Reading Marcel Proust and Dawn Powell


“I am very fond of my novel, hope other people are.” — from The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931–1965


A while back I was on the train when we came to a stop at a station. There was another train waiting on the adjacent track. The lights from the car glowed in the grey chill of the wintry morning. Inside, commuters slept, read the paper or their books, typed on their laptops, scrolled through their mobiles, and so on. In our car, every head swivelled to gaze at the people in the other train. Our eyes opened, we looked up from our newspapers and books, fingers temporarily suspended over our laptop keyboards and mobiles, and so on.

I’ve picked up Proust again recently. “Finally!” I hear some of you say, while others murmur “Who cares?” I’m on page five hundred of Within a Budding Grove. That’s about two hundred pages from the end of the second book in the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. In this book, the narrator spends more time looking outward than he did in Swann’s Way. His observations of the people around him are more objective and less focused on his internal impressions and moods.

As always with Proust, our enjoyment of the book is not with the plot but with his ability to observe and record in precise detail, well, everything. Want to know what people looked and sounded like in the aristocratic households of Paris at the turn of the last century? It’s here.

In Within a Budding Grove we meet a few new characters. One is the Baron de Charlus, the uncle of a friend of the narrator. Several pages are devoted to a description of M. de Charlus, including his somewhat intense and inscrutable gaze:

No doubt, had it not been for those eyes, M. de Charlus’s face would have been similar to the faces of many good-looking men. . . . however much M. de Charlus tried to seal hermetically the expression on that face, to which a light coating of powder lent a faintly theatrical aspect, the eyes were like two crevices, two loop-holes which alone he had failed to block, and through which, according to one’s position in relation to him, one suddenly felt oneself in the path of some hidden weapon which seemed to bode no good, even to him who, without being altogether master of it, carried it within himself in a state of precarious equilibrium and always on the verge of explosion

That’s a nice example of Proustian syntax, dissecting with a loving caress the inner and outer essence of his characters, like Michelangelo closing his eyes and stroking the marble before applying the chisel.

Sometimes he’s a little more succinct, to good comic effect. In an aside on a minor character, he observes, “This man’s wife, incidentally, had married him against everyone’s wishes and advice because he was a ‘charming creature.’ He had, what may be sufficient to constitute a rare and delicate whole, a fair, silky beard, good features, a nasal voice, bad breath, and a glass eye.”

Proust also enjoys describing the dynamics of Parisian society, and all the little things  people do to secure their reputation in the eyes of others. Those like Odette, without the advantages of an aristocratic family name, have to find ways to make sure everyone knows they’re important:

The Swanns shared this failing of people who are not much sought after; a visit, an invitation, a mere friendly word from anyone at all prominent was for them an event to which they felt the need to give full publicity. . . . The Swanns were incapable even of keeping to themselves the complimentary letters and telegrams received by Odette. They spoke of them to their friends, passed them from hand to hand. Thus the Swanns’ drawing-room was reminiscent of a seaside hotel where telegrams are posted up on a board.

Alongside In Search of Lost Time, I’m rereading The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931–1965. Powell was the author of fifteen novels, in addition to several plays and short stories. She battled financial woes and indifference to her work her entire life, despite high regard from a handful of authors including Ernest Hemingway, who described her as “his favorite living writer.” It’s difficult to get any of her books now. I discovered the diaries through an article in The New Yorker. Edited by Tim Page, The Diaries of Dawn Powell is over four hundred pages of notes, descriptions and anecdotes about her life and work. Want to know what people looked and sounded like in the artistic circles of New York City in the thirties, forties and fifties? It’s here.

Dawn Powell’s diary is so writerly one wonders how spontaneous it was (although Tim Page admits to “tightening” her prose occasionally.) It’s more a writer’s notebook than a personal confessional. Take this description of a friend of novelist John Dos Passos, recorded in December 1935:

He is a faintly funereal wag, smelling of old ladies and moth balls, and Victorian parlors, expecting cancer with a smile, welcoming decent calamity with great good nature so long as it’s something slow and fatal and respectable rather than garish and dramatic. He, like so many other gifted young men about town, slipped somehow into one of Henry James’ lesser mantles, assuming with authority the role of Dean of Letters, without going to the bother of writing. This slight lapse in preparation passes unnoticed now, when others of his own generation have stopped writing anyway, so no one can be sure which witty critic once wrote a fine novel, a successful play or poem, and which never did anything but show promise.

The Diaries is filled with anecdotes that showcase Powell’s humour and ear for dialogue, such as her entry for February 23, 1933:

To Coby’s. Alec Brook, Peggy Bacon, Niles Spencer and Betty Spencer were there—all slightly lit and anxious to tell dirty stories but no one could remember any. “The best one,” stuttered Niles, “is the one—well, I’d better not tell it—it’s pretty bad—ladies would get insulted—anyway there’s a lot of French in it and so on—I really forget. It isn’t so funny, anyways, it’s the way it’s told and in the end the fellow says ‘Someday you’ll go to far.’ Ha ha.” Coby knew one in Cockney only he’d forgotten the end and besides he couldn’t speak Cockney.

In another entry Powell describes a party where Dr. Cook, “a very viril head-hunting gent,” kisses a beautiful student out of the blue, and then goes home. The student proceeds to get drunk and pass out. Apparently this wasn’t the first time Dr. Cook insensitively toyed with the affections of a student:

Mrs. Sweeney said the distinguished Dr.’s other student had passed out before. He brought one to her house, then she began getting pea green and Mrs. S. saw her out where she said, swaying into the elevator, “I’ve forgotten my notebook.” Then, this being produced, she shyly said, sliding to the floor, “I had a pencil, too.” Then she passed warily away.

That “shyly” and “warily” are perfect. In Gore Vidal’s 1987 essay on Dawn Powell in the New York Review of Books he quotes a passage from her novel She Walks in Beauty, in which a character offers a back-handed compliment to another “pleasantly.”  “The adverb ‘pleasantly’ helps make the joke,” writes Vidal, “a point of contention between no-adverbs Graham Greene and myself. I look to the adverb for surprise. Greene thinks that the verb should do all the work.”

Reading Proust and Dawn Powell at the same time, I’m struck by the similarities despite the differences in time and place. Both writers were interested in social dynamics and the “tells” which thwart our attempts to mask our intentions. Both were masters of observation — you can imagine each racing home from a party to scribble the details of everything that happened. And both used language superbly to transform our endless fascination with ourselves into art.

We pick up a book and turn from the swirl of our own minds, filled with desires, dreams, insecurities, the pain of memory, and so on, to read about other times, other lives, where people struggle with their desires, dreams and insecurities, and the pain of memory. And so on.



This week in Proust: Page, um, oh, never mind.


“We have a very narrow view of what is going on.” – Daniel Kahneman


My scarf is finished, but I’m still listening to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.    Time to get a mitten pattern, perhaps. I think of Proust often when I’m listening to Kahneman (read by Patrick Egan).  Many of the observations Proust makes about the mind were prescient of recent research into the brain and human consciousness.   Kahneman is a psychologist fascinated by how people form beliefs and make decisions.  Proust often thought about the same things.

Of course, I’m not the first person to suggest that some of Proust’s observations about the human mind and emotions have the precision of a scientist.   Jonah Lehrer, for one, says the same thing in his book, Proust was a Neuroscientist.

Lehrer is a good example of some of the cognitive fallacies Kahneman talks about.  For instance, there’s “The Halo Effect”,  where  we may assume someone is credible, wise and moral because he’s likeable. Lehrer shot to fame with his blog, essays and personal appearances, only to be later discredited for some sketchy journalistic practices including recycling his work in “new” articles and making up Bob Dylan quotes for his book on creativity, Imagine.   Then there’s the “Peak-end Rule”, where our memory or interpretation of past events depends on the most intense part of the experience and the way it ends.  Unfortunately for Lehrer, our interpretation of him and his work is, for now, defined by his recent departure from the New Yorker and public disgrace.

ANYWAY,  this week I decided to jot down a few observations about how the mind works, from Marcel Proust, a writer with a scientific curiosity, and  Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist with a poetic sensibility.  Thank you to an interesting interview with Kahneman at Spiegel, and the wonderful review of his book by Jim Holt at The New York Times.

Optimism: Illogical, but you can’t live without it.

 “I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.” – Kahneman

“I knew very well that this hope was chimerical. I was like a pauper who mingles fewer tears with his dry bread if he tells himself that at any moment a stranger will bequeath to him his fortune. We must all, in order to make reality more tolerable, keep alive in us a few little follies.” – Proust

The Halo Effect: We meet someone, we like him, he must be great in every way!

“Even the very simple act that we call “seeing a person we know” is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part.” – Proust

“System 2”, the analytical part of our thinking, is kinda lazy.

“Most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services.” – Proust

The Peak-End Rule: It’s all about how it turns out.

“Our memory is like a shop in the window of which is exposed now one, now another photograph of the same person. And as a rule the most recent exhibit remains for some time the only one to be seen.” – Proust

Now that you know about cognitive fallacies, you’re smarter, right?

“Our comforting conviction that world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” – Kahneman

“Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs, they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them, and an avalanche of afflictions or ailments succeeding one another without interruption in a family will not make it doubt the goodness of its God or the talent of its doctor.” – Proust

Thoughts and feelings affect how you experience your life, and experience time:

“So your emotional state really has a lot to do with what you’re thinking about and what you’re paying attention to.” – Kahneman

“The time at our disposal each day is elastic; the passions we feel dilate it, those that inspire us shrink it, and habit fills it.” – Proust

Which is you?  The experiencing self?  Or the remembering self?

“Experienced happiness refers to your feelings, to how happy you are as you live your life. In contrast, the satisfaction of the remembering self refers to your feelings when you think about your life.” – Kahneman

 “I was not unhappy, except one day at a time.” – Proust



This Week in Proust: Vol II, page 389


“Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees.” – Marcel Proust


Oh, hi.  As you can see, I’m still reading Proust.  I’m on page 389 of Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, and I have been struggling for days to decide what I would like to tell you about it.

Please understand that this is not the fault of the novel.  The book remains brilliant and Proust continues to mesmerize me with his ability to describe the experience of human consciousness.   It’s me. The question that I can’t get out of my mind is, who cares?

Who cares about a novel written in France at the turn of the century?  Who cares about a book narrated by a neurotic hypochondriac that’s over one and a half million words?  A book where hardly anything happens?  And the narrator can spend dozens of pages talking about his crush on a girl?  I mean, come on, most people are reading Fifty Shades of Grey.  And talking about it.  Everywhere.  And before that – Twilight.

Was it any different in Proust’s time?  Probably not.  Proust paid for the publication of Swann’s Way himself after it was turned down by several editors.  He continued to work on the novel for thirteen years of his life, starting in 1909 and ending with his death in 1922.  The last three volumes of the seven volume work were published posthumously.

Jesus, what made him do it?  I mean, why did he keep going?  What did he tell himself as he sat writing in his cork lined bedroom?   I read somewhere recently, (I think it was Paul Auster) and I’m paraphrasing wildly, that a book represents, if nothing else, hours of solitude.  Of a person in a room alone with his or her thoughts.  A lot. Someone else said to me recently that to start a novel, with no promise of anyone reading it ever, was “ballsy”.  It takes a particular kind of insanity to cut off human connection for hours every day in the hope that you can, through your art, achieve some kind of, well, human connection.

In our commodified world, we feel the need to justify our time and actions to others.  We teach our children that the reason they need  an education is to secure a good job, attaching a dollar value to our brains and what we do with them.  We worship artists who are financially successful and marginalize those who aren’t.  We shower children with promises of neverending self gratification, “All this can be yours”, and medicate the inevitable disappointment and self loathing with drugs and shopping.  We cut arts programming in schools, disconnecting people from their own creativity and reflect their  thwarted hopes and desires back to them with giant screen comic book entertainment and pornography.

And yet.  People still read books.  People still write books.  Books that are hard to read, or filled with strange sensations and new ideas.  Books by people on the edges of society, and people next door, women and men and crazy people and sane people and boys who are really girls, maybe, and dogs and cats that run away from home and children who fall in love with deer.  People from hot places with crazy insects the size of tanks, sweat dripping down your back and people shivering on the streets in February, the smell of the streetcar tracks on your tongue.  And there are old books, written by Japanese courtesans over a thousand years ago, and revolutionary Russia and Cold War England.  Particular books about particular people in particular times.

And the weird thing that happens is, that when you write down exactly what it was like, the pink of the sky just before the sun came up, the rain dripping down your collar as you walk the streets of postwar London, what it was like to be hungry, or cold, or brokenhearted, lying on a beach, lying on soft sheets, or in a trench, or flying in a dream, or screaming in your sleep, your experience is no longer just your own, and people hear you, and nod their heads, “yes”.

I sit in a little room.  I’m alone.  I have a journal and a pen, a laptop, a cat.  And my books.  It is summer here, and in France. Marcel Proust is telling me what it feels like, exactly, his particular sadness, and then he’s on a train to Balbec, forgetting, forgetting just a little bit at a time. Yes.



This Week in Proust: Happy Birthday, Marcel!


“For neither our greatest fears nor our greatest hopes are beyond the limits of our strength–we are able in the end both to dominate the first and to achieve the second.”


Today is July 10, the birthday of Marcel Proust, author of In Search of Lost Time.  I thought I should do something  to commemorate the occasion.  My first idea was to have a Proustian day of lying in bed, drinking coffee, eating croissants, perhaps writing a letter or two, and reading.  But then I thought that was best saved for a rainy day, maybe in February, when the days are shortest but the hardest to get through.  So, since it’s a birthday, my next thoughts were of cake, and I decided to make madeleines.

Madeleines are, of course, the cookie made famous by Proust in the first volume of his masterpiece, and have become synonymous with the concept of involuntary memory.  Did I say cookie?  Is it a cookie or a cake? Um, yes? It seems that once you decide to dive into a topic, there’s no end to the opinions on the internet.  What was the exact texture of the cookie Marcel’s narrator dipped in his tea?  It must have been kind of hard, maybe dry, because when it touched the tea, it kind of became crumbly, suggesting…etc etc.  Zut alors, people, it’s only a book.  We’re not trying to bring our ancestors back from the grave here.  So let’s bake!

But first, mon cheri, you will need a madeleine pan.     Usually I don’t like to have too many cake pans, as I’m not much of a pastry chef – I have kind of a cake anxiety thing.  I’m more of a bread baker.  Bread seems more forgiving and there’s such a vast difference between home made bread and store bought that your guests don’t usually care about the shape, or if it’s a bit dark on the bottom or whatever.  Anyway, I bought a nonstick pan that made 12 cookies, and I just got one because it was eighteen dollars, but if you wanted to make them all the time, or for a big crowd, you could splurge and get two.  I bought mine at Golda’s.

You have to be in a certain state of mind for cake making; that kind of zen thing where you’re alert, but not nervous, in the moment, and not worrying about the cat yowling or the phone call from that certain person that you’ve been waiting on for a few days.  What sports coaches used to call “the zone”. Music is good.  I was going to play something, ooh la la, like Putumayo French Cafe or Dexter Gordon, but in the end I opted for Stevie Wonder.  Chacun a son gout.  You can play what you want.

I settled on the recipe at epicurious.  Because of my cake anxiety, I prefer to think of a madeleine as a cookie, but I like eating cake, so I adapted the recipe a bit, following some of the comments from readers.  I added 1/8 of a teaspoon of baking powder to give them a bit of a lift, and I doubled the lemon because I like lemon.  You don’t have to.  Some people put almond extract in instead, which sounds divine, and some used orange flower water, which they said was more authentic.  I might try that some day.

The batter really does seem to be somewhere between a cake and a cookie – a runny cookie dough or a thick cake batter.   To keep it cakey (some people complained that they were too dense) I also beat the batter longer than the recipe suggested.  Even though my pan was nonstick, I buttered and floured it.  The flouring makes the outsides a little bit dimply, but I was taking no chances that my madeleines wouldn’t come out of the pans intact.  Most of the comments on epicurious said to bake them for less time than the original recipe, which was sixteen minutes, so I set my timer for ten.  Three seventy-five degrees is a pretty hot oven for a little cake.  After five minutes the edges start to brown and the smell of butter and lemon wafts into the kitchen.

The first batch was a little brown, but , Mon Dieu, the texture and taste! A buttery crunch on the outside from the butter and flour, then a, pale yellow lemon cake, dense, but light  – heaven!

Try eating just one, cheri, just try.  If you have any left, dip them in your tea tomorrow when they’ve dried out a bit.  Or put them in your freezer and impress all your friends when they drop by unexpectedly.  Happy Birthday, Marcel!

This Week in Proust: Page 111


“Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance.” – Marcel Proust



It can’t be argued that In Search of Lost Time is very long. Proust is one of those people who doesn’t filter anything out.   His curiosity and observational powers are applied to the minutest details of life and nature.  He will happily spend as many pages describing a flower as the emotional state of one of his characters.  And why not?  Why have we decided that one is more important than the other?

I remember my son, now a talented dj, noticing the sounds in a room when he was three.  We might focus on one thing (someone speaking, for example) but his ears and mind were like a satellite dish, receptive to every transmission – the radio, a spoon rhythmically scraping the bottom of a bowl, a jet going by, his mother’s voice – he heard, noted, and often imitated, every sound.  Perhaps all children do this and we lose the capacity as we get older.  We establish our boundaries, decide what’s important and ignore the rest.  Good artists either never let go of that childlike receptivity or find a way to recapture it.

At one point in my life I decided I wanted to learn how to draw.  I picked up Betty Edward’s, Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain.  She teaches you how to relearn the art of seeing, to bypass language and the naming of things (this is a tree, this is a house, that is a face) and really look at what is there.  Imperceptibly, your mind shifts to a still point of complete focus, your ego is no longer separated from the object you’re drawing,  and you actually see it.

Proust’s ability to do that is what makes his book great. Through his eyes we are able to experience the moment, our world, and timelessness, in a handful of lime-blossom tea:

“The drying of the stems had twisted them into a fantastic trellis, in the interlacings of which the pale flowers opened, as though a painter had arranged them there, grouping them in the most decorative poses.  The leaves, having lost or altered their original appearance, resembled the most disparate things, the transparent wing of a fly, the blank side of a label, the petal of a rose, which had all been piled together, pounded or interwoven like the materials for a nest.  A thousand trifling little details – a charming prodigality on the part of the chemist – details which would have been eliminated from an artificial preparation, gave me, like a book in which one reads with astonished delight the name of a person one knows, the pleasure of finding that these were sprigs of real lime-trees, like those I had seen, when coming from the train, in the Avenue de la Gare, altered indeed, precisely because they were not imitations but themselves, and because they had aged.  And as each new character is merely a metamorphosis from something earlier, in these little grey balls I recognised green buds plucked before their time; but beyond all else the rosy, lunar, tender gleam that lit up the blossoms among the frail forest of stems from which they hung like little golden roses – marking, as the glow upon an old wall still marks the place of a vanished fresco, the difference between those parts of the tree which had and those which had not been “in colour” – showed me that these were indeed petals which, before filling the chemist’s bag with their spring fragrance, had perfumed the evening air.  That rosy candleglow was still their colour, but half-extinguished and deadened in the diminished life which was now theirs, and which may be called the twilight of a flower.”




This Week in Proust: page 606

“The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience.  They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”


That evocative sentence is the last of Swann’s Way, Volume One of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.  You know, the book I said I would never read.  Because it was too long. Eight weeks and six hundred pages later, I’ve fallen in love with a book I didn’t know anything about, seeing references to Proust everywhere I look, boring people once a week with my thoughts on the novel, and looking forward to Volume Two, Within a Budding Grove.  Can Proust change your life?  Yes, he can.

I’ve been thinking about Proust the writer – how can you not with writing like that?  I was saying last week that Proust would get slammed in a Creative Writing class today for breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule for beginner writers.  It’s not the only rule he breaks with elegance.  He does some interesting things with point of view too.

Swann’s Way begins like a personal memoir: “For a long time I would go to bed early.”  And the first section, Combray, told from the first person point of view, does focus on the childhood of the unnamed narrator.  But in Swann in Love, we go inside the head of Charles Swann, and learn things about him that he himself could not have told us.  And where is our narrator?  These events took place before he was born.  How could he be acquainted so intimately with the thoughts and feelings of Swann in love?  Well, the narrator tells us that someone told him about the affair years later, and that his own memories and those of others just naturally coalesced.  Hmm. I think Proust decided to do what the novel needed, and whatever the hell he wanted.  I like that.

On flavorwire  last week there was a list of titles from famous authors’ libraries.  Beside copies of books on fishing and bullfighting on Hemingway’s shelves could be found – you guessed it – Remembrance of Things Past (as it was most commonly titled at the time.)  See what I mean about Proust popping up everywhere? Hemingway and Proust?  The author we equate with tight, understated prose influenced by a French writer who couldn’t leave anything out in his search for the exact expression of the truth?

Perhaps it was that search that inspired Hemingway.  Proust’s themes are his themes – memory, desire, loss, and the ephemeral beauty of now.  But aren’t those things what every book is about?  Well, maybe not Twilight.  But the ones that are important to us.  Then why do we keep reading?  You might just as well say, “why meet new people?” They’re  basically all the same too.  But different. That’s what we like.  Recognizing ourselves in a stranger’s eyes,  words on a page in myriad combinations, atoms colliding to create new worlds.


This Week in Proust: page 545


“At that time he had been satisfying a sensual curiosity in discovering the pleasures of those who live for love alone.  He had supposed that he could stop there, that he would not be obliged to learn their sorrows also.”

Poor Swann.  A few weeks back I wrote about how annoyed I was by his moping.   Odette just didn’t seem worth his suffering.  None of Swann’s friends thought so either.  But of course, what difference does it make? As Daryl Hall would say, you’re “just better off not listening to friends’ advice.”  Swann’s love for Odette may not be logical, but as far as Proust is concerned, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important or worthy of attention and sympathy:

“‘I do feel it’s absurd that a man of his intelligence should let himself suffer for a woman of that sort, and one who isn’t even interesting, for they tell me she’s an absolute idiot!’” she added with the wisdom invariably shown by people who, not being in love themselves, feel that a clever man should only be unhappy about a person who is worth his while; which is rather like being astonished that anyone should condescend to die of cholera at the bidding of so insignificant a creature as the comma bacillus.”

The love story in Swann’s Way is told in pure Proustian fashion, with detailed descriptions of Swann’s thoughts and feelings.  I wonder how Proust’s writing would  be received in a modern Creative Writing class.  Lots of underlining of passages with, “Show, don’t tell!” written in red ink, I imagine.  But reading this book is like no other experience, and I find myself completely captivated by Proust’s ability to depict the thoughts and feelings of his characters so convincingly and sympathetically.

Swann meets Odette.  She’s not really his type.  His desire is intensified when he thinks he might lose her.  Their affair progresses.  Then she cools towards him.  He is subject to intense jealousy, and does crazy things like show up at her house to try to catch her with another lover. Sometimes Odette is unexpectedly affectionate,

“and the desire which she claimed to have for him was so sudden, so inexplicable, so imperious, the caresses which she lavished on him were so demonstrative and so unwonted, that this brutal and improbable fondness made Swann just as unhappy as any lie or unkindness.”

Of course it did.

And then what?  Well, over time, he…falls out of love.  He stays away from her and starts to feel better.  A part of him doesn’t want to leave the self that he was, but gradually, he is ready to move on.

“But now, to the diminution of his love there corresponded a simultaneous diminution in his desire to remain in love.  For a man cannot change, that is to say become another person, while continuing to obey the dictates of the self which he has ceased to be. Occasionally the name glimpsed in a newspaper, of one of the men who he supposed to have been Odette’s lovers, reawakened his jealousy.  But it was very mild, and, inasmuch as it proved to him that he had not completely emerged from that period in which he had so greatly suffered – but in which he had also know so voluptuous a way of feeling – and that the hazards of the road ahead might still enable him to catch an occasional furtive, distant glimpse of its beauties, this jealousy gave him, if anything, an agreeable thrill, as, to the sad Parisian who is leaving Venice behind him to return to France, a last mosquito proves that Italy and summer are still not too remote.”

From the comma bacillus to the mosquito.  Love.  It gets under your skin.


This week in Proust Page 483 (again)


“Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life”. – Marcel Proust


K, that page number is not a typo.  I did not read ONE PAGE of In Search of Lost Time last week.  Here’s what I did: Worked, drove into Toronto for my Short Fiction class, drove my cat to the vet in Oakville, hung out with my daughter and her best friend, had drinks with a friend in the country, had an argument with another friend, drove to Guelph for a class on writing for the web, went to a family party, read a bunch of short stories in this here book, went to work on my day off, and started writing my story assignment for class.  I just flew in from last week, and boy, are my arms tired.

So I have nothing new, no new insights for you. At least not about Proust.  The week was educational in so many other ways.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some Proustian fun.

Back in March I mentioned the Proust Questionnaire, which has become a regular feature in Vanity Fair magazine.  According to this article in Wikipedia (and is Wikipedia ever wrong?) the Proust Questionnaire has its roots in the English “Confession Album”.  This was a kind of autograph book in which you could have your friends answer questions about themselves (favourite colour, hero from history, favourite virtue, and so forth).  Proust famously answered this questionnaire  twice, the first time at age thirteen and the second at twenty.  I guess someone liked his answers well enough to name the questionnaire after him.

The feature in Vanity Fair  has become very popular and has even been adapted into a book.  James Lipton used a version of it on his interview show, Inside the Actor’s Studio.  I like some of his questions, which include things like, “What is your favourite word?”  and, “What sound or noise do you hate?

Another contemporary variation is listography.  The books are a lot of fun – whimsically illustrated  with spaces to write lists of favourite stuff, things you would like to do, people you have known, etc.  It’s kind of a lazy way to keep a quirky journal.  If you don’t want to buy the book you can make your lists online. There’s an iphone app too.

I thought it might be fun to make my own list of questions.  Of course it’s only fun for me if you think it’s fun too and decide to answer some of them.  You can use the comments section for your answers. Go ahead, humour me. You don’t have to use your real name.

Deirdre’s Proust Questionnaire

  1. What is your favourite insect?
  2. What is your favourite cocktail?
  3. If you were a book, what literary genre would you be?
  4. What music do you want played at your funeral?
  5. If your house was on fire, (and assuming everyone you cared about was safe) what object would you grab first?
  6. What is your earliest memory?
  7. What dream gave you the shivers?
  8. What characteristic in a person most enrages you?
  9. Who was the last person to make you laugh out loud?
  10. What do you like most about yourself?

This Week in Proust: page 483


“but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet – still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed – with an iridescence that was not of this world.  I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting like one of Shakespeare’s fairies) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.”


The most surprising thing for me about reading In Search of Lost Time has been the humour.   Many of us are a little intimidated by the literary “canon”.  We assume that any book deemed “great” must be difficult, long, boring, dry.  But why?  If people are going to continue to read a book across generations and cultures, it must be because it’s relatable in some way, not just edifying.  So we bite our fingernails with Dostoevsky, cry with Dickens, and with Proust we…laugh.

Along with the philosophical musings on time and memory, description of places and things and their meaning in our lives, and the deconstruction of love, is  a social satire which caricatures every class, from servants such as  Francoise, to middle class social climbers like the Verdurins, and members of the aristocracy such as the Guermantes.

We tend to devalue humour in art.  Dramatic books and movies are more likely to win awards and critical acclaim than funny ones.  Most people would rank Shakespeare’s big tragedies above his comedies.  (Not me. My favourite Shakespeare play is The Tempest.)  I suspect David Sedaris would be talked about continually as one of the most insightful and imaginative writers of social norms and the gay experience if he wrote novels and he wasn’t so freakin’ hilarious.  As it is, he’s considered a “humourist” (albeit a very, very good one).

It’s the unexpected laugh that really hits you.  It’s been a hard day’s night, you’re tired, you’re reading a book written by some french guy at the turn of the last century. It’s some kind of canonical work and you’ve been reading a few pages a week, mostly dreamy, meditative, discursive prose. The Spring’s been long and cold, but today it’s unusually warm, like summer, and the screen door’s open, the breeze is ruffling the pages. The sun’s slanting into the room for the first time since you’ve moved here, you have to shade your eyes as you read. You feel lighter than you remember feeling for a while, and then, you’re laughing out loud.

“Hallo, you here!  Why, it’s ages since we’ve seen you,” the General greeted Swann and, noticing his drawn features and concluding that it was perhaps a serious illness that had kept him away, added:  “You’re looking well, old man!” while M. de Breaute exclaimed: “My dear fellow, what on earth are you doing here?” to a society novelist who had just fitted into the angle of eyebrow and cheek a monocle that was his sole instrument of psychological investigation and remorseless analysis, and who now replied with an air of mystery and self-importance, rolling the “r”: “I am observing!”

No one observes as closely as Proust, and the next few pages describe in hilarious detail the guests at a fancy society party.  One wears a tiny monocle, “embedded like a superfluous cartilage the presence of which is inexplicable and its substance unimaginable,” and “gave to his face a melancholy refinement, and led women to suppose him capable of suffering greatly from the pangs of love.”  The monocle of another is huge, “the centre of gravity of a face which adjusted itself constantly in relation to it, a face whose quivering red nose and swollen sarcastic lips endeavoured by their grimaces to keep up with the running fire of wit that sparkled in the polished disc”.  The Marquise de Gallardon, inwardly rationalizing some imagined slight, “flung her shoulders proudly back until they seemed to part company with her bust, while her head, which lay almost horizontally upon them, was reminiscent of the “detachable” head of a pheasant which is brought to the table regally adorned with its feathers.  Not that she in the least resembled a pheasant, having been endowed by nature with a squat, dumpy and masculine figure; but successive mortifications had given her a backward tilt, such as one may observe in trees which have taken root on the edge of a precipice and are forced to grow backwards to preserve their balance.”

I know, I know, it’s not Seinfeld.  But actually it kinda is.  One of the pleasures of Seinfeld is all the tangential characters with their weird mannerisms and desperate bids to gain social status.  They seem quirky and strange, but they are really just us, trying to fit in, to find our place in the social sphere, and hang on to it, with all our little ways, confident that we are hiding our true natures as we clumsily reveal them.

This Week in Proust: page 436

“…it is only with the passions of others that we are ever really familiar, and what we come to discover about our own can only be learned from them.  Upon ourselves they react only indirectly, through our imagination, which substitutes for our primary motives other, auxiliary motives, less stark and therefore more seemly.” – Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time


Marcel wanted to move this week, so I let him.  Retooling of the site to come.  Offers of technical expertise welcome!

I’m on page 436 of Swann in Love, and, I have to admit, for the last forty pages or so, I have been waiting for Swann to get over it.  Inside sources tell me this is not going to happen.  Too bad.  I suspect all will not end well for Swann.  Anyway, as I follow the complicated syntax of his obsessed logic,  I sometimes find my mind wandering, in some irritation at his willingness to spend so much mental energy creating the circumstances that lead to his own unhappiness.  “She’s not worth it!”, I want to shout at Swann. “Stop torturing yourself imagining all the men she might be with and go meet some people!”

But we all know that advice to the lovelorn goes unheard.  So to give myself a break from Swann’s anxious mind, I decide to follow some idle Proustian whims, 2012 style, on the internet.  A sampling:

  1. La Belle Epoque in France is considered the period between the late nineteenth century and the beginning of World War I.  That is, the time between when Marcel Proust was born (1871) and when Swann’s Way was published (1913).  It was a transitional period (what period isn’t?) between a social structure based on the establishment of the aristocracy, and a rising middle class.  The Verdurins, and their “little clan” are a good illustration of this middle class and their social aspirations.
  2. There are lots of details in In Search of Lost Time that bring the period to life. But it helps if you know what Proust’s talking about.  For instance, what is a “Japanese Salad”?  I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer, even with Google.
  3. Google was more helpful with “cattleyas”, which I learned are a kind of orchid.  Orchids were very popular during this period; Odette liked to wear them on her dress, and Swann liked to…well, you’ll just have to read it.
  4. Proust’s tastes were pretty modern.  He was a fan of Impressionism when many of his contemporaries thought Monet, Manet, Renoir and the lot were a bunch of no-talent degenerates.  They even had to have their own alternate art show, the Salon des Refuses.  If they were making art today, they would probably show it here.
  5. Another artist who exhibited at the Salons des Refuses was J.M. Whistler, whose tonal paintings of figures, skies and water often had titles inspired by music.  He was a favourite of Proust, and was thought to be the model for the character of Elstir.
  6. Marcel had modern taste in music too.  One of the most memorable passages from Swann’s Way is about a sonata by the composer Vinteuil.  You can practically hear it, as the narrator describes the piece phrase by phrase, and the effect the music has on Swann.  It’s hard to believe Proust made the whole thing up!  There’s lots of speculation about what music and composer he had in mind when he invented Vinteuil and his sonata.  An article here suggests the character may have been a composite of Gabriel Faure, Cesar Franck and Claude Debussy.
  7. The publication of Swann’s Way coincided with the premiere of another piece of modern music, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for the first time on May 29 1913.
  8. In Search of Lost Time is considered by scholars to be the first “modern” novel.  Proust’s “stream of consciousness” style influenced many writers, most notably James Joyce, whose Ulysses was  published in 1922, and Virginia Woolf, who published Mrs. Dalloway in 1922 and To the Lighthouse in 1925, and famously said of In Search of Lost Time, “what remains to be written after that?”
  9. Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust are linked in another way that modern writers may relate to, namely, self publishing.  After Swann’s Way was rejected by several publishers, Proust himself paid to have it published.  And most of Woolf’s novels were published through Hogarth Press, the business founded by Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf.  Hogarth Press published other notable modern works too, including The Waste Land and The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud.
  10. It occurs to me that the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way is coming up next year.  Marcel Proust’s birthday is July 10, which is a nice time of year for a party.  Better start planning…