There are plenty of great writers but Proust's In Search of Lost Time is what I'd want with me if I found myself stranded on some island.
Proust's ideas stretch across my own thoughts as the sky stretches across the earth; I ponder something and I am led to Proust; I look at the sky and I think of Proust; I take a hard fall on a patch of ice and, bedridden, think of Proust's asthmatic confinement to his cork-lined bedroom. He is not a guide, but a beacon -- I am within a moment; a moment is immediately swallowed by the past; the past is rich. Proust discovered that the past can be returned to involuntarily; and then recognized that it could be returned to voluntarily -- it was possible to dwell within that past.
In reading Proust's Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time, a study of Proust by one Roger Shattuck, published in 2000 (there seems to be at least one new study of Proust each year), it illuminated for me that when, for instance, I, along with a couple of friends, was a pilgrim in the city of Lowell, Massachusetts, the birthplace of Jack Kerouac, marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road; it occurred to me that, once back home, it would be fun to write up an account of the the events I was experiencing in Lowell but I felt that nothing was happening which would lend itself to narrative.
I did not feel, in Lowell, that I was living a story. Certainly it was a great fun day, but there was nothing really that I could see as story; nothing, as it were, that would lend itself to my favorite past-time of letter- or journal-writing. And yet, after I returned home, I wrote a lengthy account of my day in Lowell.
I wondered about this; I wondered how it would have been good to expect that I was going to write about the day; it would have been good to have made some notes along the way. And why wouldn't the account sort of compose itself on the run, so to speak, in the present? When, for instance, I stood at the foot of Kerouac's gravestone, why didn't I recognize that it was an experience that I would be transforming into words? (What had happened to my self-identification with Virginia Woolf when she said, "My mind runs hither and thither with its veil of words for everything"?)
In Shattuck's Proust's Way I came across the answer in one of his quotes from In Search of Lost Time:
How many times in the course of my life had reality
disappointed me because at the time I was observing
it, my imagination, the only organ with which I could
enjoy beauty, was unable to function, by virtue of the
inexorable law which decrees that only what is absent
can be imagined.
That does not, as I see it, say that I did not enjoy or appreciate those things happening in Lowell on that gorgeous October day ... I was in no way disappointed ... but that to write of them must involve imagination of them. There is reality, and then there is imagined reality. How brilliant Proust is! He is like Dylan's Louise in "Visions of Johanna" who makes it "all .. precise and .. clear".
(And I might wonder, too, since Shattuck is quoting directly from Proust's novel, and I have read that novel three times ... why it was only in a study of Proust that the passage struck me as so relevant?)
In some other year I read Henri Peyre's short essay on Proust, from the series called Columbia Essays on Modern Writers, in which Peyre comments:
For [Proust] the past alone is laden with density and
reality. The present is thin and poor; imagination,
working its magic over the past, endows it with intensity
and with depth.
I noted somewhere else a Proust remark: "Let us leave pretty women to men who have no imagination!"
In an essay by Robert Frost, called "The Figure A Poem Makes," I guessed he was expressing the same idea, but in a denser fashion:
For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering
something I didn't know I knew. I am in a place, in a
situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out
of the ground. There is a special recognition of the long
lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of
unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most
useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware
of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the
conclusion is come to that like giants we are always
hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future
against the day when we may want to strike a line of
purpose across it.
In creating the past, Marcel created not just the past, but, as if miraculously, guidance for the man a boy born in 1940 in Indiana would become.
|Marcel Proust's bedroom furnishings and cork-lined walls|
preserved in Musee Carnavalet in Paris.