Saturday, June 01, 2019

"Everyone Says You Should Read Proust, But No One Had Ever Told Me That I, Specifically, Should Read Proust"

Reading the first five volumes of Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle—the gargantuan Book 6 (The End) waits patiently on my bookshelf (because I thought I'd re-read the earlier volumes so as to consume the entire project at once)—was one of the most exhilarating and addictive and enjoyable reading experiences of my life.

I now want to read Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, to which My Struggle has often been compared, and it is high on my list of future reading assignments. In fact, I am currently reading two biographies of Proust—Benjamin Taylor's slender Proust: The Search and William C. Carter's hefty Marcel Proust: A Life—while trying to figure out which translation would be best.

My attention this afternoon was drawn to an essay by Elisa Gabbert, mentioned in an email from Lit Hub Weekly:
Proust and the Joy of Suffering

One recent Monday evening, I scanned through our bookshelves for an unread classic—I had one last piece to write in this series on revisiting the canon. I considered writing about Moby-Dick, but did not seriously consider reading Moby-Dick. I want to, very much in fact, but I rarely read long books, and moreover feel that I'm saving Moby-Dick for an unclear future experience, some contained and isolating context it deserves—a long sea voyage, my deathbed. Perhaps I could write about not reading Moby-Dick. Then I thought about In Search of Lost Time, another novel people, especially writers, almost brag about not having read, as though admitting you haven't read Proust suggests you've read everything else. I pulled Swann's Way off the shelf, read the first paragraph, and was astonished. Its obsessive attention to memory, time, and the minutiae of experience as it occurs through thinking—it was not just good. It was, as they say, extremely my shit. Everyone says you should read Proust, but no one had ever told me that I, specifically, should read Proust. ...

It was more readable than I'd expected, but it wasn't exactly light reading. That first paragraph was deceptive, in part by virtue of being a paragraph. Later I read that Proust hadn't wanted In Search of Lost Time to have paragraphs at all. He wanted it to appear as one volume, with no sections, chapters, or even margins. It's as though he wanted it to be unreadable, more a gesture than a text. ...

In the winter of 1940, the Polish artist and writer Józef Czapski was in a Soviet prison camp, and he was thinking about Proust. He was among a small group of officers and soldiers who survived the war; thousands of others were executed. In Czapski's words—he writes it twice—those others "disappeared without a trace." To occupy themselves, to keep their intellects sharp, to give "proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind," Czapski and his comrades in the camp delivered a series of lectures to one another. "Each of us spoke about what we remembered best," be it architectural history or mountain climbing. For Czapski, who had studied painting in France and been friendly with some of Proust's old friends, that subject was In Search of Lost Time. As the painter and translator Eric Karpeles writes in his introduction to Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, "A prisoner's constant state of vigilance was surprisingly conducive to the reclamation of memories." It came back to Czapski there, in the freezing ruins of a bombed convent, the way Combray came back to "Proust" when he was dozing off or when he tasted the madeleine dipped in linden tea. He delivered the talks in French because he'd read the novel in French—they say you should study for a test at the same time of day you'll be taking the test, should suck a peppermint during both, so the taste brings the knowledge back. "What Czapski remembered best was the quintessential book of remembering," Karpeles writes. ...

In a brief introduction to the lecture, written in 1944, Czapski speaks of "the joy" of that time in the prison camp, the "rose-colored light" of those hours spent giving and listening to lectures, "where a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived." ...

I am always struck by depictions of happiness in wartime, in the darkest conditions—in Chernobyl, in concentration camps. ... It's a form of resistance, to refuse to have pleasure taken away from you. But I think, too, there's something fundamentally life-affirming about proximity to death. We grow nostalgic for our pain, once it's safely in the past, because pain's intensity makes regular life look banal. ...

Along with his comrades, Czapski found meaning and beauty in the prison camp ("the hours spent with memories of Proust, Delacroix, Degas seemed to me the happiest of hours"), and they survived. Czapski lived to the age of ninety-six. But he had assimilated Proust's indifference to death, which is not the same as an indifference to living. It is, rather, an apprehension of existence so luminous that the threat of death recedes into dim corners.