But by a refinement of exquisite delicacy the meadow upon which were displayed these shadows of trees, light as souls, was a meadow of paradise, not green but of a whiteness so dazzling because of the moonlight shining upon the jade-like snow that it might have been a meadow woven entirely from petals of flowering pear-trees. And in the squares the divinities of the public fountains, holding a jet of ice in their hand, looked like statues wrought in two different materials by a sculptor who had decided to marry pure bronze to pure crystal. (vol. 7, Time Regained)
It has been four weeks since I came to page 532, the final page in the final volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, 16 months since page 1 of volume 1, and it would be easy now to tell you the number of words that represents (1.4 million, according to one guidebook), or the number of hours of reading (countless because I did not count them), as if somehow what was important to me and should be important to you was the very fact of the reading achievement, which at 1.4 million words is, admittedly and by normal standards, not inconsiderable.
. . . transforming itself--houses that have been pulled down, people long dead, bowls of fruit at suppers which we recall--into that translucent alabaster of our memories of which we are incapable of conveying the colour which we alone can see, so that we can truthfully say to other people, when speaking of these things of the past, that they can have no conception of them, that they are unlike anything they have seen, and that we ourselves cannot inwardly contemplate without a certain emotion, reflecting that it is on the existence of our thoughts that their survival for a little longer depends, the gleam of lamps that have been extinguished and the fragrance of arbours that will never bloom again. (vol. V, The Captive)
But after decades of bumping into him in book reviews and essays and parenthetical remarks about him and his life—how he wrote in bed in a cork-lined room, how drugs may have been responsible for much of his intensely ecstatic perceptions of the world that overwhelm from the page, how In Search is now considered the great novel of the twentieth century, eclipsing Joyce’s Ulysses, how his is the great novel of memory and time and love and death—I finally came to Proust out of a deep, deep desire to know what he had to say about memory and time, from my own interest in them.
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. (vol. I, Swann’s Way)
For a long time I used to get up early, for an hour almost every morning for those 16 months, usually in the dark and silence before the day started. I entered his world at the slow pace of 10 pages in that hour, pages that should not, could not, demanded not to be rushed, pages that I stopped and read over whole or in part, often more than once, sometimes several times, because they were absorbing or transfixing or both, and copied out in cramped printing in a little notebook so that they would be available to read no matter where I was.
Where I had seen with my grandmother in the month of August only the green leaves and, so to speak, the disposition of the apple-trees, as far as the eye could reach they were in full bloom, unbelievably luxuriant, their feet in the mire beneath their ball-dresses, heedless of spoiling the most marvellous pink satin that was ever seen, which glittered in the sunlight; the distant horizon of the sea gave the trees the background of a Japanese print; if I raised my head to gaze at the sky through the flowers, which made its serene blue appear almost violent, they seemed to draw apart to reveal the immensity of their paradise. (vol. IV, Sodom and Gomorrah)
He was compelling and captivating, with sentences and paragraphs and entire pages rendered so beautifully they were exquisite, in the exact definition of that word, an achieved perfection, consummate, that made the world go still, completely still, in the reading of them. The consummate perfection was of course as much the translation as anything, but they were his words and I took it on faith they were rendered in a fashion faithful to the original in spirit if not in exactitude.
As in the far-off days when her parents had chosen for her a bridegroom, she had the features, delicately traced by purity and submission, the cheeks flowing with a chaste expectation, with a dream of happiness, with an innocent gaiety even, which the years had gradually destroyed. Life in withdrawing from her had taken with it the disillusionments of life. A smile seemed to be hovering on my grandmother’s lips. On that funeral couch, death, like a sculptor of the Middle Ages, had laid her down in the form of a young girl. (vol. III, The Guermantes Way)
His sentences were more graceful than the cathedrals on which he claimed to have modeled In Search’s structure--sentences that turned and meandered in long, slow, rhythmic curves and asides, discursive, digressing, semicoloned or comma-ed, often moving back and forth in time before arriving at their period, and yet always with a delicate construction that was clean and clear.
I watched the trees gradually recede, waving their despairing arms, seeming to say to me: “What you fail to learn from us today, you will never know. If you allow us to drop back into the hollow of this road from which we sought to raise ourselves up to you, a whole part of yourself which we were bringing to you will vanish for ever into thin air.” And indeed if, in the course of time, I did discover the kind of pleasure and disquiet which I had just felt once again, and if one evening—too late, but then for all time—I fastened myself to it, of those trees themselves I was never to know what they had been trying to give me nor where else I had seen them. (vol. II, Within A Budding Grove)
In a work about memory, much of it required memory: so many characters, so many foreshadowings to volumes ahead, so many references to volumes behind. Sometimes I could recall, sometimes not, and so went to the guidebook for help. And when that failed I wrote it off to one aspect of memory he was effectively demonstrating: its fickleness and impermanence. And he was funny, with a sense of humour sometimes wry, sometimes of the absurd, sometimes self-mocking (by his narrator, who is and is not Proust), sometimes laugh-aloud.
The clock—whereas at home I heard mine tick only a few seconds in a week, when I was coming out of some profound meditation—continued without a moment's interruption to utter, in an unknown tongue, a series of observations which must have been most uncomplimentary to myself, for the violet curtains listened to them without replying, but in an attitude such as people adopt who shrug their shoulders to indicate that the sight of a third person irritates them. They gave to this room with its lofty ceiling a quasi-historical character which might have made it a suitable place for the assassination of the Duc de Guise, and afterwards for parties of tourists personally conducted by one of Thomas Cooks's guides, but for me to sleep in—no. (vol. II, Within A Budding Grove)
What did I understand of his aims and purposes? Not much. But those hundreds of hours spent in his world and words and observations and ecstatic responses to art and music and books were transcendent. A world of critical studies and stretches of re-reading are waiting--to come to some understanding and appreciation of what he had, in seven volumes, wrought before he died, exhausted from the work and without seeing its final volumes published; and to come, as a reader, through whatever biographies might have to say, to some better picture of the man and his life, if only to ponder and stand awestruck and inspired by the mystery of how he created the book that he did.
The transcendence, meantime, is enough.
An impression of love is out of proportion to the other impressions of life, but when it is lost in their midst we are incapable of appreciating it. It is not from immediately below, in the tumult of the street and amid the thronging houses nearby, but when we have moved away, that, from the slope of a neighbouring hill, at a distance from which the whole town seems to have vanished or forms only a confused heap at ground level, we can appreciate, in the calm detachment of solitude and dusk, the towering splendour of a cathedral, unique, enduring and pure. (vol. VI, The Fugitive)
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David Dear works as a civil servant for the Alberta government in Edmonton. He is also a poet and a serious reader, with a special interest in the history and literature of the World War I period.