Marcel Proust on What Writing Is

Proust died at fifty-one, in Paris, of pneumonia, on November 18th, and last year was the centenary of his death. Since I first read “In Search of Lost Time,” his immense and unique autobiographical novel, a long passage about what writing is—from “Time Regained,” the seventh and last volume—has stayed with me. It takes place at the mansion of the Princess Guermantes, where the narrator has been invited to a musical reception. On his way to the Guermantes’s, he encounters by chance M. de Charlus, a member of the Guermantes family. Ancient and ruined by a stroke, Charlus is like a ghost of a possible future for the narrator himself. At this point in the novel, the narrator is nearly middle-aged, bored, over-sophisticated, and aware that, for lack of talent, he is not the writer he had dreamed of becoming. Everything in the first six volumes is behind him—Swann, Gilberte, Vinteuil, Albertine—although unwritten as yet.

In the mansion’s courtyard, avoiding a departing car, he steps back onto two uneven stones, and is suddenly overtaken by the memory of standing on two uneven stones in the baptistery of St. Mark’s, in Venice. The intense happiness that he feels in the presence of this memory displaces his depression. It is a happiness that he has felt before at select times in his life—at “the sight of trees” near the seaside resort of Balbec, at “the twin steeples of Martinville,” sensing “the flavor of a madeleine dipped in tea.”

Inside the mansion, two similar experiences follow almost immediately: the noise of a spoon clanging against a plate recalls, years before, a train stopped in a forest; moments later, the starched texture of a napkin evokes the first day of his arrival at Balbec. These memories are an intervention at a fundamental level in his life as a writer. In the past, as with the madeleine’s bringing back images of his childhood in Combray, the narrator had simply luxuriated in the dazzle of the emotion. At this late stage, however, he is determined to solve the “riddle of happiness” brought on by these experiences. They are not lifeless “snapshots” of an intellectual act of remembering. They bring with them the world of their existence—“the simplest act or gesture remains immured as within a thousand sealed vessels, each one of them filled with things of a colour, a scent, a temperature that are absolutely different one from another.” Proust is famously meticulous in delineating the depth of these resurrected memories. Each of them encases a felt meaning that can be translated into “its spiritual equivalent.” That translation is vital to Proust’s power: “And this method, which seemed to me the sole method, what was it but the creation of a work of art?”

During this long passage about writing, Proust is, step-by-step, forging the original soul of his book and, at the same time, his own deliverance. It is as if the involuntary memories and images of past experiences are the inner book that he alone, in the living present, is poised to read: “This book, more laborious to decipher than any other, is also the only one which has been dictated to us by reality, the only one of which the ‘impression’ has been printed in us by reality itself.” As for writing, Proust observes that “the impression is for the writer what experiment is for the scientist, with the difference that in the scientist the work of the intelligence precedes the experiment and in the writer it comes after the impression.”

Proust’s first drafts of “In Search of Lost Time” were written in the years after Einstein’s conception that the speed of light is constant led to the formulation, in 1905, of the special theory of relativity. At a nexus of physics and the imagination, each of these breakthroughs is a kind of shadow dance of the other, in that each inculcates, as a value, the idea that every individual exists within their own space-time continuum. You can’t do anything with the theory of relativity except—after immense and gratifying industry—arrive at an understanding of it. In literature, what can follow the impression of a fluid timescale is: “For a long time I would go to bed early . . .” and so on, for the next four-thousand-plus pages.

When Proust talks about every public event as a distraction, as an excuse for the writer not to attempt to decipher the felt impressions that she perceives, he is speaking from experience (the list includes the Dreyfus affair, war, the moral unity of the nation, etc.). Up until he began “In Search of Lost Time,” Proust had been a facile writer, fluent in the intellectual currents of French society. He was forty-two when the first volume was published (and would live only nine more years).

In the seventy or so pages of “Time Regained” that Proust devotes to the transformation of himself as a writer, there is no statement regarding the mechanics of craft or technique. He writes, “I began to perceive that I should not have to trouble myself with the various literary theories which had at moments perplexed me,” adding only that “these theories seemed to me to indicate very clearly the inferiority of those who upheld them.” The long complex sentences that emerge as the author’s style in the first volume, “Swann’s Way,” echo the multiform perceptions that set them into motion, with the intent to “drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown.” Proust writes, with only the faintest irony, “Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature.”

Proust charts the dynamic of the novel’s own becoming, to show not how he did it but the significance of how he did it. The famous madeleine, “the mysterious rubescent call” of the Vinteuil sonata, the series of memories at the Guermantes mansion, in the waning days of the story that the novel tells—all lead to the vivid breakthrough, fledged with joy, which made suddenly clear to the author “the whole purpose of my life and perhaps of art itself.”

It’s hard to name this feeling; it has to be taken in as an inchoate event at the threshold of one’s perceptions. It’s not a coalition of distributable facts, but an essence, felt, to be translated within oneself into coherent meanings by oneself alone. For me, as a poet, a hundred years after Proust’s death, it is one of the truest definitions of writing. Proust describes it as “that reality which it is very easy for us to die without ever having known and which is, quite simply, our life.” ♦

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