Dear Proust: I beat your ass

Actually, I have now officially beaten slightly more than 1/7 of Marcel Proust’s ass, or 14.55%. Proust’s ass is a monumental 3500 pages wide, and it is an ass of such density that a thorough beating must progress inch by contemplative inch. Today at 1 pm, I reached the last word of Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past, if you prefer the earlier translation. The first word of Swann’s Way is “for” and the last is “years,” which is how long it feels to read the whole thing. In fact, “for years” would serve as a fine précis of this exhausting, endlessly digressive and conversational work about love, memory, jealousy, loss, time, music, art and language.

There is no subject in the world, apparently, that does not remind Proust of something else, no tangent that can’t be pursued, no grain of human emotion too fine to be cut. It doesn’t provide instructions on how to replace the alternator in your ’82 Malibu or give you a step-by-step guide on antiquing your end tables, but after you read the “Swann In Love” chapter, you will come away with the most exhaustive possible picture of the awful pleasures of love. That is, if you’re the jealous type. And your lover turns out to be a promiscuous bisexual courtesan. And you manage to delude yourself about it for years. I know: holy quotidian, Fledermausman.

Sooner or later, you and everyone you know pop up in ISOLT, even though you’ll be sporting 19th century French drag. The bedridden and paranoiac Aunt Léonie will remind you of someone in your own family, and the blunt but attractive de Fourcheville is immediately recognizable to anyone who’s ever had a sexual rival. There’s no cliché about literature more overused than the idea of locating the universal in the particular, but in Proust you may see how far that cliché goes, as he digs deeper and deeper into consciousness and experience. Tiny moments, gestures, carelessly thrown out lines or imprecations are mined for the greatest possible significance.

The book doesn’t really have plot twists – instead, everything turns on details: the line of a path along the river, a smile or an encouraging remark from a woman, a passage from an obscure sonata. At times the details seem to take on such importance that they assume a greater and more intense life than the characters. It is in his treatment of secondary characters, in fact, that we see Proust’s talent for economy, the ability to capture a personality in a paragraph, which suggests that the digressive nature of ISOLT is strategic instead of habitual. That is, I think Proust is trying to duplicate the process of consciousness in the language and structure of his work.

I know that the English majors who read me are now thinking, “Yeah? So? He’s a modernist author, right? Wasn’t that what modernist authors did? Wasn’t that, like, their specialty, reproducing consciousness, taking the subterranean path to the objective correlative?” And they would be right. But it’s one thing to have Professor Englischer explain it to you in a classroom as the fluorescent lights buzz overhead and the asbestos particles float through the air, and another to experience it day after day as you corkscrew like a solitary botfly into the text. And lay eggs, like a botfly. And then do a series of botfly-related activities. Botfly party!