“When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection-” Swann’s Way.
Marcel Proust died at the young age of 51 in November of 1922. His health was never robust, and he wrote his seven-volume novel essentially as an invalid in his bedroom. Such a depressing existence would not seem to be the scenery of literary genius, yet Proust was undoubtedly the greatest literary genius of the 20th century. His seven-volume magnum opus, variously translated as either Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time, has no comparison in the field of novel writing; its only companion could be Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in that both almost to perfection combine literary acumen with philosophic wit.
Proust’s incredible work was praised as a masterpiece in the English speaking world as soon as the volumes were translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. Writers and novelists like Rebecca West (author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon), Virginia Woolf (who confessed she wished she could write like Proust), Shelby Foote (author of the 3 volume The Civil War: A Narrative), and Canada’s own Donald Creighton were just some of the literary heavyweights that were fascinated and influenced by Proust.
However, Proust’s work has substantially receded from the public mind with the passing of almost a century. It’s fair to say that Proust wouldn’t be surprised by this. Time, as he realized, is more destructive than constructive; rarely have the works of genius survived her savage onslaughts. Few- very few- of the epic poems from ancient times survive, and very little of the great works produced in the last few centuries are digested by the public in relation to their importance.
Whereas some may be put off by Proust’s depiction of homosexual love (Proust, like his great translator Moncrieff, was a homosexual), others will be startled to find hiding behind the novelist’s fiction a mind startling in philosophical observation. Proust, for example, viewed time as a destructive element within the universe, degrading the works of memory and the works of love. The only means to stay time’s destructive rapine of everything we cherish, Proust believed, was great works of art. Not just paintings, but music and great books, could bring us away from our anxiety, and draw us into an eternal realm made possible by another’s genius.
Such discussions, as well as those on emotions, passions, memory, longing, love, and empirical sensations are acted out in the mind of the narrator in clause filled sentences which, if they weren’t so beautiful, would have infuriated many by their sheer length. The stories that comprise the seven volumes were written in the stream of consciousness manner which, while it takes time getting used to, become part of one’s intellectual equipment after the final sentence of the final volume is sadly read. Proust deserves constant re-reading. And while we discover more and more in Proust, we discover more and more about ourselves.