Read: The surprising value of a wandering mind
On a work call one afternoon, a colleague mentioned his plan to make it beyond the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. More to the point, he intended to consume every volume in succession. I balked at first; I’d read the first volume, Swann’s Way, years ago, and it hadn’t done much for me. But by the end of the call, I had made a decision. I ordered the Modern Library box set of the Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Mayor translation and prepared for the arrival of my ax.
Proust was familiar with self-quarantine. Years of chronic asthma and a fragile physiognomy left him relatively limited in his physical activity. For the last three years of his life, he ensconced himself in his bedroom, blocking out light and sound from a bustling 1920s Paris to try to finish his modernist masterpiece.
Soon after beginning Swann’s Way, I realized that I craved a reading experience like the pandemic itself: one with an ending so far off as to be inconceivable. Proust released me from the typical pressures of reading. Unconcerned with finishing, note taking, or retention, I stopped tracking my progress and let go of any expectation of what I’d read next. (It’s easier to forget about the ending of a story when its last volume is on a shelf in another room.) There was no after, only me and the sinuous sentences, the ones that the philosopher Walter Benjamin called “the Nile of language.”
These sentences became a primer on the importance of contending with the inscrutability of the world. In Swann’s Way, while on a carriage ride near his home, the narrator, Marcel, encounters three cathedral steeples on the horizon and becomes transfixed. Though he can’t fully describe the vision, some ineffable quality in the relationship of perspective and movement draws him in: “In noticing and registering the shape of their spires, their shifting lines, the sunny warmth of their surfaces, I felt that I was not penetrating to the core of my impression, that something more lay behind that mobility, that luminosity, something which they seemed at once to contain and conceal.”
This encounter marks the moment that his project of reconstructing his own life in prose truly begins, but Marcel’s epiphany also prepares the reader to search the surface of things for clues to some greater essence.
Read: The literature of the pandemic is already here
The novel’s obsession with perception is part of why so many people find reading Proust to be profound: the philosophical interrogation of time, the discursive meditations on art, the musicality of its structure. Yet beneath these lofty ambitions is the beauty of his descriptions. Characters, emotions, and ideas are all rendered with such precision that the reader never suspects a hierarchy. Take this view of a balcony: “I saw it attain to that fixed, unalterable gold of fine days, on which the sharply cut shadows of the wrought iron of the balustrade were outlined in black like a capricious vegetation.” These visual encounters felt like intimate revelations.