Five years ago, I read In Search of Lost Time. Since then, whenever I have periods of writer’s block or inactivity, I think of Marcel Proust. He, too, spent most of his life as an aspiring writer, only to get distracted by real life (mostly socializing) or buried by the weight of other people’s expectations.
Before I actually read ISOLT, I spent years writing it done on a list of things to do. As I had often heard, most people never got past the first volume – Swann’s Way. However, in the summer of 2005, I made plans to go on a yoga holiday in the Lot region of France and it was then I decided to begin what would become a six-month journey. Actually “journey” is not the right word. It was more like entering a relationship. For six months, I knew everything about the character of Marcel and saw the world through his telescope.
I will admit it was very slow going at first. Such long, rambling descriptions of even the most prosaic thing was taxing to someone like me who often likes to skip descriptions and go right to the action. I initially missed the impact of the famous lines describing how the taste of a morsel of tea-soaked madeleine transports the character Marcel to his childhood in Combray. I had to re-read it about three times before I could appreciate the possibility of why these lines were so memorable. However, it probably wasn’t until I finished the entire book that the full power finally hit me. Just as I was about to finish Swann’s Way, I bought the next volume, and that was to be my pattern until I finished. Thus, committing me to the relationship until the end.
It did help to have started ISOLT while I was in France. I remember, especially, how the rhythm of the prose felt right as I sat in a café in Paris in my last hours before catching the Eurostar back to London. From then on, I found myself reading the book at lunchtime in a café in Kensington called Montparnasse. The staff was French, the food was French, and the clientele was French. But actually, that wasn’t so important. I read the books everywhere I could. I found myself thinking about them even when I wasn’t reading them. And gradually, his descriptions of people and places really got under my skin. His thoughts were so similar to mine and he used similar descriptors. I remember one scene at the opera when he’s recounting the behavior of the aristocrats and the commoner admiring them from a distance reminded me of all the gigs I’ve been to watching the celebrities in the upper rafters or by the soundboard, and the people on the floor craning their necks to see them. Also, his fascination with the Guermantes and his determination to become part of their inner circle, only to become profoundly disappointed once he got inside brought to mind my years in LA hanging out with vacuous music industry types.
As I got nearer the end of ISOLT, I felt sadness for I knew the relationship was ending. But I knew there would be revelations at the end. As you’re pulled into the vortex of ISOLT, you’re also pulled into the cycle of disappointment, unrequited love, grief and a myriad of other emotions, which basically resulted in a continual feeling of frustration. But just as in life, the character Marcel comes to some vital truths, which I suppose mirrored the life of the real Marcel Proust. A dilettante writer who spent his last years confined to his room, he was continually asked when he was going to produce his magnum opus. Well, it came at the end of his life as he literally wrote most of ISOLT on his deathbed. In the last two paragraphs of the last volume, Time Regained, Proust is at an end, and he sums up what he’s learned since Swann’s Way. He writes:
“I had a feeling of intense fatigue when I realized that all this span of time had not only been lived, thought, secreted by me uninterruptedly, that it was my life, that it was myself, but more still because I had at every moment to keep it attached to myself, that it bore me up, that I was poised on its dizzy summit, that I could not move without taking it with me.”
So the great reveal, at least for me, is that sometimes it’s your life that’s the magnum opus, and that if it takes your whole life to produce your great work, then so be it.