What do we come away with when we read not merely a masterpiece but a masterwork of literature? The distinction between the two, masterpiece and masterwork, I take to be in favor of the latter, for a masterwork is not necessarily perfect of its kind, as a masterpiece ought to be, but of a significance beyond the question of mere (some “mere”) perfection. Usually large, often sprawling, always the product of monstrous ambition, a masterwork is a key book, one that defines a historical era, or the culmination of a form, or a national literature, or Western thought itself. Robert Musil, in The Man Without Qualities, set out to produce a masterwork, but, despite his great brilliance, failed. Nothing short of genius is required to bring it off. The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy—such are masterworks. Closer to our own time, books that qualify as masterworks, I should say, include War and Peace, Ulysses, and Remembrance of Things Past.
One of the qualities that mark a masterwork is the inability of readers ever to feel that they have quite grasped it, or at any rate grasped it in its entirety, its wholeness. Almost all masterworks fit into that select category of works that probably shouldn’t be read for the first time; they are works, in other words, that call for being not merely read but reread, two, three, maybe more times, for even the most percipient reader cannot hope to comprehend all that is going on in their pages. Such is their richness that they may yield up quite different and possibly equally persuasive interpretations at various ages in the same reader’s life.
The modern masterwork at its most characteristic, in some ways the masterwork of all masterworks, is Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Yet of the great works of modern literature, it is the one that offers the most obstacles. The first of course is its bulk, its length: more than a million words, 3,365 pages in the Terence Kilmartin reworking of the C. Scott Moncrieff translation. Much depends on the edition in which one attempts to read Proust. The C. Scott Moncrieff translation, which came in a boxed two-volume Random House edition, had wretched leading; the very want of space between lines makes dragging one’s eyes across the page a physical difficulty in itself. The language in Moncrieff, too, has sometimes been thought too lush, the editing that is necessarily a part of the act of translation too lenient. Not that one wishes in any way to undervalue Moncrieff’s achievement, which is immense.
Like any serious proustolâtre (as fanatics for Proust are called), I own both the C. Scott Moncrieff and the Terence Kilmartin editions; and I own, too, the Pléiade edition of À la recherche du temps perdu. Attempting to read Proust in French fairly quickly put paid to my pathetic pretensions as a reader of French. Proust presents difficulties enough in English. His long, looping sentences, interrupted by parentheses frequently more interesting than the sentences in which they are embedded, frequently held together by shaky syntax, often require rereading. A stockpile of such sentences in a paragraph that itself runs four or five pages is not exactly what might be called, in the current cant phrase, reader friendly.
Lest one think oneself low on the learning curve for finding Proust difficult, one’s spirits—and self-esteem—might revive slightly by the discovery that E. M. Forster found Proust no piece of (madeleine) cake. “I was hoping to find Proust easier in English than in French,” Forster wrote,
and do not. All the difficulties of the original are here faithfully reproduced. A sentence begins quite simply, then it undulates and expands, parentheses intervene like quick-set hedges, the flowers of comparison bloom, and three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb, making one wonder as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, such expensive dogs, and what, after all, is its relation to the main subject, potted so gaily half a page back, and proving finally to have been in the accusative case.
Much of this is owing to Proust’s method of composition. Extravagance, in prose as in life, was not something he worried much about. Céleste Alberet, his housekeeper and friend of his last years, tells that Proust, whose skin, like so much else about him, was very sensitive, used to require several towels to dry his face. “He dabbed himself with each towel once, either to wash or to dry himself, and then threw it aside,” thence to be sent to Lavigne, an expensive Paris laundry. With his towels, so with his prose: Proust was lavish in the extreme, rarely cutting, endlessly adding to his already vast manuscript. No believer in the modern dictum that less is more, he believed, au contraire, that more was plainly more and hence better, and he seems never to have had any trouble in finding more to add by way of new subordinate clauses, additional parentheses, and fresh codas to already vastly labyrinthine sentences.
This method, if method it was, can give Proust’s prose a density and a difficulty that puts some readers off, but it also gives that same prose a richness and complexity that turns quite as many readers on. (“These, however, are the disciplines of Proust,” Forster wrote, after the passage I quoted above. “No earnest sportsman would forego them.”) The love of complexity in literature is an acquired taste. Joseph Conrad had it. And Henry James had it in excelsis, once saying that if he could make the pronunciation of his name more complicated he would not hesitate to do so. The complexity of Proust is an acquired taste, but, once acquired, it becomes an abiding love.
I have read Remembrance of Things Past two and one-seventh times. The first, or one-seventh, time was as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, came near the end of one of those mad-hatter survey courses in the novel that young teachers put together, beginning with The Princess of Clèves and running through Henry Fielding, Stendhal, Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and ending with Ulysses.
What did a boy of twenty make of Proust’s astonishing opening volume? About 15 percent of all it contained, I should guess. I recall being alternately bored, confused, and hugely impressed by the book. At the outset, I was much more taken with Charles Swann’s self-torturing pursuit of the coquette Odette than I was with the little Marcel’s longing for his maman and the older Marcel’s cerebrations about time and memory. A good bit of the convolutions of poor M. Swann’s exquisite masochism must have been lost on me as was a good deal else. “The value of the work,” wrote Valéry in “Homage to Marcel Proust,” “is equal to the amount of life we ourselves provide.” At twenty, one does not have that large a deposit of life to bring to the task. Yet, somehow, for all my not really being up to the book, I knew I was in the presence of serious stuff, the real thing, and, like Henry Miller when a coin dropped from the purse of a woman he was making love to standing up in a dank hallway in Paris, I made a mental note to pick it up later.
Proust’s is distinctly not a bedtime, nor a beach, nor a summer holiday book.
I was in my early thirties when I made my first full frontal assault on Remembrance of Things Past. I now brought a little more life to it: fatherhood, a failed marriage, a decision to live a quiet and fairly bookish life. Still, the book, like all monumental works, was a climb. One had to be up for it, and stay up to keep stride with its brilliant author. Proust’s is distinctly not a bedtime, nor a beach, nor a summer holiday book. It must be read at one’s most alert hours, with an intellectual receptivity that one brings to the reading of one’s own will and testament. It requires scrutiny but scrutiny enacted in a spirit of devotion.
For me this meant reading Remembrance of Things Past in the early morning hours. I tried to give the book an hour out of each day. In that hour I covered ten, sometimes fifteen, rarely twenty pages, depending upon whether the Proust portion for the day contained more analysis than narrative or narrative than analysis, though the two were so frequently intermixed that the distinction didn’t always hold up. Seeking forward motion, I did not dally, struggling for complete lucidity and mastery over each difficult passage. Some mornings I was better than others: certain mornings, I read passages that I felt might just change my life; on other mornings, I felt myself obtuse and not at all up to my author; on all mornings, I knew I was in the presence of an astonishingly penetrating little half-Jewish, fully homosexual genius.
Proust was a genius on the same level as Henry James and, in my view, on a higher level than Sigmund Freud. I would later read Leon Edel, in the introduction to the fourth of his five-volume biography of James, make a similar though less invidious observation:
On the level of art James was probing the same human experience—and in an analogously systematic if unconscious way—as Sigmund Freud, who was making his discoveries at this very moment in Vienna. And also at this same moment, in Paris, James’s fellow artist, Marcel Proust, was engaged in examining that part of reflective experience which relates to association and memory. Proust, in the footsteps of Bergson, discovered for himself and demonstrated how a calling up of the past (which Freud was asking of his patients) establishes man in time, can give him an identity and reveal to him the realities of his being.
A work of the prodigious length of Remembrance of Things Past has its share of longueurs. But my tendency at the time was to assume that it was I and not Proust who was boring. (“Like many other men,” Proust writes, “Swann had a naturally lazy mind and lacked imagination.”) Certain characters interested me more than others: Swann, Mme. Verdurin, Saint-Loup, Vinteuil, Bergotte. Baron de Charlus, in especial, elicited my readerly pleasure: my attention went up when he appeared on the page, my heart sank ever so slightly when he departed.
Proust became, in other words, both the chronicler and the anatomist of snobbery.
I was always on the qui vive for snobbery, for at the top of the rap sheet on Marcel Proust is that he was a miserable snob. But by the time he came to write Remembrance of Things Past Proust was no longer a snob, but the great chronicler of snobbery, the greatest since the Duc de Saint-Simon, who was, I believe, a true snob and who operated on the principle of it takes one to know one. Proust took the fashionable world, in which snobbery is unavoidable, for his field of study, and, as Léon Daudet remarked, “the monde mattered to him as flowers matter to a botanist, not as they do to the man who buys the bouquet.” He became, in other words, both the chronicler and the anatomist of snobbery.
George Painter, still Proust’s best biographer and a man who has to have given Proust and the snobbery question as much thought as anyone in the world, in an interview with Phyllis Grosskurth remarked that he didn’t think Proust a snob. “He began as a snob,” Painter said,
partly because he was a Jew and a homosexual. If he could be accepted in the place where it was most difficult to get in at all, then that would make him feel better, feel more at home in the world. When he found that they [the great aristocrats of his day] had very similar failings to everybody else in his own middle classes or in the working classes of his servants, he was partly relieved, and perhaps a little disappointed. He often says how similar the bourgeois, the working-classes, and the aristocracy are in their ways, except that the working-classes are much kinder and more intelligent. He became an anti-snob.
One does not come away from Remembrance of Things Past with keen admiration for the aristocracy. Quite the reverse.
Proust knew all about snobs, about upward- and downward-looking snobs, and what drove both sorts of snobs. But after reading Proust, it is all but impossible to feel any regard for the modern aristocracy. “I had seen enough of fashionable society,” he writes, “to know that it is there that one finds real illiteracy and not, let us say, among electricians.” And then there is the great scene when poor Swann cannot get the Duchess de Guermantes to delay her departure for a party long enough to receive the news of his impending death, yet she can find time to change from black to red shoes. One does not come away from Remembrance of Things Past with keen admiration for the aristocracy. Quite the reverse.
My second full reading of Proust’s novel took place in my middle forties. The occasion, if not the motive, for my rereading the book was the Terence Kilmartin revision of the C. Scott Moncrieff translation. I note that I had taken to sidelining, in a light pencil, passages that seemed to me significant. The number of these passages is vast. Their cast tends to be darkish. An example from Time Regained, Proust’s final volume:
Yes: if, owing to the work of oblivion, the returning memory can throw no bridge, form no connecting link between itself and the present minute, if it remains in the context of its own place and date, if it keeps its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or upon the highest peak of a mountain summit, for this very reason it causes us suddenly to breathe a new air, an air which is new precisely because we have breathed it in the past, that purer air which the poets have vainly tried to situate in paradise and which could induce so profound a sensation of renewal only if it had been breathed before, since the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.
With the notion of paradises lost, we are in the dense metaphysical jungle of time, Proust’s larger subject. Reading him in my middle forties, now myself beginning to hear the clock tick more insistently, I was more attentive to his observations on time. These are set out most richly in Time Regained. Here one learns about “the incuriosity that is brought about by time”; the multifarious tricks time plays on memory, not least the contrast “between the mutability of people and the fixity of memory”; the search for those things that are extratemporal, for, as Proust writes, in a characteristic sentence:
An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them—a connection that is suppressed in a simple cinematographic vision, which just because it professes to confine itself to the truth of the fact departs widely from it—a unique connection which the writer has to rediscover in order to link for ever in his phrase the two sets of phenomena which reality joins together.
The work of art, Proust holds, is the sole method for recapturing time, and no one gave the effort a more heroic attempt than this man whose own time would run out at the early age of fifty-one.
As the chronicler of the subtler alchemistry that the passage of time wreaks, Proust understood the transitoriness of all things, and particularly of all passions. “But political passions,” he writes in The Captive, the volume touching on the Dreyfus case, “are like all the rest, they do not last. New generations arise which no longer understand them; even the generation that experienced them changes, experiences new political passions which, not being modeled exactly upon their predecessors, rehabilitate some of the excluded, the reason for exclusion having altered.”
And yet Proust’s is a despair that, conveyed through his pages, somehow doesn’t depress.
If all is transitory, this includes happiness, the great human goal, the illusion of all illusions. “In Proust,” as Howard Moss notes in his excellent The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust, “the homosexuals are just as unhappy as the heterosexuals.” But unhappiness is the condition toward which all tend. In good part, this is owing to the fact that, for Proust, the organizing principle of social life is snobbery, the chief emotion propelling love is jealousy. Proust can be an immensely amusing writer—his portraits of his gallery of snobs is comedy at its highest—but he is at the same time a darkly pessimistic one. Irrationality rules in his pages, kindness and generosity come to seem improbable. Selfishness, usually badly misconstrued, is persuasive. Only his artists—the painter Elstir, the writer Bergotte, the composer Vinteuil, the actress Berma, the dilettante art critic Swann—are allowed a measure of superiority, yet even they are often vaguely ridiculous. His despair, as perhaps befits a man ill all his days, is fundamental. And yet it is a despair that, conveyed through his pages, somehow doesn’t depress—at least not this reader. The reason for this, I believe, is that cascading human brilliance at the height of its flow, which is how I should describe Remembrance of Things Past, is too grand a spectacle to allow for depression on the part of the spectator.
Perhaps more than any modern writer, Proust invites reading not merely for his story but for the power of his analysis—for, not to put too fine a point on it, his wisdom. One cannot read Proust without recognizing how, in his monumental book, he has recapitulated French literature. In the purely storytelling aspects of Remembrance of Things Past, one senses the great sweep of French fiction, the line that runs from Madame de Lafayette through Stendhal through Balzac and even through Zola to Proust. In its analytic aspect, one feels in the book the influence of Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Pascal, Vauvenargues, Joubert, Chamfort, and the other French moralistes. Proust had the great French weakness—also glory—for generalization. So much is this so that Justin O’Brien, fifty years ago, extracted 428 maxims from the pages of Proust’s novel, and set them out—in a small, bilingual book titled Maxims—under the five categories of “Man,” “Society,” “Love,” “Art,” and “Time and Memory.” “Proust’s love of generalizing,” O’Brien wrote, “has never been hampered by his material, for the maxims occur as readily in the midst of descriptive or narrative passages as they do in the more reflective sections of the work.”
These maxims give Proust’s work, as O’Brien points out, its justly deserved “reputation for universality,” but it also gives his novel its allure as wisdom literature. Proust’s maxims are not, for the most part, of the quality of La Rochefoucauld’s—most are not quite so polished as perfect maxims need to be—but they do have their own special power, arising as they do out of the long and elaborate story that is Remembrance of Things Past. Some are short and sharp: “After a certain age, the more one becomes oneself, the more obvious family traits become.” Others, lengthier, such as this on neurotics, carry an equally high truth quotient:
Who has not noticed this fact among women, and even men, gifted with exceptional intelligence but highly neurotic? When they are calm, happy, at peace with their surroundings, one cannot but admire their remarkable gifts and feel that their words are truth itself. A headache or a slight wound to their vanity is enough to change everything. The luminous intelligence—now harsh, convulsive, shriveled up—reflects only an irritated, suspicious, vain personality striving by every means to make a bad impression.
Proust is especially good, in his aphoristic mode, on literary and artistic matters. “Each artist seems to be the citizen of an unknown country, lost even from his memory and different from the country whence will come, embarking earthward, another great artist.” On criticism: “Each generation of critics does nothing but take the opposite of the truth accepted by their predecessors.” And on the larger subject of style:
To a writer as to a painter, style is a question not of technique but of vision. It is the revelation, which would be impossible by direct and conscious means, of the qualitative difference between our various ways of seeing the world—a difference which, but for art, would eternally remain the individual’s secret.
Reading generally presents the possibility of the pleasures of plot, of style, of form, none of which need be gainsaid. But at the highest level it also holds out the prospect of wisdom, of truths previously unrevealed. Do many people still read—as I do—looking for secrets, for hitherto hidden keys that will open too-long-locked doors? It seems almost impossible to read Proust without this motive. His very style, the aphoristic shading into the philosophical, seems to invite it. Yet the trick here is not to come to him looking for answers to specific questions. (“I have an answer, I have an answer,” calls out the Yeshiva boy, in the streets of his shtetl. “Does anybody have a question?”)The trick is to have long in mind the questions for which Proust supplies the answers without himself even considering them questions.
To provide a personal example, I have long thought about the point of a literary education—the point, that is, of thoughtfully reading vast quantities of belletristic writing much of which time erases from one’s memory. In part, the answer is to be found in the cultivation of sensibility; in part, I have also thought, in T. S. Eliot’s lilting sentence about Henry James: “He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.” James, Eliot seems to me here to be saying, operated in the realm above ideas. Fair and true enough, but where or what is that realm and how does one arrive there in one’s own thought? The most subtle formulation I have been able to discover I found in Remembrance of Things Past:
Our intellect is not the most subtle, the most powerful, the most appropriate, instrument for revealing the truth. It is life that, little by little, example by example, permits us to see that what is most important to our hearts, or to our minds, is learned not by reasoning but through other agencies. Then it is that the intellect, observing their superiority, abdicates its control to them upon reasoned grounds and agrees to become their collaborator and lackey.
Proust seems here to be taking Pascal’s “the heart has its reasons that reason cannot know” and further refining it to mean that only when reason gives way, gives primacy of place, to the heart does it have a chance to learn the heart’s deeper reasons: the reasons that, finally, matter most of all.
Yet one probably does best not to press Proust’s pages too hard in the hope of extracting ideas from them. People who have done so seem to have come up with fistfuls of grass in their hands. Céline, for example, found Proust Talmudic, or rather the Talmud Proustian, writing: “The Talmud is constructed and designed almost like Proust’s novels, tortuous, . . . a chaotic mosaic.” Of course, Céline’s reading wasn’t helped any by his anti-Semitism. Jean-Paul Sartre viewed Proust’s work as bourgeois irresponsibility in its purest form: “Proust chose to be a bourgeois, he made himself the accomplice of bourgeois propaganda, because his work spread the myth of human nature.” Not smart.
Great works of literature, like the figure of Henry James himself, exist on a plane where misconceived ideas can violate them. This is to say that, while of course literature is filled with ideational content, the ideas are not so easily separated from the stories, poems, and dramas in which they are embedded without doing great violence both to the ideas and to the stories, poems, and dramas themselves. “Poetry is what is lost in translation,” said Robert Frost, adding: “It is also what is lost in interpretation.” Literature, one might say, is often what gets lost when ideas are extracted too cleanly from literary works.
Which makes a book such as How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel by Alain de Botton an odd confection indeed.1 De Botton, despite his altogether French name, writes in English and is the author of two previous novels of the youthful, clever, postmodern sort. Mr. de Botton has had the extraordinary notion of turning to Proust as a guide for everyday living. What makes this extraordinary is of course the fact that Marcel Proust himself probably did not live a single ordinary day in his life. Great writer though he was, Proust was as neurotic as a flea. He was a man who dined at the homes of friends in his overcoat. He not infrequently left waiters tips of 100 percent. He was a man who, beyond the age of thirty, still reported on the condition of his bowels and micturition to his mother. Let us not even speak of the cork-lined room in which he spent the last fourteen years of his life. He turned night into day, day into night, working as others slept, sleeping as they worked. Proust was also smart, subtle, an authentic literary genius. But a guide to life? I don’t think so.
Yet Mr. de Botton makes out, in these pages, what might be called, in the cant phrase of the day, a best-case scenario. His book has the merit of containing some charming bits. Mr. de Botton imagines, for example, a genial meeting between Proust and James Joyce, unlike the cool and uneventful one (which De Botton recounts) that took place at dinner at the Ritz given by Violet and Sydney Schiff for Diaghilev and his troop of dancers and for the four geniuses of modern art the Schiffs most admired: Proust, Joyce, Stravinsky, and Picasso. Joyce arrived late, improperly dressed, and with not a very high opinion of his great rival in the field of the novel: “I observe a furtive attempt to run a certain M. Marcel Proust of here [Paris] against the signatory of this letter. I have read some pages of his. I cannot see any special talent but I am a bad critic.” Proust claimed never to have read a page of Joyce. Alas, another of those potentially, magnificently fructifying meetings that failed to come off.
De Botton’s book has other sweet bits. He informs us that Proust, like the painter Forain, had one of the early telephones available in France. He reports Fernand Gregh, one of Proust’s friends, recounting how the verb “to proustify” came into being: “We created among ourselves the verb to proustify to express a slightly too conscious attitude of geniality, together with what would vulgarly have been called affectations, interminable and delicious.” He underscores Proust’s own point that, in some fundamental way, friendship and truthfulness are incompatible, for Proust would never tell a friend anything that might inflict the least hurt.
De Botton puts into rather better perspective the reason why André Gide, then a key editor at Gallimard, turned down the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, and quotes Gide, writing to Proust, in self-extenuation for this most numbskulled of all editorial decisions: “For me, you had remained the man who frequented the house of Mme X, Y, Z, the man who wrote for the Figaro. I thought of you as—shall I confess it?—. . . a snob, a dilettante, a socialite.” What Gide doesn’t confess here is that, more likely, he failed to read Proust’s thick manuscript, for had he done so all such presuppositions would have been instantly dispelled.
Only rarely does Mr. de Botton cast doubt on his bona fides as a serious proustolâtre. He betrays his youthfulness, and the nature of his own undertaking, when, on page 165 of his book, he makes a poor joke by asking: “Did Proust have any relevant thoughts on dating? What should one talk about on a first date? And is it good to wear black?” He also refers to “a certain Madame Sert,” which shows a less than complete control over the milieu (or “maloo,” as Josephine Herbst used kiddingly to pronounce it), for Misia Sert, one of the great hostesses of the belle époque and friend to Mallarmé and so many other of the modern artists of France, deserves much more than the distancing diminishment of “a certain Madame Sert.”
The best audience for Alain de Botton’s book might be those who have never read Proust but long have wished to have done.
But of course Alain de Botton’s book cannot hope to embrace even a thousandth part of the richness of Proust. Any man who could write, as Proust did in Time Regained, that “the horror that grand people have for the snobs who move heaven and earth to make their acquaintance is felt also by the virile man for the invert, by a woman for every man who is too much in love with her,” thus economically demonstrating his subtle knowledge of three different worlds, cannot be contained within so slender, however genial, a volume as How Proust Can Change Your Life. The best audience for Alain de Botton’s book might be those who have never read Proust but long have wished to have done, for it gives several powerful glints of the glories to be found in this richest of modern literary mines. But for those who know Proust, it seems very thin soup indeed.
Phyllis Rose’s Year of Reading Proust is a vastly different kettle of caviar.2 I write “caviar,” not because I think the book pure caviar, but because there is something rather high-priced about the tastes of its author that plays out, in her pages, as unconscious comedy, though not everyone will find it amusing. I do, though chiefly in the way I find amusing the cast of characters around that overconfident and ignorant snob Mme. Verdurin, people so wrapped up in their own lives that they can have little or no notion that they just might be trivial.
One of the questions that one needs to ask when reading a great writer—it is often a painful but finally a pressing one—is, What would he or she think of me? How would I appear in the eyes of Tolstoy, George Eliot, Henry James, James Joyce? (Too often the answer, one fears, might well be: “Of no conceivable interest.”) Of the great writers, Proust is perhaps the most tolerant, but I think nonetheless that he would have consigned Miss Rose to the crowd at Mme. Verdurin’s, where she would have flourished among the happy, the self-satisfied, and the purblind.
Ostensibly, Miss Rose’s book is about her attempt to complete Proust’s great book after many earlier failures to get past its first hundred or so pages. In fact, the book is really a memoir, a year in its author’s recent life in which she recounts her family history, habits, tastes, point of view, friendships, and quotidian life. It is a year in which she awaits the death of her aged mother, long ailing from congestive heart failure, a death that, by book’s end, is not accomplished. But, then, as Miss Rose allows, at the time of writing, neither had she quite finished Remembrance of Things Past. As she remarks, she intends to use “Proust’s masterpiece [as] my madeleine,” to recall her own life, as the French biscuit dipped in tea did for Proust. But Proust offers only a frame for this book; at its center is the character of Phyllis Rose.
Phyllis Rose perhaps finds, one fears, altogether too bearable her astonishing lightness of being. Her husband—her second husband—is the son of the creator of the Babar books for children, who has continued to produce these books. They live in Connecticut and at Key West. She and her husband collect Roman glass and prints; she finds collecting, it seems important that you and I should know, a perfectly adequate substitute for the “universal eroticization” of unmarried life. After years in psychotherapy, she concludes that “what was unique about me was that no one had ever hurt me.” Hers was a happy childhood, awash in popular culture, which she still adores. “Nothing,” she believes, “can cheapen the Beatles story”; a child of the Sixties, she had for some years imagined herself the sole girl Beatle. Email, she avers, “has given me back the spontaneity I had lost to the laziness of age.” A professor of literature at Wesleyan University, author of books on Josephine Baker and on Victorian marriages, Miss Rose offers an example of the limits of education and of culture, for in her a vast overlay of both has not been able to cover up the inexhaustible shallows of a confident but unoriginal mind.
Miss Rose may think she is writing about Proust, but in fact she makes one wish we had a Proust around today to deal with the rich material she supplies in her memoir. Imagine what Proust might have done with Miss Rose’s recounting the loss of her virginity after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “It was part of the same biological response to grief, despair, and fear that led people to make love in the cattle cars on the way to Auschwitz, and I never felt guilty about it . . . .” She tells us a good deal about her dreams, confirming my own view that people who commit this exceedingly boring social act generally have more interesting dreams than actual lives. She has a deep friendship with another professor at Wesleyan who is homosexual, causing her to comment on “the sophisticated refinement of sex that homosexuality seemed to me to be.” Proust could have filled her in a good bit here, too, for, as the pages from Cities of the Plain unmistakably reveal, he thought homosexuality very far from refined.
But the great Proustian scene, which Miss Rose simply isn’t up to, because she is unaware of the inherent comedy of it, occurs in the latter portion of her book, when the novelist Robert Stone, a friend at Key West, asks her to prepare an important dinner for fifteen or sixteen, telling her it is for Sonny and Gita Mehta, the chief editor at the firm of Alfred A. Knopf and his wife. But Miss Rose soon comes to suspect that there are bigger fish to fry—or ought that to be bigger fish for whom to fry? The real reason for the dinner, the reason that its true guest could not be revealed, was because that guest was—can you bear the tension?--Salman Rushdie. Once she learns who it is she is to entertain, Miss Rose, without a scintilla of irony, writes: “That it would be a memorable evening for literature was true. It would be memorable for the Key West writers to meet Rushdie. And the meeting ought to be special. A great writer, a martyr to art, was owed a special evening.”
The dinner for Rushdie turned out to be a bit of a fizzle. Conversations never quite meshed; the wrong subjects came up. Sonny Mehta failed to arrive. The disappointments of a snob, even an unconscious snob, can be poignant. (One recalls Chips Channon, in his diary, recording that, such was his elation at having two reigning sovereigns in his home, he became so drunk that he had no memory of the entire evening.) “It kept getting away from me,” Miss Rose writes, who adds, “Of all the forms of creativity, hostessing is one of the most treacherous.” Perhaps, à la Mme. Verdurin, she should have arranged to have played for the company Vinteuil’s haunting sonata.
“I had flunked the test of Proust,” Miss Rose remarks apropos of her slowness in picking up on the fact that the dinner Robert Stone asked her to give was for Salman Rushdie. “I flubbed the hard, minute work of perception. I let the insight go out of my mind so entirely that I hadn’t even realized there was a ‘mystery guest.’” Ah, she cannot know it, but poor Miss Rose has flunked an even graver test. In this book she demonstrates herself to be one of those people, of a kind not infrequently found in Proust, who are deprived of humor, irony, and the least measure of perspective, and hence of significant self-knowledge itself. A snob of the American educated classes, far from being possessed of Proustian insight, she is herself a contemporary version of a Proustian figure.
As for that Proustian test, it has to do not with quickness of perception, though Proust clearly must himself have been a man, as was said of Henry James, “assailed by perceptions.” It has to do with something broader, something deeper. Marcel Proust, for all his neurotic tics, was a very savvy man, a man engaged with reality on the most fundamental level. Reading Proust has to do with the meshing, so impressive in Proust himself, of culture and reality. The Proustian test comes, finally, in the ability to keep in balance the contradictory notions that the world, for all its pleasures, is also a place of low deceits, vicious insensitivities, gargantuan self-deceptions, snobberies little and large, and yet, for those who cultivate awareness, it remains nonetheless a profoundly amusing place—no less profound than amusing.
In his last months, Proust told Céleste Alberet: “People will read me, yes, the whole world will read, and you’ll see, Céleste. Remember this: it took a hundred years for Stendhal to become known. It will not take Marcel Proust as many as fifty.” He was of course correct. He was correct because he understood, with great precision, what his own indefatigable work provided its small but hardy band of readers.
In Time Regained, Proust wrote: “Every reader is, in reading, a reader of himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers the reader so that the latter may make things out in himself that he might otherwise not have seen.” If one is fortunate, if one brings to Proust a freshness of mind and the spirit of homage properly owed to a truly superior mind, one has a chance, slim but genuine, to become perhaps a little smarter about the world. For those of us who do not make any distinction between experience and reading, but believe that reading is experience, experience acquired in tranquility, Marcel Proust is our man.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 8, on page 19
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