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Time Travel

Mary Hawthorne’s reviews and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times Book Review, and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and are included in two anthologies: Was ist schweizerish? and, most recently, The Good of the Novel. She is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

Recently, I’ve come back to Proust. I did not resolve once again, once and for all, to finish reading his masterwork (like a surprising number of my literary friends, I’d been swearing to do this for years); instead, I simply began reading him again, every morning on my way to the office on the No. 7 train, and every evening on my way home.

The impetus for my prodigal’s return was the recent Proust exhibition at the Morgan Library—my viewing for the first time the notebooks that Proust tore through in conceiving and drafting Du Côté de Chez Swann and the subsequent fair copies and galley proofs that he methodically and ceaselessly corrected. The sight of these ordinary material objects—worn covers and foxed pages and faded violet typescript and splotches of ink and indecipherable handwriting—brought not just Proust the writer but Proust the man to life for me in a singularly intimate way. As a person who has confided thoughts and observations to notebooks every day for decades, I was mesmerized by the Cahiers, above all by the freedom and the velocity, so expressive of will, that Proust’s hand revealed—its “muscularity,” in the words of Roland Barthes, who noted that Proust wrote “at a gallop.” As his housekeeper Céleste Albaret observed, “The miracle with M. Proust was his will power. And his will power was all directed toward his work.” Will power is not the first thing that usually springs to mind when one thinks of Proust, and yet, like so many of his own observations, it seems perfectly obvious once pointed out: name one great artist who hasn’t possessed it in spades.

As for galley proofs, my work life is taken up with them, and so I found Proust’s emendations to his own proofs riveting in a different kind of way. I was interested in particular in the minuscule, sporadic changes toward the end of the third set of proofs of Du Côté, where, for example, he has substituted revenait for rentrait, and recommençait à regner sur for reprenait. Do these changes represent actual corrections, or are they examples of Proust’s relentless search for the perfect word? Or might they even be suggestive of an anxiety about having to make the much bigger change with which the volume ends, just a few lines later? An author’s changes, especially ones made at the final galley-proof stage—the last call, so to speak—are made for many different reasons; sometimes they suggest a state of mind. (I recall working years ago on a meticulously reasoned argument by Renata Adler against Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. One evening, she went through her set of proofs and replaced dashes with commas, then changed them all back again the following day, just before the piece went to press.)

The Morgan exhibition caused me to think not only about Proust again—in truth, he has never strayed far from my consciousness, even though we are all of us daily strafed by information that diverts us from what it is that we truly wish to understand and discover about the world and about ourselves—but also about the meaning of his monumental creation, in a different way. For in the course of those years of distracted procrastination the facts of my own life had, impossibly, like Proust’s, like that of everyone who has experienced them, changed, bewilderingly and irrevocably, with the death of my parents. I began to notice that my own thoughts had come to center with increasing insistence on the question of Time. “That we occupy a place, always growing, in Time is something everybody is conscious of,” Proust writes, “and this universality could only make me rejoice, it being the truth, the truth suspected by each of us, that I had to seek to elucidate.” Suddenly, I was no longer merely curious to know for myself how Proust had gone about elucidating this ultimate truth; now I needed to know.

A few mornings ago, as I settled in my seat on the train, the man sitting next to me scribbling the words “Genotype analysis for Golhke et al. study,” and another man across from me leafing through El Diario, the woman next to him wearing earphones and applying makeup, I took out my book and was immediately transported to Paris, more than a century ago, to the Swanns’ house, where Marcel is visiting. It was a passage from  “Within a Budding Grove,” just after Marcel meets the writer Bergotte for the first time, an encounter which of course is itself filled with dazzling, wry aperçus about the novice’s finding himself in the company of “the great writer.” The narrator, having noted the odd and often perverse ways in which the qualities of both parents are passed down to their children, and the fact that, in Gilberte’s case, it was as if the two distinct natures of her parents “disputed possession of her,” describes a moment of unexpected tenderness in which Gilberte says, “I’m so happy here with my little Papa; I want to stay just for a minute.” She buries her head beneath the arm of her father, who in turn passes his fingers lovingly through her fair hair, her chevelure blonde. The narrator goes on to observe that people like Swann, so disillusioned by their experience of love in the here and now, believe that in their children they can feel an affection that will live beyond them. “When there should no longer be any Charles Swann, there would still be a Mlle Swann, or a Mme X, née Swann, who would continue to love the vanished father. Indeed to love him too well perhaps, Swann may have been thinking, for he acknowledged Gilberte’s caress with a ‘You’re a good girl,’ in the tone softened by uneasiness to which, when we think of the future, we are prompted by the too passionate affection of a person who is destined to survive us.”

I looked up from my reading and gazed out the window, pondering these words. It was a sparkling spring morning. The sun was glinting off the parked trains in the Sunnyside Yard. The train rounded the bend and the jagged modernist Manhattan skyline came into view. The extravagant clouds that hung in the sky were soft and luminous, just like those Vermeer might have observed over Delft, I thought to myself. I looked around at my fellow-passengers, most of them now lost in their own thoughts as we neared the tunnel, and marvelled at the simple fact of our moving through Time, all together.

Air France is a proud sponsor of 2013: A Year with Proust, a year long festival organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.