"Real books should be the offspring not of daylight and casual talk, but of darkness and silence." -Marcel Proust, Time Regained
I like In Search of Lost Time. It's the ultimate bougee move, yes, I know but I did. I listened to all of it on audio book while writing product copy in a freezing cold, window-less warehouse in Memphis. For months my coworkers had to deal with my incoherent mumbling about France and mysterious lesbians and a fictional place called Combray. They had to deal with my insistent tea-making and explanation of what makes a perfect madeleine.
Proust: Spilling Tea since 1913
I'm sure I was very distracted during that time because the style of the book is dream-like and introspective. The work is memory-driven and many parts of the book seem familiar and evokes a sense of deja vu even in new readers with its flowing narrative and arching descriptions.
The characters float on streams of consciousness from scene to scene as the universal narrator, M, remembers his childhood, his lovers, and his friends. He is nervous and often passive in a way most modern editors would tell you never to write a main character.
Unlike the works of his contemporaries, In Search of Lost Time isn't filled with political statements, although a number of his characters are homosexual, engaging in what would have been regarded as risqué lifestyles at the time.
What to Steal
“Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” Igor Stravinsky
or a book over 4,000 pages, there is one scene that is referenced over and over again. In fact, this moment is called the "Proustian moment" and it involves a simple cup of herbal tea and a plate of madeleines.
She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?
Proust 's words are in the moment, evoking an immediate and visceral reaction. Every sense is at play here: the sight of the madeleines and tea service, the texture, the warmth of the tea, the crumbs of cake. All this is interlaced wit the overarching theme of the work, of how memory can intrude, for better or worse, on the present.
How'd He do That?
Born on the 10th of July in 1871, Valentin Louis Eugène Georges Marcel Proust was a sickly child who grew into a sickly young man.
It's almost a trope, the ill and reclusive artist, full of talent, but not stamina, languishing his way to a masterpiece, penning the last words before one final, chest rattling breath. End of story.
But, is that the way it really happened? Is that who Proust was?
The year is 1899 and young Marcel Proust, disgusted with the poor reception of his compilation novel, Les Plaisirs et les Jours, abandons the novel he is currently working on. What does he do instead?
He starts to translate two works of John Ruskin from English into French. The only problem is that...well...his English isn't great. To compensate, Proust devises a round-robin of translation that starts with him, goes through his mother, then his English friend, before finalizing it himself.
Translation requires a deep understanding of a work. It means pouring over a work multiple times, struggling to shape foreign concepts and idioms into a new language.
During the years that followed, Proust also found himself working on pastiches for various journals.
According to Merriam Webster, a pastiche is defined as "a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work."
Yeah, read that definition again, let it sink in...
A man often considered the greatest writer of the 20th century wrote fan fiction.
This was Proust's proving ground, this was where and how he refined his skills as a writer. This, in its essence, is deliberate practice.
- Proust had feedback in the form of his poor-selling compilation novel and the novel he abandoned. He knew what didn't work.
- Translating forced him to work on very specific skills--the exactness of his words and expressions. Translating requires nuance, balancing two similar words to find the most appropriate, finding the right phrasing to express a complex idea.
- He mimicked those who came before him. Practicing in the style of Ruskin and other writers gave him the skills to build a masterpiece.