Remember the Alamo: Proust and My Breakdown

November 14, 2013 | By Michael Reynolds

Michael Reynolds is Editor in Chief of Europa Editions.

I have always considered Marcel Proust to be the milksop of modernism. Wherefore this forever reclining and meticulously mustachioed Frenchman? Compared to Woolf, Joyce, Kafka, Musil, Conrad, Mann, what was he? A weakling, an infirm, a self-published author! And, worst of all, a waffler.

This is a good opening gambit for conversations with French people. I have used it often and to tremendous advantage. But it is more than a mere taunt at the expense of French chauvinism: it quite accurately represents my feelings about Marcel Proust. Or did, until I found myself, earlier this year, stranded in the wilds of North Carolina.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Modern French literature was not taught at my high school, which will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Wollongong High, where the English curriculum included sing-alongs about shearing sheep and rhymed modern epics about horse whisperers. I made a mess of my university career and nothing French, or modern, or literary ever really came my way in the course of my brief stay there. So it was, I reached the ripe age of twenty-three without so much as laying hands on a single volume of Proust’s oeuvre.

Two years earlier I had jettisoned my meager library on my way out of Australia, keeping only a single book from my collection. I then had a spell of rough living on the streets and in the squares and shelters of San Francisco, during which time, building any semblance of a library proved impracticable. But by twenty-three I was entering a new and cheery phase of my life. I had a steady job, someone who loved me, and a room of my own that I was slowly filling with books bought by the armful at one of the Bay Area’s many extraordinary used bookstores. Among them was the first volume of what was then called Remembrance of Things Past.

“I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book.” I read that, and, yes, it spoke to my own exigent relationship with books and it cast a spell of sorts. Yet it proved to be a feeble spell; I soon shook it off me and turned from Proust to embrace he of the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, and other similarly exuberant minstrels with whom, at that time, I felt a stronger and more immediate kinship.

I returned to Proust many years later in Boston, where I was teaching classes on modernist music and literature. I knew that in order to teach Joyce, my first love, and other of his ilk, I needed at least a working familiarity with Proust. But my intentions were impure. I read him largely to be in a position to lambast him as a pale predecessor to the modernists I idolized. Because that was the Proust I was looking for, that was the Proust I found. In my reading of his work, he had little of Joyce’s stylistic mastery or of his knowledge of the human heart and mind. Joyce was the consummate literary genius, a man whose hyperbolic faith in his own powers was matched only by the substantiality of those powers. Like the monomaniac I was and to some degree still am, I could not abide multiple literary heroes, and Proust, as far as I was concerned, was hardly even in the running. I ignored his work for another decade and a half.

However, earlier this year, when that intemperate man Edmond White, at the opening of the Proust exhibition at the Morgan library, suggested that perhaps À la recherche du temps perdu had “edged out Ulysses as the great canonical novel of the 20th century”; when he then repeated his wild theory in the New York Review of Books and again in this very forum; when I, too, was invited to contribute to this forum; when all this happened, I knew it was finally time to read Proust properly and to use this opportunity to explain why others needn’t bother.

A funny thing happened along the way.

As my rage at Proust was peaking, I left for a barnstorming tour of southern independent bookstores. I decided to bring Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way and James Grieve’s translation of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower with me. Nothing will make Proust’s position as mere modernist decoration more plainly evident than reading him in North Carolina, Western Florida, and the Georgias, I schemed.

When my rental car broke down on a deserted state road somewhere between Asheville and Raleigh, it was about 11:00 p.m. I would have to wait until morning for the rental agency’s roadside assistance people to reach me. Since I don’t have one of those phones that keep you entertained even after all the people you can call have gone to bed, my only solace was in knowing I would be able to read away the hours-long wait, or to do so at least until the vehicle’s interior light gave out. But all I had to read was Marcel bloody Proust.

The interior light weakened throughout the night but did not fade entirely until dawn. By the time the Alamo people came to my rescue, I had finished Swann’s Way.

That night, as I forged my own heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the northern Carolina night, I found myself glad it was Proust with me and not Joyce.

Mr. White, I am not ready to admit that Proust is the better man. Not that! Not yet!! But perhaps compared with Joyce he is a writer of whom, today, we have greater need; he is an antidote to our loud, hyperactive times. He is noise reduction, quietude, languor. He invites us to recline with him and to daydream, to be bored, enjoying our boredom, and then to dream in some unchartered direction, unhurriedly and amorously, as we all did, once upon a time.

Another French writer told me a few years ago that when she’s reading, what she looks for is enchantment. All readers should be seeking the same, she said. It has always been thus, but nowadays enchantment is an increasingly difficult state to achieve, the search more arduous. Proust induces one to enchantment in a way that Joyce does not. He makes Woolf, that other poet of enchantment, and Forster, who knows how to enchant when he wants to, possible. We need enchantment. I need it. And I am more likely to find it in Proust than I am in Joyce.

There, I’ve said it. The members of my Joyce reading group, which is more like a fan club than anything else, will probably never speak to me again.