In my previous post about Swann’s Way, I discussed it as a novel about humans being defined almost solely by unhealthy obsessions. This is a rather grim view of things tempered only, perhaps, by the fact that this hasn’t been my experience of life after 21-ish.
I suppose I should also talk about remembrance, memory, etc too. Bother. I think this will be short. As a topic of philosophic contemplation, I don’t find memory all that compelling in itself; the pleasure I took in it in Proust’s novel was almost entirely in his way of delving into it, not in the simple fact that he did so.
I feel an anecdote coming on.
I once worked with another PhD-student at an office; we were both trying to pay off enough debt to be able to continue with our doctoral studies. I believe she was a Modernist, which means she was doomed never to win my trust. (I trust only one Modernist, and that’s The Catastrophizer.) This office-mate and I used to discuss what we were reading for fun (as opposed to what we were reading for scholarly self-abuse), and she liked to drop portentous and meaningless one-liners about pretty much everything. (Or, sometimes, just nuggets of pure incorrectness. I recall her referring to that horrid pile of poo, World War Z, as an epistolary novel. I suggested she either hadn’t actually read the book or that I didn’t think that word meant what she thought it meant. In spite of the fact that my dissertation was on representations of letter-writing, she confidently dismissed my mild correction.)
The one-liner that most stuck with me and ensured we’d never, ever be friends was this (about something by Orhan Pamuk, I believe—although not The Museum of Innocence, because that hadn’t been published yet): “It’s about memory.” She looked so smug and self-satisfied as she gazed over my head and deep into her very bright future. I wondered, aloud, what novel wasn’t about memory in some basic sense, given that the majority of them aren’t written in either present or future tenses (and those that are, are too pretentious to be taken seriously). I believe she ignored this as well.
Now Swann’s Way—and the five other volumes following it—form part of a larger work called Remembrance of Things Past and so clearly are, in deliberate ways, more about memory than other novels that simply inhabit a temporal narrative mode that isn’t inherently annoying. Indeed, Proust portrays our self-reflective capacity for replaying the past not simply as that which differentiates us from other animals and which alternately enriches and ruins our lives, but also as an edifice we each of us construct to create ourselves. The cultivation of memory in Swann’s Way constitutes both the inner life as well as a terrible burden making the enjoyment of life—inner or outer—nearly impossible.
Our young narrator tortures himself every day remembering the pain of not receiving a maternal goodnight kiss in the night yet to come. He makes himself too ill to go Italy by building a beautiful totem to his memory of a trip still only in its early planning stages. Yes, that’s exactly what I mean: he’s constantly remembering events that have not yet happened–and making himself ill doing so.
Swann whips up his own similar self-inflicted agony when contemplating life with Odette. The aboutness (to borrow Rohan Maitzen’s phrase) of this novel of memory is the way in which Proust imagines life as being lived only in memory. In Swann’s Way, there is no now, there is only what has happened and what will have happened–and which is understood only in the longing terms of yesterday.
How incredibly awful.
And yet, Proust remained hilarious throughout this novel. His almost 200 pages on Swann’s crawling, simpering adoration of Odette is a prolonged but still quite gentle joke at the expense of Swann, men, women, love, ideals, and yes, memory too. The fun he didn’t, wouldn’t, or couldn’t poke at his apparently quite autobiographical boy-narrator in parts 1 and 3, he could and does disperse with compassionate joy in part 2.
This is serious literature, raising serious questions about the pain we cause ourselves just by trying to use our very large but exceedingly narrow brains—but it’s also about how very silly we are. And that, my friends, is why Proust was a genius. He is Pretension and Ay, Jokes! rolled up into one delicious, if overly rich, morsel. I look forward to gorging myself again with Within a Budding Grove.