Of all the novels I have read, this one comes the closest to reading poetry. And I’m not just saying that because the language is beautiful, but rather because each line – sometimes extending for nearly an entire paragraph or even the whole page – is far denser than the line in a typical novel. Here the mere mention of a sip of tea at the end of the novel recalls entire passages of memory from earlier i the novel, each image and expression carries far more weight and does far more work than normal prose. And I also get the impression that I missed a lot as I read and that were I to go back and reread the novel I would discover whole oceans of thought that I failed to explore the first time around. In short this is a remarkable novel, but it’s also a remarkable experiment in modernism in that the author is trying to convey a way of thinking and feeling by playing with how language can communicate to us. I was not expecting a novel that deals so often with nostalgia for a lost time to be so radically modern.
Proust also explores something even more radical in this experiment, though perhaps without even realizing it. Years later the ideas of Saussure would create the foundation for structuralism, specifically the ideas of the signified and signifier. Proust seems to have intuited this concept and his image of the cup of tea causing a flood of memories to come flowing back into his mind is a perfect example of what Saussure was trying to explain. Yet Proust takes it even further (in the sort of direction the philosopher Bergson would be familiar with) by vitalizing the connection between signified and signifier as the essence of human experience which gives the real meaning to things. True, signifiers (mere words) are arbitrary and basically meaningless on their own, but it is we who give them their meaning, even if each of us has a different definition for what, say, a cup of tea might mean. We are, after all, creatures of language and the whole of our existence is a construct of language, so wouldn’t it be true that such a reality is only real because of how each of us experiences the universe, even if we’re all doing it differently?
There are multiple instances in the novel when Proust describes a person’s glance and then describes an observer interpreting what that glance means. Proust devotes pages and pages to just Odette moving her eyes a few millimeters, and Odette may have meant absolutely nothing by the way she moved her eyes, but for Swann (and us), there is more meaning in such a glance than could be contained by the Library of Alexandria. Meaning – meaningful meaning – is created by each of us in our own way, and often, as with Swann, can go too far, but it is the essence and vitality of our lives which we are creating every moment. Every glance, every word contains multitudes (Whitman) and our reality consists of parsing these meanings into something we can understand – or when it goes wrong we wind up like King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale who have lost our common social connection with other people and thus go mad.
And like Bergson debating with Einstein about the nature of time, time for Proust is like an erosion that alters the past, and seems to work deeper the more time that passes. Events that were as clear to us as our playmates when we were children are almost unrecognizable when we are older. How did time do this? Why does time alter our memory? Why are we never fixed in any place or time, like Proust not wanting to ever leave Paris? Are we always trapped in that separation between Saussure’s signified and the signifier? Is the human experience a necessary part of the universe (as Bergson believed) or do our experiences remain forever relative and without “True” meaning (as Eisenstein believed)?
Proust seems very much in the camp of favoring the human experience, and so do I.
Looking back on some of my favorite books it seems I really enjoy stories about people who long for a time that will never return, such as Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and now this. Maybe it’s because the older I get the more I can relate to characters whose interior life consists more and more of memory than it does of ambition for the future or because as time goes on each of us becomes more and more painfully aware of how much the world doesn’t actually make any sense at all unlike when we were young and everything seemed so simple.