then recurs sporadically throughout the rest of the novel as Brichot pops in and out. He’s a ridiculous figure (though that’s true to an extent of most all the book’s characters), but it’s not necessarily a ridiculous preoccupation. Proust had a well-documented interest in etymologies. Marcel (the narrator, not the author, and we’ll leave for another day the well-trod question of how much of one there is in the other) quite clearly can’t get enough of them.
The novel, and its notions of time in particular, have been commonly linked to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which the physicist initially published in 1905, a few years before Proust began work on the book. Brichot and his disquisitions bring to mind a somewhat more mundane physical principle—potential energy. It’s the stuff of high school physics class. Hold a rock three feet off the ground—potential energy. Put it down—the energy is gone. Loop a rubber band around your forefinger and thumb—potential energy. Let it relax atop your desk—nothing.
What is a book but this sort of thing? Putting words, paragraphs, characters, settings into relations with each other to build potential energies you can then release to achieve your effect. Chekov’s pistol on the wall—loads of potential energy. Assuming his famous advice is followed, you get kinetic energy, and things move on from there.
Proust was, of course, a master of this kind of manipulation, managing the energies, potential and otherwise, of dozens of characters, plotlines, settings across some five decades and seven volumes. I’ve come to think of him as a kind of bombmaker, his novel a long series of exquisitely crafted explosions.
The most celebrated of these is Combray, which he detonates some sixty pages in: a spoonful of tea, a cookie, then fireworks—the town then the book unfurling from the stuff packed into those seven letters. A similar burst comes near the novel’s end when, wiping his mouth with a napkin, Marcel is transported by the feel of the fabric against his face to his time in Balbec, “concealed within” the folds of cloth “the plumage of an ocean green and blue like the tail of a peacock.” In between, a multitude of others: There is the recurrence throughout of Vinteuil’s “little phrase,” and with it the whole of Swann’s courtship of Odette; Marcel’s encounter with Mme. de Villeparisis in Venice, where a chance remark illuminates decades of family history; Gilberte’s marriage to St. Loup, a thing perhaps even more dense with Marcel’s experience than the famous madeleine, and a compact that unites the story’s two primary threads, the Guermantes and Méséglise ways.
Brichot’s etymologies are the same sort of thing, albeit in a less dramatic register. A placename isn’t just a label, it’s a container for peoples, customs, culture. A similar notion underpins Marcel’s snobbery (perhaps underpins all snobbery to an extent?). The society figures that so obsess him aren’t uniquely fascinating in and of themselves but rather for their families’ long and prominent histories, their ancestors’ fame and notoriety and proximity to the same. A title’s significance—the Duc de Guermantes, the Princesse de Parme—derives not from its current bearer but the centuries of life and stories and tradition that it represents.
That this is mostly an illusion probably goes without saying. Our tendency to tear off bits of the world, name those bits, and then load them with meaning is as human a practice as could be, but it’s more a coping mechanism than a faithful accounting of reality. At the novel’s end, Marcel finds himself at a party surrounded by many of the personalities that have filled the preceding pages, all of them, though, transformed. His old friend Bloch, previously an awkward poseur, is now a celebrated intellectual. The violinist Morel, a thoroughly disreputable figure for most of the book, has become so widely respected that he serves at trials as a character witness. Odette, once so far below Swann in status that their relationship was a minor scandal, is now spoken of as a grande dame of high society while he, to the extent that he is remembered at all, is recalled as a roguish “adventurer” and her faintly embarrassing first husband.
If Proust is a bombmaker, Marcel is more like a guy trying to set off a damp packet of sparklers. The novel is one long record of his disillusionment as the vessels he has filled with his impressions, his preconceptions, his expectations, turn out again and again to be something quite different, the energy of his visions rarely igniting but instead slowly leaking out across the borders he had drawn for them.
That’s the difference between art and life. Proust, having the advantage of being both a novelist and a genius, could build his narrative to deliver its payload by and large as he intended. Marcel, on the hand, is just a schmuck like the rest of us: fumbling around trying to get a handle on his surroundings, stuffing things into whatever containers he finds at hand then spending the subsequent years learning (or not) how he went wrong—how a thing he thought was that is actually this; how a person he took for this is actually that; how nothing quite fits into the categories where he placed it, and how in any case those categories aren’t quite so distinct as they might have seemed.
Of course, this fumbling is part of the novel’s art, perhaps the essential part, even. Running throughout is the tension between these two modes of encountering the world, between the process and pleasure of constructing and deploying our systems of signifiers and the fact, ultimately difficult to ignore, that these systems are built atop sand. Reflecting on his first visit to Balbec, Marcel observes that had it been made in modern times, he would have driven there rather than taken the train. In a sense, he notes, such a trip would have been “more real, since one would be following more closely, in a more intimate contiguity, the various gradations by which the surface of the earth is diversified.”
“But,” he goes on, “the specific attraction of a journey lies… in its making the difference between departure and arrival not as imperceptible but as intense as possible, so that we are conscious of it in its totality, intact, as it existed in us when our imagination bore us from the place in which we were living right to the very heart of a place we longed to see.”
Travel is miraculous not because of the distances covered but because it unites “two distinct individualities of the world,” takes a person “from one name to another name,” a marvel perhaps best embodied by “those peculiar places, railway stations, which scarcely form part of the surrounding town but contain the essence of its personality just as upon their sign-boards they bear its painted name.”
Naturally, when Marcel actually arrives in Balbec, it disappoints. The place to which he had imparted so much meaning turns out to be something quite different from his imaginings.
…no sooner had I set foot in it than it was as though I has broken open a name which ought to have been kept hermetically closed, and into which, seizing at once the opportunity that I had imprudently given them, expelling all the images that had lived in it until then, a tramway, a café, people crossing the square, the branch of the savings bank, irresistibly propelled by some external pressure, by a pneumatic force, had come surging into the interior of those two syllables…If Proust is a bombmaker, Marcel is more like a guy trying to set off a damp packet of sparklers.
A few volumes later, the whole region becomes a jumble as, hiring a chauffeur to tour the area with Albertine, Marcel comes to realize that the towns and landmarks he had previously considered wholly distinct from one another are, in fact, all one interconnected mass. “The motor-car,” as he puts it, “respects no mystery.”
Entropy, according to most popular understandings, is the notion that the universe moves toward disorder, and that, absent some input of energy, individual systems will trend the same way. The entropy=disorder idea is in fact more a rough analogy than a strictly accurate summation of the physics involved, but it’s an enduring one, in large part, I think, because it matches so well our experience of the world. It’s perfectly intuitive, for instance, that an animal left without food to sustain it will die and decay, or that a desk will grow cluttered unless it’s cleaned. This is a somewhat less intuitive notion when applied to our understandings of ourselves, but it’s central to Proust’s novel.
It is a book about dissolution, bonds and boundaries disintegrating, yielding to a sort of general mixing. This, I think, is what makes it so particularly potent in middle age. Like Marcel, we’ve spent decades building our models of the world, and like him we’re starting to see them for the gimcrack that they are. We’re beginning to sense just how much effort is involved in holding a person together.
In some ways this is a pleasant realization. Certainly it was enjoyable feeling time spin about me during my moment at the high school track. There’s something quite isolating about the idea of the unitary self, the need to be constantly curating and pruning and pushing back at everything that isn’t you. Unwinding this stance (or, perhaps more accurately, by which I mean more passively, having it unwind) allows for new connections and interpretations, enables, I would venture, a more catholic, comprehensive integration with the world around us.
Of course, “a more catholic, comprehensive integration” also describes reasonably well what my parents told me would happen to my dog after we buried him in our flower garden. The idea that not only our bodies but also our identities are slowly running out steam is a bit ominous. Driving through the countryside around Balbec and seeing the once singular villages run together in an indistinct blur, Marcel considers the distressing possibility that personalities might be susceptible to a similar sort of annihilation, reflecting “with terror that Madame Bovary and the Sanseverina might perhaps have seemed to me to be like ordinary people, had I met them elsewhere than in the closed atmosphere of a novel.”
Joan Didion famously wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I’d suggest they are even more fundamental than that. We tell stories not in order to live, but simply because we are alive. There’s no particular need to instrumentalize them any more than you would the Krebs cycle. It’s just the way our minds happen to work. An inevitable part of growing old, then, of the natural course of our diminishment, is the deterioration of these story-telling skills, the coming apart of the narratives we’ve built for ourselves and our inability to replace them with new ones of equal vitality. Marcel—like many artists—sought to halt this decline by preserving his world, his time, in his work. How much of yourself, though, can you really squeeze into a book, even if you’ve got seven volumes to play with?
You’ll often come across interviews with older writers in which they bemoan the difficulty of pulling off new novels after a certain age. Proust himself died before he was able to complete his masterpiece, though happily for us, he got most of it down. In any case, it’s a specialist’s version of a universal complaint. It takes work to keep putting things in order. Eventually, you wear out.