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Previously in Crosscurrents:

"The Rest Is Silence," by Wen Stephenson (August 13, 2000)
Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, Frank Kermode's Shakespeare, and the Prince of Denmark in the age of digital reproduction.

"Geek Studies," by Harvey Blume (July 13, 2000)
Hackers, freaks, outsiders, Homo Superior? Call them what you will, geeks are everywhere, and their stories help explain how science is shaping us.

"Soul of the New Economy," by Scott Stossel (June 8, 2000)
A new genre, call it "The Businessman as Revolutionary," has corporate culture co-opting counterculture in the Internet economy. Yet, as Jeremy Rifkin argues in The Age of Access, it's capitalism itself that may be transformed -- and not necessarily for the better.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

Master of Reveries

Why Proust? And why now?

by Sven Birkerts

September 7, 2000

There are developments, trends -- I don't know quite what to call them -- that pique the interest because they don't quite make sense; they are culturally paradoxical. We could all see Survivor coming -- it's the perfect marriage of technological scopophilia and our growing appetite for real-life spectacle. But I would not have guessed, ever, that we should in the millennium year find ourselves in the middle of what looks like a Proust boomlet. That's Marcel Proust, author of In Search of Lost Time (still widely known as Remembrance of Things Past) -- the longest, and in many ways the most taxing, novel in the whole literary canon.

I can think of any number of good reasons why not Proust, beginning with our incredible shrinking attention spans and our post-Hemingway distaste for most species of ornate prose (Proust favors the sentence-as-steeplechase approach), and moving on to our great democratic repudiation of social snobbism (the man was legendary, even in his own time, for his obsession with class and caste distinctions) and the general postmodern sense of bemused detachment from the steadily growing midden of history, the nightmare from which Joyce's Stephen Dedalus was famously trying to rouse himself.

But the evidence is not to be ignored. The stock of M. Proust is trading actively on the literary Bourse. I can cite the appearance this year of two mammoth biographies: William Carter's Marcel Proust and a translation of Jean-Yves Tadie's Marcel Proust: A Life (which most scholars agree utterly supplants George Painter's two-volume biography, the standard for some decades now). There is also Edmund White's mini-biography -- sketchy but readable -- in the new Penguin Lives series. Moreover, apart from the expected steady flow of scholarly studies and dissertations, we find recent books like Phyllis Rose's The Year of Reading Proust (1997), Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), Malcolm Bowie's Proust Among the Stars (1999), and Roger Shattuck's crisply intelligent and accessible Proust's Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time (2000), not to mention the film Time Regained (1999), by the Chilean director Raoul Ruiz. These latter make the best case for the belated arrival of Proust into our midst, for they are all, books and movie, pitched not to the academic but to the educated, interested lay audience. A spot check of the Amazon.com sales rankings shows the de Botton and Shattuck selling very well, along with the now-standard three-volume Random House paperback boxed set, in the revised C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin translation, which costs as much as a night at the opera and weighs as much as a magnum of champagne.

Of course, I don't mean to convey the impression that Americans everywhere are suddenly converting to Proustianism -- God knows we're not about to replace televised wrestling with literary talking heads -- but within one little segment of our cultural Balkans the magus of the cork-lined room is making his presence felt. What strange counterintuitive flowerings of sensibility the times encourage -- that the master of reverie should be finding new readers in this era of hurtling signals. In a way, the perfect emblem for this paradox is Edmund White's mini-biography. The whole Penguin series is, after all, pitched to be digestible gist for the reader on the move, while Proust, obviously, stands for the opposite: his ideal map would unroll point for point over the territory to be traversed.

Late-modern accelerations notwithstanding, there are a number of reasons why Proust's hour has come around again. For one thing, the passing of time has -- as is almost always the case with innovative works of art -- made his monolith less forbidding. Think of it as the Everest syndrome. First one intrepid explorer makes it up, then several; eventually everyone old enough to strap on a pair of climbing boots has planted a flag. I exaggerate, yes, but the point stands. Since his death in 1922, Proust's work has been taken up, evaluated, fought over, and generally carried into the stream of our collective awareness. Most educated readers at least know the grandly circular conception of the novel, that it documents the romantic, social, and artistic coming of age of the narrator, Marcel, bringing him to the point where he reconciles the two symbolic "ways," or paths, of childhood memory -- Swann's Way (the way of love) and the Guermantes Way (the way of society) -- and is at last ready to write the book we are reading. Although few readers ever make it through to the end of the Search, there is yet a sense of do-ability about it; it is there to be gotten.

Linked with the novel's receding from us in time has been the rising tide of nostalgia -- not just for Proust's period, but for the whole unrecoverable then. In our era of hyper-progress, every passing year exponentially increases the gulf between us and what went before. At mid-century Proust's novel was still part of a world remembered; now it is a chronicle of Atlantis, and the author's portrayals of the society of his day seem locked away in amber. As Edmund White puts it, "He is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler, as a maker of myths."

Then, too, we must note the enormous changes wrought by the gay-rights revolution of recent decades. Although Proust's narrator, Marcel, wears hetero garb in the novel, his world, as White's short biography makes very clear, is complexly coded to the author's passions for various young men, the most noted example being the partial modeling of Marcel's great love, Albertine, on the figure of Alfred Agostinelli, Proust's lover and chauffeur.

If the gay sensibility has gained influence in recent years, so has the culture-wide disposition toward the psychological. We live not only in the great era of relationships, but also in the great era of talking about relationships -- the processing that is now the necessary complement to all mature involvements. Proust is the Lewis and the Clark of processing -- no eyebrow gets lifted in his Paris without a disquisition on the semiotic implications of the gesture. Here, for instance, is part of a description of a footman taking Swann's hat from him as he prepares to enter a party: "But the harshness of his steely glare was compensated by the softness of his cotton gloves, so effectively that, as he approached Swann he seemed to be exhibiting at once an utter contempt for his person and the most tender regard for his hat." I could go on -- Proust does -- but the point is made. We are catching up to Proust (albeit slowly); we are, counseled and therapized, becoming adepts in just this sort of gestural scrutiny, more ready than ever before to follow the narrator's path through the implication-crowded gauntlets of the Parisian haute-monde. Nor, for all of our egalitarian protestations, are we immune to the fine seismographic twitches of the status needle. Indeed, living in a world that extols the markings of status while hypocritically deploring class consciousness, today's reader may find the unapologetic snobbishness of Proust's aristocrats almost tonic.

All of these reasons have powerful tributary force, but there is another that is more compelling still. It has to do with our arrival, in a collective cultural sense, at a new place, a threshold of self-reflection. Whether this has to do with the attainment of hitherto unimaginable kinds of leisure, or a certain critical mass of psychological awareness, I don't know -- but the signs are everywhere. We are in the era of the retrospective impulse, the written token of which is the memoir.

I have in front of me a full-page ad from the current Partisan Review announcing an upcoming conference on "Autobiography, Biography & Memoir." Four sessions, featuring luminaries like Saul Bellow, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Francine du Plessix Gray, Denis Donoghue, and others, with titles like "Ways of Writing About Oneself" and "How to Recapture Selective Memories." What is striking -- and for my purposes suggestive -- is that while none of the sessions even mention him in their billing, the ad copy is superimposed upon a photograph of Proust. He is -- voilà -- the patron saint of memoir. As André Aciman, who happens to be one of the conference participants, writes in False Papers, his new book of essays, Proust's vision "gave memory and introspection an aesthetic scope and magnitude no author had conferred on either before."

The man is here to stay. The question, then, for all of us who still profess ourselves readers, is how to proceed. The obvious way, of course, is (pace Peter Pan) straight on til morning. Easy to say, a bit harder to do, especially if one is not yet retired and does not feel like sacrificing all reading projects for the next six months to the task. To all of us I commend Proust's Way.

Roger Shattuck, a devoted Proustian and the author of the previous critical studies Proust's Binoculars (1963) and Marcel Proust (1974), manages to tread the fine line between an aficionado's reverence for the organic whole and a welcome sort of pragmatism. Recently retired from a distinguished academic career, Shattuck goes so far as to commit the professional heresy of offering early on that the work can be sensibly and profitably read in somewhat abridged form -- he even provides, in a note, a plausible path to follow. He does not, I hasten to add, extol such a reading -- he merely allows it as a viable default. For Shattuck, "a steady, leisurely pace, without the tension of fixed deadlines, serves best. Certain habits of thought can thus be laid aside as others are slowly acquired. It may take months, even years. The Search creates a season of the mind outside temporal limits."

I like that. It proposes a vision of reading that is outside the parameters of the harried day; it connects the art to duration, the molasses of inward time. I feel exonerated, able to view my own fitful attacks on those many thousands of pages as part of a life project rather than a race to get through the syllabus.

For I must be honest here. The history of my reading of Proust is a comic chronicle of lofty intentions foundering in the face of finite endurance and chronic distractedness. I once spent a long summer sitting in a canvas chair in a remote Italian village, with nothing to disturb me dawn to dusk but the rustling of the neighbor's chickens, and still I could not get past The Cities of the Plain (the fifth of the novel's eight books). I blame my finicky reading habits. I blame Proust for writing so many of those sinuous sentences that swirl you about in the pleasurable grip of their clauses, only to leave you goggle-eyed when the period comes, forced to look back for the antecedent, and then, invariably, to read the thing again. I blame my beleaguered eyes and the print of the old standard two-volume edition -- the original Moncrieff translation, with its evocative sonorities and somewhat mannered dialogue -- that might still be propping up a window somewhere north of Rome.

My point is that I didn't finish. By the time I got back to the States I had lost my drive, positively craved magazines and glib novels. I have returned, to be sure, have read Swann's Way a number of times now, but when Proustians get to talking -- each subtly vying to reference some moment very late in the book -- I feel the prickle of fraudulence, the more so as I have now, decades later, forgotten what intricacies of social conquest and rebuff animated the master's portrayal of life among the Guermantes and their circle.

But Proust is not a contest nor an obstacle course for overzealous literati, and I am, finally, happy to think of the work as a resource, a well, a repository of what Keats called "silence and slow time." When I reread Swann's Way earlier this summer, I felt, more than ever, I think, that here was a work that one could self-administer as a drug; that the point of the immersion was less an insight into the mores and practices of a vanished societal microcosm, and much more a connection to an inwardness so powerful and insistent it reminds us that our dominant sense of life as a filofaxable array of tasks, appointments, and punctuated entertainments is a dream from which we might, with luck, one day awaken.

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Sven Birkerts is the author of five books of essays, most recently Readings (Graywolf Press). He reviews regularly for Esquire and other publications. For Atlantic Unbound he has written on Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and others.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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