on the unsuspected joy of proust

I was not anxious to read Proust. Not because of fear of difficulty—I love large, complex novels to some extent because of their difficulty. Not difficulty for its own sake, I should say, but difficulty in the sense of being challenged to think, learn, view something differently. Not seeing how this can be pleasurable is as silly as not seeing how certain types of strenuous physical work are pleasurable. We take that for granted: if you love to do something, whatever it is, you don’t see it as work.

And the period I have most loved to encounter such works in is the modernist period, the early 20th century, to which Proust belongs. This is perhaps because it still contains so many reflections of the cognitive world I live in, because it is in effect, the parent of my world, rather than its more distant antecedent, and a child always strives to understand and connect to the world through its parent first.

Besides the massive novels of James Joyce, Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, and Proust, the slightly shorter (but still dense enough) novels of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf are exemplary in this group, as is the poetry of Auden and Eliot, and Samuel Beckett’s plays and Franz Kafka’s fragmentary novels, stories, parables.

The modernists’ frequent themes were some of the ones that sounded most deeply in my own intellect and psyche from early on (poor me, some would, and did, say): rupture, alienation, absurdity, the vast unknowable-ness of the world, its danger, horror, its heartbreaking beauty. And bubbling through all that, sometimes a wild and brilliant humor, less brittle than wit, if just as intellectually rigorous, more a gallows humor, that felt almost like triumph, even if “satire is the weapon of the weak.” And finally the unrelenting persistence of life in spite of absurdity, its stubborn willfulness that still promised sense might be made, connection might be experienced, somewhere, someday. “There is hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us,” said Kafka, summing it up in a characteristic way that just now as I wrote it out, made me laugh out loud for the first time.

But of the holy trinity of massive modernist works, Joyce’s Ulysses, Musil’s The Man without Qualities, and In Search of Lost Time, I took Proust on last. By the time I did, I had been absorbed for more than two decades by political ideas and attempts at social transformation. While I’d loved the other two novels, I feared I’d find Proust’s world suffocatingly closed, his obsessions with romantic love, high society and great art too stifling, even reactionary. Why go to the trouble, when I was sure it would just be an exercise in frustration, of starting a 3,000 page book I would be fighting to get through the whole time, and unlikely to finish, even in the highly incomplete ways I had “finished” the other two works.

But time, as I was to discover Proust was supremely aware, is not experienced by humans as strictly chronological: it has currents and backwashes, layers and echoes of recurrence, as more and more of it accumulates in a particular consciousness. And I had come to a place in my life where all my ideas about social transformation, that had once been so absorbing and revivifying, came to seem increasingly abstract, emptied out and distanced from my psychic life, which reverted to something very much like what it had been in my earlier years, when I first discovered the modernists.

For a long time I had worked less and less; I dropped out gradually without going anywhere or altering anything in my external life. It was a psychic removal, while everything external stayed in place. But cycling back to a prototypically lonely childhood, when I had so much time because I had no work, few friends and no other activities that absorbed me, I began once more to take up books. Novels, specifically, and even more specifically, large, complex novels. And, as before, for the same reasons of psychic resonance, I felt drawn to the modernists most of all.

So there was Proust, and now finally I was ready to try, because—well, who knows why? After reading Joyce and Musil, just to complete a series, if you like. One of the hardest things for some of us to learn is that some actions no longer need to be justified.

How surprising to find that all my preconceptions about Proust were true, and it didn’t matter! Instead, page after page of insights began to twinkle in the massive sky of his prose, through wonderful extended metaphors that coiled around a description as elegantly as the knots in a Celtic bracelet, and talismans that I’d heard about only as clichés (the madeleine in the tea, of course, foremost among them) revealed their power to be fresh and surprising. I found the social world and romantic obsessions that I thought would be stifling presented in such a full-bodied way and yet with such an underlying and immediate sense of their ultimate triviality that I was actually shocked. He was way ahead of me; he was utterly undeceived by any of the things he wrote about, but they were his experience and, as experience must be, they were his gateway to the levels of meaning and understanding he was actually trying to reach.

What else was returned to me, that I realized had almost entirely atrophied during my experience of activism and even the formal study of literature, was affect, the province of the stunted right brain, the one that as a child, loved things even if it couldn’t name them.

Reading is considered almost exclusively a left-brain activity, where rational thought processes are fully in charge. But Proust’s deep subjects—time, perception, the processes of a life as opposed to its products—as well as his style, in which flow was paramount over all other qualities, were actually creative of a release of emotion and a series of a-has that felt, while you were reading, more like what meditation is supposed to do.

So what a gift, to take up something from which one fears pleasure may be mostly absent, and find it there, and generously, abundantly there!

I still have a long way to go with Proust. But he gave the journey of reading back to me, in a completely unexpected way: the wonder, the surprise. As a child, that journey was mostly driven by the desire to know what would happen next in the story I was reading. When you are grown, if a lot of things have already happened, and yet the vast majority of life has been discovered to be rote, perhaps you longer seek so breathlessly to know what will happen next. Proust obliges that sensibility by giving you almost no plot, to speak of. Instead you read breathlessly thinking: what will he think next? What piece of everyday experience will he hold up to the light–a walk in the park, a look out a window, the sound of a piece of music–to find it a miraculous place, like the aleph in Borges, from which the whole universe may be perceived?