Reading Proust


by Larry Wheeler

Director, North Carolina Museum of Art

illustration by Tim Lee

I’ve long been fixated on the history of Europe and America between 1870 and the First World War, an extraordinary time for exploring the clash and coexistence of the old and the new. I’ve read loads of books on French and American society – and a bit on the British, too – about politics here and there, and most fascinating of all, about the world of the arts and artists in the Belle Époque. Think Impressionism and the emergence of the Modern – Matisse, Picasso, and Braque. Invariably in the reading adventure, there would be references to Marcel Proust, who wrote Á la Recherche du Temps Perdu (translated as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past), a massive personal chronicle of society and manners in fin de siècle France.

So why had I never read Proust beyond the required reading of Swann’s Way in French class? I am a French historian, after all. At least I have degrees in it. So I ordered the boxed set in paperback from Amazon about a year ago and set to it.

The mythology of reading Proust is no myth.

Twelve million words spread over nearly 4,500 pages in seven volumes can seem a bit daunting at the outset. In How Proust Can Change Your Life, a small book of insights into such an experience, Alain de Botton points out that a single sentence – and the longest – measures 160 inches and can wrap around the base of a bottle of wine 17 times. Such facts as these are meant to impress friends – like you – of the readers of Proust – like me.

Yes, of course, I read the translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, which in itself is an amazing work of literature. Moncrieff died in 1930 before he got to the final volume. You can feel his absence in Time Regained. It was he who named the translated work Remembrance of Things Past, by which most folks refer to it. A new biography of Moncrieff, Chasing Lost Time, has just been published.

As I set out on my Proustian journey, my sensory overstimulation apparently radiated to all around me. The first instance was at a meeting of a committee to discuss the future of the Ackland Art Museum. I seated myself at lunch next to John Townsend of New York, North Carolina, and other places, a respected collector of modern and contemporary art. I had been dying to meet him for obvious reasons. As he was chatting with J. K. Brown about recent art fairs, he turned and asked what I did beyond art stuff. “I am reading Proust,” I remarked casually. “Wow. So am I,” he said. “I got the whole set on tape, the longest work on tape ever recorded.” (See how we are.) “Odette was by my side from Lumberton to Palm Beach.” We needed no further introduction.

One volume or the other ever in hand as I traveled, I could feel the bemusement of my seatmates or the curiosity of check-in clerks. This winter while registering at a professional meeting in Mexico City, a colleague behind me could not help noticing Proust printed in big letters on my portable book. “You’re reading that,” she exclaimed, noting she had never gotten around to it. I affirmed meekly that I was nearly finished with the final volume. I stood there, happily absorbing her respect.

Philippe Ardanaz, the consul general of France (up from the consulate in Atlanta) joined me for lunch recently with his cultural attaché, Alexandre Durand. As we discussed cooperation on cultural projects, the subject of Proust somehow arose (beats me). I noted that I heard the cultural services arm of the French Embassy had opened the Albertine, a French bookstore, in their quarters on Fifth Avenue in New York. (Albertine is the unsuitable lover of Proust, over whom he obsesses for at least 2,000 pages.) I remarked about how cool that was. Our conversation and relationship moved to a new level.

A few weeks ago I was in Wichita Falls, Texas, consulting with a small art museum on national accreditation. At dinner with the vice chancellor for finance of Midwestern State University, under which the museum operates, Dr. Marilyn Fowle asked what books I was reading that might be of interest to her book club. Yes, I did. You know I did.

So what is Remembrance of Things Past about anyhow? Well, it is about French society at the end of the 19th century, which means that it is about, among other colorful things, loose women – and men – in an era of great moral breadth. Homosexuality and lesbianism are analyzed deeply, especially in Sodom and Gomorrah, Vol. IV. Courtesans of the salons are among the work’s great characters, Mme. Swann (Odette), par exemple. There is Count Charlus, a high noble who thrives on the low life and who moves from elevator boys to gifted musicians to eventually an S&M brothel he establishes for his own debasement. There are great female characters – Albertine, of course; Odette; the Duchesse de Guermantes; and countless lesser noblesse and bourgeois divas of the salon world. Wild and compelling? Yes.

One moves among conversations about anticlericalism and republicanism; the Dreyfus Affair, which outed the anti-Semitic bias of upper French society; and the political divisions and vicissitudes of governing in the Third Republic. Such were the times. And Proust’s observations on the habits of Parisian society and his recounting the gossip of the time are riveting. But most of all one swims in the head of Proust as he brings obsession to the level of fine art. Albertine, Gilberte, Count Charlus, Robert de St. Loup, Odette, his grandmother, mother, and madeleines – all merit multi-page paragraphs.

His deep analysis of the nature of art – its true measures, its relationship to science – is as profound as his examination of the roles of memory, reflection, and spirit in art-making. But most of all, his language is art: art so beautiful and poetic that even in its protraction, one is left breathless and longing for more. Marcel Proust possessed a huge intelligence combined with an unrivalled patience in unpeeling the layers of life as he and those around him lived it.

After nearly a year, I finished Remembrance of Things Past, longing for more but remembering, like Proust, how lovely was the dance.