On 28 July this year I finished the final volume of In Search of Lost Time, a book I began reading in 2000. According to the Proust critic Roger Shattuck, it’s not unusual for people to take a decade to read the Search. Proust took thirteen years to publish the seven volumes of the Search and it took me thirteen years to read it, chugging along at the rate of 90 000 words or so a year.
During those thirteen years, I moved interstate and back again twice, had a parent die, finished one career and simultaneously started two others, wrote my way out of a catastrophe, achieved middle-age, acquired two Proust t-shirts and became happy. And when I’d finally finished reading it, the first thought I had was that the Search is too short, and I needed to read it again.
Not long before I finished the Search – just as I was about to begin the final volume Time Regained – I realised that this year is the centenary of the publication of the first volume Swann’s Way (14 November if you’re thinking of breaking out the madeleines), a publication that Proust paid for himself because no-one else would touch it.
Two of the main themes of the Search, as far as I can tell anyway, are memory and sex. Curiously these were two of the major themes of the then young and burgeoning theories of psychoanalysis. Prior to the publication of Swann’s Way, Freud had written The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a title that would have made an excellent subtitle for the Search.
I assume that Proust had read Freud because of his frequent use of the new term ‘invert’ to describe gays and lesbians. ‘Invert’ was used in preference to ‘pervert’. If a pervert was someone commonly supposed to be fixed on a wrong object, an invert is someone fixed on an object that is merely different.
In the Search Proust was writing everything he could remember about remembering, a remembering that is being revised by the passage of time, so that what he knows of a person, and consequently of himself, is being continually rewritten and rewritten, as if Proust were writing his own palimpsest about the palimpsest that is memory.
One of the curious things about the Search is that it reads like the story of someone free-associating on the analyst’s couch. We go forward in time, back in time, sideways in time, travel to points where the narrator wasn’t present and so on, driven by obsession and contingent recall: my mother makes me think of my house, which makes me think of architecture, which makes me think of churches, which makes me think of meeting Albertine, which makes me think of beaches … and so on.
The subject of the Search, called Marcel – because, says Proust, that’s what we might as well call him, if we’re going to call him anything – is dual. The two simultaneous Marcels are the Marcel of the past (actually many Marcels at many points in time), who is engaged in narcissistically struggling to be a writer, and the Marcel of the present, speaking directly to us of the states of mind of the past Marcel. The present Marcel is a thoughtful, lucid, sometimes gossipy voice, who recites the narratives of his past, and comments on that narrative as he speaks.
Proust’s writing of sex is of the obsessions of sex, not only homosexual and heterosexual, but of the many polymorphous sexualities we inhabit in our lives. Perhaps there is no other kind of sex but obsessive sex, perhaps that’s what sexual attraction is – a kind of obsession. Maybe one of the difficulties with romantic relationships is the two parties matching up their levels of obsession, a concept that explains a lot about romantic love and why couples are often either glued together or fracturing.
The Search’s Marcel is born into an obsessive love (for his mother) and as a teenager and as an adult falls into a series of painful and obsessive love affairs, most notably with Albertine Simonet. Marcel’s long and tormented love for Albertine is characterised by his consuming and relentless jealousy and incessant paranoia concerning her possible affairs with other women and Albertine’s attempts to escape from the gilded cage in which Marcel has imprisoned her.
If all babies desire their mother, who herself has desires other than for her baby, then the structure of feminine desire becomes the thing that all of us, as babies, had to negotiate – the event that shapes our experience of the Other. The interesting thing about misogynists is that they are terrified by feminine desire, as if it could turn the world upside down. Which of course it once did. And the misogynist can only form alliances with men who have the same fixation. Their sharing of that fixation can be a way of getting close to each other without actually having sex with each other, and of keeping an eye on each other. The misogynist can’t work out what a woman’s desire could be if she doesn’t desire him, and therefore she will not be allowed to have other desires.
It’s curious that in modern times crises of femininity are always pitched in terms of crises of desire: women have too much desire (are sluttish, promiscuous, abandoned) or have too little (aren’t having enough babies). Crises of masculinity are always couched in terms of violence and power; men have an excess of both (are too criminal) or have too little (are too feminine, and therefore have a crisis of desire). It’s never the other way round except in transgressive horror stories of the murderous mother or the paedophilic uncle.
In The Fugitive, the penultimate volume of the Search, Marcel reflects on his pursuit of women: ‘I pursued one living woman, then another, then I returned to my dead one.’ Of course anyone who has read Proust knows which woman he is apparently referring to when he speaks of her death. But it occurred to me that the ‘dead one’ can also be Marcel’s mother, whose desire for him he continually struggled to awaken and lay exclusive claim to.
In fact there’s a famous paper by the late French psychoanalyst Andre Green, ‘The Dead Mother’, that reads like a description of Marcel’s state of mind. Green writes of infant depression and the melancholia produced by the infant in the presence of a mourning mother, and the later attempts by the child to enliven her, to recover, gain or create her love, even by hatred, indifference or proxy. Thinking about Proust this way there is an unseen ghost inhabiting the pages of the Search: the mourning mind of Marcel’s mother.
Modern porn has generated the term ‘MILF’, an acronym for ‘mother I’d love to fuck’. It’s an odd term in many ways, not least because it is very close to a statement that ‘I’d love to fuck my mother’, and makes one wonder about porn’s Oedipal fantasies and its structuring of a possessive desire – a male search for sexual omnipotence, where the other’s desire is completely subjugated to one’s own.
If Marcel were a twenty-first-century character, he would definitely add porn to his list of sexual fixations, which in the early twentieth century frequently included taking young girls of lower station back to his room and either paying them for some kind of sexual contact or just being generally creepy with them. The Search is a revelation of the structure of misogyny and of the misogynist’s failure to come to terms with his overwhelming desire for a woman’s absolute desire for him, and his burying of his desire for other men.
After Albertine, one of the most sympathetically and vividly drawn characters in the Search is Baron de Charlus, the florid homosexual aristocrat. Proust of course was gay, and the depictions of the gay men in the Search are also a simultaneous burying and revealing of Proust’s own sexual identity.
Charlus is convinced that no-one knows he is gay when in fact everyone does. He is the exemplar of the way we consciously give out signs about ourselves – I’m an intellectual, or I’m sensitive to the needs of women, or I’m always so busy, or I love bodies – but fail to understand how we can give ourselves away in all the ways we speak but don’t hear. Charlus’ construction of his public identity is cunning, elaborate and completely useless. The signs we deliberately give out about ourselves rarely speak in the ways we prefer them to, and when they do – when we fall in love for example – they can still lead us into disaster.
Gilles Deleuze, in his book Proust and Signs, speaks of Proust’s unparalleled acuity in regard to this. One of the Search’s most unforgettable characters is the wealthy bourgeois salon hostess, the appalling Madame Verdurin. Deleuze remarks that Mme Verdurin doesn’t laugh; she makes the sign that she is laughing, in effect the sign-of-a-sign. In one memorable scene she does this so demonstratively that she dislocates her jaw.
It’s interesting that contemporary fiction writers in English rarely seem to address the political issues of the age in their work. There are probably many reasons for this – the domination of English fiction by the values of conservative white men, a general obsession with ‘craft’, an almost soteriological belief that the novel and the short story are something transcendent, and so on.
Proust incorporated two of the biggest political events of his time into the Search. The first was the extraordinary Dreyfus Affair that consumed French politics from 1894 to 1906. The second was The Great War. Behind it all, as Proust lucidly shows, is the phenomenon of class – its rigid structures, its collapsing boundaries, its punitive but transitory nature. Given that war, anti-Semitism and the rewriting of class became the great preoccupations of the twentieth century, it looks as if Proust was not just politically attentive, but also right on the money.
The Search is a book that could probably not be published today, not without being edited to death, and its profuse winding endless sentences getting a good crafting. The Search is occasionally incoherent and sometimes boring for pages at a time, and being so complex a narrative has many lacunae. One character dies and later reappears, another is briefly referred to by a different name, characters have experience of events that haven’t yet happened and so on. But none of this matters at all.
Still, a valid objection to Proust is that as amazing as his work is, we’re continually being treated to the spectacle of a man speaking at great length of women’s desire. The women in the Search, particularly Albertine, struggle to speak of their own desires to men. But Albertine doesn’t want to write a million-word novel to be able to do that. She is just taking what she can when she can in any way she can. In her brilliant framing of psychoanalysis, The Weary Sons of Freud, the French feminist Catherine Clement wrote: ‘So I’m a thief. Yes, and with no qualms about it any more. I’m a thief, that is, a woman, forced to steal in a culture made for men …’
One of the first books I read after finishing the Search was the autobiographical novel The Words To Say It, by another French feminist writer, Marie Cardinal. Cardinal’s extraordinarily moving book describes a seven-year analysis she had in Paris that finished a few days before the events of May 1968. For many years she had experienced severe bleeding from her vagina, for which no medical cause could be found. Her analytic journey into her poisonous childhood, the bitter relationship of her parents and Cardinal’s own relationship with her mother describes a savage landscape of imprisonment in the desires of others. In my wondering state about Albertine, Cardinal’s book somehow filled in the Albertine-shaped hole in Proust’s narrative while also telling me that if Albertine had written her own, it would undoubtedly have made a train-wreck of Proust’s.
At any rate I think that beneath the themes of sex, mourning, memory and class in the Search, Proust is asking two overarching questions. The first is, where do our interior lives come from? Freud of course was asking the same question, but in echoing Freud we can risk coming up with a narrative that is sometimes a little too glib; that our interior lives are entirely formed from childhood states for example, and that critical events leave their marks, and these marks are generally the marks left in us by the minds of others and so on.
And while it is true that childhood is formative and our mother’s post-natal state of mind left its marks in ways both profound and elusive, and everybody we encounter leaves his or her mark on us as we do on them, the truth is that we don’t really know where our interior lives come from. We seem to create and own them in the same gesture, inhabiting an identity that is concrete and very fragile, so easily illuminated with shame or pain, but so difficult to locate. Emotions are mysterious, sometimes ungovernable and often appear subject to events outside our control. No-one can say, ‘I’m going to fall in love in exactly ten minutes’, or plan on getting angry after lunch on Thursday. No-one can put their mind in a jar and show it to you.
Proust’s second question is, what does it mean to read? It takes a long time to write a book and immense labour and reserves of imagination, yet it is such a tenuous, hit-and-miss operation. ‘We guess as we read,’ says Proust, ‘we create; everything starts from an initial error …’, which is something of an anticipation of Lacan’s statement that ‘the very foundation of interhuman discourse is misunderstanding’.
The writer is making a huge demand of a reader – that he or she give a book the attention that the writer gave to its creation. This can be a standing invitation to a writer’s narcissism of course, and it often seems to me that one of the characteristics of contemporary mainstream literature written in English is its furtive and not-so-furtive narcissism. And one of the challenges in writing prose these days is how to face and evade one’s culturally facilitated narcissism. How does one write open, alive, non-narcissistic prose? A tentative post-Proustian answer might be, ‘Write a prose of mourning.’
A prose of mourning is not a prose of misery. Proust is a great comic writer, certainly one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read, like a standup who having delivered a punchline on a labyrinthine and excruciatingly ridiculous story, continues to deliver, with impeccable timing, further revelations of the subject in question, so that we are laughing about three different things at once and also laughing because we are laughing so much. Every character of the Search has their comic aspect: Marcel himself, Charlus, Albertine, the Verdurins and the numerous minor characters, such as M Legrandin who takes up tennis in middle age so that he can become fit enough to sprint unseen in and out of houses of ill-repute.
And yet we cannot devote our lives to every book we read. We can only be conscious of the demand, a demand we can never meet or repay. In her essay on psychoanalysis, violence and the power of mourning ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’, Judith Butler wrote: ‘Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.’ Which is as good a summary of In Search of Lost Time as I’ve ever read.
Anyway, I should let Proust have the last words, in one of those labyrinthine sentences that would probably not make it past an editor’s knife today, sentences that would be sliced and diced in an attempt to make them resemble the kind of reactionary schlock that constitutes so much contemporary fiction writing in English, fiction from which we seem unable to escape, caught as we are in an age of strange narcissism and fatal ignorance.
And when, before putting out my candle, I read the passage which I am about to transcribe, my lack of talent for literature, of which I had had a presentiment long ago on the Guermantes way and which had been confirmed during the stay of which this was the last evening – one of those evenings before a departure when we emerge from the torpor of habits about to be broken and attempt to judge ourselves – struck me as something less to be regretted, since literature, if I was to trust the evidence of this book, had no very profound truths to reveal: and at the same time it seemed to me sad that literature was not what I had thought it to be.