Revisiting Proust

Proust

Lately I have started to read Proust again. I have been putting off reading the final pages of ‘Time Regained’, the seventh and final volume of In Search of Lost Time, but have finished the novel while an unusually rainy autumn has driven me indoors. I began reading it as I was about to start my life as a student. Now that I am embarking on a new degree I find that certain passages of Proust find a resonance with me as I seek to interpret my experiences. Absorbing the first intimations of my new student life, of the university with its self-contained academic life, of this town with its unfamiliar streets and the surrounding countryside blanketed in mist and the mellow autumnal weather, I remembered the description that Proust had given of the garrison town of Doncières. Turning to his descriptions once again, I realised that he could evoke, far better than I was able, the experience of arriving in a new town, seeing its buildings, population and natural surroundings forming a coherent, self-contained world that was still unfamiliar:

‘And the streets of this town had not yet become for me what streets are in the place where one is accustomed to live, simply a means of getting from one place to another. This life led by the inhabitants  of this unknown world must, it seemed to me, be a thing of wonder and often the lighted windows of some dwelling kept me standing for a long while motionless in the dark by laying before my eyes the actual and  mysterious scenes of an existence into which I might not penetrate.

Orléans, model for Doncières in Proust’s novel

I turned to the pages of Proust once again, almost in consolation, when after striking up an acquaintance with an attractive fellow student I found that both she and I were planning to go on an organised coach trip to see a Shakespeare play in a neighbouring town. This small coincidence at once made me anticipate the trip, and I fantasised about how she and I might fall into conversation on the coach, how the atmosphere of seeing Shakespeare in the theatre might create some romantic bond between us. All that week, through the foul weather, I cherished the vision of that trip in anticipation. Yet fate appeared to conspire against me, for as it happened I missed the coach by half an hour, and felt myself more bitterly disappointed than I had expected. It was not missing the play that I cared about but the complete shattering of the dreams I had allowed myself to weave around the event over the previous week. It was then that I recalled Proust’s description of his alter ego Marcel’s anticipation of dining with Mme de Stermaria and his bitter disappointment when she cancels the invitation:

‘How many they are in our memories, how many more we have forgotten – those faces of girls and young women, on which we have imposed a certain charm and a frenzied desire to see them again only because at the last minute they eluded us!’

Through reading this passage I was able to recall a similar pattern in my own experience. It is in just such a way that an author like Proust can become a part of one’s life, echoing its rhythms and experiences, so that sometimes we get the sensation of having lived something twice, once through our own eyes and once through the eyes of an author. The act of reading Proust itself became part of the texture of my life. I could recall reading successive volumes in a garden at the height of summer before going to college, or at college itself on quiet Sunday afternoons when, alone in my room, I would immerse myself in the pages of ‘Within a Budding Grove’, the second volume in the series, while the radio played softly and the afternoon began to darken into an early autumn evening. At such times Proust’s descriptions would sometimes fuse with my own recent experience, as in his account of the satisfaction of appearing tipsy in the restaurant at Rivebelle, and so relevant were his descriptions to my own life that it seemed the equivalent of a diary of my most intimate thoughts and experiences.

Cabourg, model for Balbec

After a while I ceased to find echoes of my own life in the pages of Proust. I still enjoyed his descriptions, but my life had now settled into a routine from which no new experiences arrived to resonate with what I was reading. Now I understand why it is only at this moment that I am turning to him again.  Once more I have experiences I need to interpret and am open to the possibility of seeing my life reflected in that of another. Thus In Search of Lost Time has come down off the shelf to act as an anchor while my life begins to assume a new shape around me. Yet is it surely the message of authors such as Proust that we should never allow habit to dull our senses, and that even amidst a sea of mundanity we can learn to perceive the world anew through the words of a writer.