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Proust And Jesus

Esther Allen, associate professor at Baruch College CUNY, is the co-editor of In Translation: Translators on their Work and What It Means.

In my sophomore year at Scripps College in Claremont, California, I took a course called “Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf: Existence in Search of its Essence.” I had no particular interest in the authors; my best friend Alina had studied with the professor the previous year, admired her intensely, and insisted I take a class from her, any class.

I disliked the title of the course so much that I almost resisted Alina’s urging. I’d grown up among people who were convinced there was a simple answer to the question of existence and its essence: Jesus. The religious high school I had to attend offered little in the way of literary training; the focus was on producing Christian doctors who would bring medical care and the message of Jesus to those in need across the globe. This was crucially important because Jesus would be returning any moment now and only those who had accepted His message would be saved for all eternity.  But something was wrong with me; the supreme moral virtue of saving peoples’ lives and their souls for all eternity left me cold.  

“Don’t you love Jesus?” my mother asked one evening in my last year of high school. We were sitting on the edge of a California freeway in a car that had just broken down and I’d grimaced at her suggestion that we pray. I should, instead, have asked why the essence of existence had to be a definable, unique or simple thing.  Why did people have to feel they’d discovered the truth about it and then set out to inculcate that truth into others? Couldn’t we talk about something else?

I remember only a few things about the Proust course. I remember that one of the other students was a brilliant, nervous girl with slightly slurred speech. She was pale with long, lank hair and wore odd-looking bulky skirts and shawls. The books we were reading enraptured her but she was unable to relate to her classmates and remained silent during most of our discussions. When she did speak, she went on at great length. Occasionally an insight would surface during these impassioned declamations but her speech impediment made it difficult to follow. None of us could help noticing that she invariably mispronounced the name as “Prowst.” Any attempt to correct this would clearly have been futile and Professor Chefdor never tried; the girl’s feeling for the work was so great that her inability to say the name properly was too trivial to mention.

I remember that I was walking across the campus alone one afternoon during that fall semester when a sudden, startling feeling of happiness and rightness and possibility came over me, overcame me, and I had to stop and just stand there for a moment, giddy with it, and no one was around and I never mentioned it to anyone.

I remember that Professor Monique Chefdor made a profound impression. Years later, we began calling each other tu: a major milestone in my life. Among her many gifts to me are the ripe figs she brought from her garden in Carnac when I saw her last year in Paris, a white prayer shawl she picked up on a trip to Ethiopia, a taste for mussels with dry white wine, a sense of the importance of literary translation, the junior year abroad in Paris she convinced me to go on in 1982, the many stays at her house in Carnac that Alina and I and our families have enjoyed since, Virginia Woolf, Blaise Cendrars, Proust. About a decade ago, Monique travelled to Antarctica aboard a Russian icebreaker to photograph penguins, then spent a month making her way up the coast of Chile alone. She went to Indonesia’s Nias Island, seeking explanations for Carnac’s prehistoric dolmens and menhirs in the megalithic culture still alive there. More recently she’s been journeying to regions whose names are like talismans of the unknown: le Tibet orientale, le Bhoutan, le Laddakh.    I remember that over the Christmas holidays sophomore year I mentioned the title of my favorite course to a relative.

“So what is it?” came the question.  “What is the essence of existence? What did you learn?”

“Ummm…  Er…. Nothing, I guess. There isn’t some single essence of existence.”

This highly unsatisfactory response — here I’d been given a generous scholarship to attend an elite private college among the daughters of the upper classes and this was all I had to show for it? — was met with bewilderment and faint contempt. Not even an answer? Just… nothing?

I found a better reply a few years ago in Rex, a novel by the Cuban writer José Manuel Prieto that I translated into English. Its narrator works as a tutor at the absurdly lavish home of a Russian oligarch family on Spain’s Costa Brava. This tutor is convinced that there is a simple answer to the question of existence and its essence: Proust. He believes, and instructs his young charge, that all knowledge can be found in the seven volumes of the Recherche, or the Book, as he calls it. He goes so far as to practice a kind of bibliomancy, selecting a volume, letting it fall open at random, and taking whatever paragraph his eye alights on as a prophecy of the future or a set of instructions on how to understand and address the present.

In the final paragraph of Rex, the fictional tutor, now in Los Angeles, not far from Claremont, California, recalls a conversation with Petya, his student. “Remember when you asked me: what is the Book about? What is its subject? And I told you, I answered: it’s about money, about how to make money. But now I can tell you this, too — for according to an old saying in the country where I am now, time is money— it is also about time. In search of lost money? (No, that would be vulgar and loathsome. Better to seek time.) You’re right, Petya. Time.” 

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.