For reasons I shall explain later, I have embarked on the somewhat daunting task of reading all six volumes of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, published by Vintage, 2002.
To the contemporary reader, Proust’s diction now appears elaborately ornate, overly sensitive, almost unwieldy in its diagnosis of detail and sentiment. But what is initially most striking for the reader is the sensation you have meandered into a mist of metaphors and maze of similes. This is typical:
‘The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent, that I never went into them without a sort of greedy anticipation, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully because I had only just arrived in Combray: before I went in to say good morning to my aunt I would be kept waiting a moment in the outer room where the sun, wintry still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, which was already alight between its two bricks and plastering the whole room with a smell of soot, turning it into one of those great rustic open hearths, or one of those canopied mantelpieces in country houses, beneath which one sits hoping that in the world outside it is raining or snowing, hoping almost for a catastrophic deluge to add the romance of being in winter quarters to the comfort of a snug retreat; I would pace to and fro between the prie-dieu and the stamped velvet armchairs, each one always draped in its crocheted antimacassar, while the fire, baking like dough the appetising smells with which the air of the room was thickly clotted and which the moist and sunny freshness of the morning had already “raised” and started to “set,” puffed them and glazed them and fluted them and swelled them into an invisible though not impalpable country pie, an immense “turnover” to which, barely waiting to savour the crisper, more delicate, more reputable but also drier aromas of the cupboard, the chest of drawers and patterned wall-paper, I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to wallow in the central, glutinous, insipid, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered bedspread.’
It takes time to focus your vision, to find your feet, so that you are not constantly stumbling in this fog of words. However, as the eye adjusts so you begin to appreciate his enterprise and the manner in which it has determined his approach. He is, after all, examining the function of memory and time from a very personal perspective. Indeed, how else could it be other than from a very personal perspective? This, in fact, is the question at the heart of his endeavour.
In philosophical terms, Proust is a phenomenologist, a follower of Hegel, Husserl and other so-called continental philosophers. Without getting too deeply involved in the arguments, I can suggest that phenomenology puts forward the concept that what we see is not what is actually there, i.e. the essence of what is there, but our idea of what is there. (So phenomenology, in the words of the French thinker and contemporary of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, ‘is the study of essences’.)
Early on, Proust announces the tenet of his novel:
‘Even the simple act which we describe as “seeing someone we know” is to some extent and intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him, and in the total picture of him which we compose in our minds those notions have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice as if it were no more than a transparent envelope, that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is these notions which we recognise and to which we listen.’
In brief, we don’t see the man but our idea of the man. And this notion of the man is so personal, so deeply rooted in private recollections, individual experiences and associated sentiments, how can we possibly hope to share our understanding of that man with others?
Proust’s solution is two-handed. On the one, he charts every brook, every rill, every tributary that swell the river of his remembrance in such faithful detail that the final picture emerges virtually on a one to one scale - the description surrounding the incident of madeleine cake being a case in point. On the other, he resorts to the metaphor and simile in the belief, it strikes me, that not only are they poetic in their power to evoke a mood, event or place, but also, and as a consequence of the first, because they represent a common ground of understanding that can best convey the specifically personal.
The more I read of In Search of Lost Time, the more I have the sensation that I am exploring the work of some impressionist, Monet perhaps, Cézanne more like, but from within the canvas.
Apart from the pleasure it is affording me, why am I reading it? The answer is much of my MA was devoted to the study of phenomenology and to Maurice Merleau-Ponty in particular. My fellow post-grad on the course was the hugely talented and exceptionally beautiful Katerina Pottakis. (Truth is she was the only other person on the course; how lucky was I?) For her final dissertation, she chose, or more accurately was coerced into writing her 20,000 words on Proust’s novel.
Image that, poor thing, she had to read all six volumes plus other works and produce her paper all within three months. Anyway, in a form of delayed solidarity and consolation, I promised her that I would get around to reading it one day (though not in the original French as she did, Katerina being able to speak and write in Greek, French, English and Spanish, all fluently – not fair, is it?) So, voila!