The Book That Changed My Life

How reading can change your life.

Posted Mar 09, 2015

I first encountered Proust’s work in what might be considered rather adverse yet somewhat Proustian circumstances. He was a favorite writer of my ex-husband and his southern mother who had discovered Proust on her own in the library in Kentucky where she had taken out Scott Montcrieff’s translation of Remembrance of Things past, and read it by chance. A brilliant woman, she was immediately aware of what she had in hand, and Proust’s characters soon became as dear—well, perhaps I should say dearer to her and perhaps more vivid than her own southern relatives who seemed flamboyant enough in themselves to me (a father who was  kicked in the head by a horse and dragged to death, for example).

She shared this love for Proust with her only son who, when I first met him, was just eighteen and in Europe to visit his adored and ailing Mama. She too suffered from asthma, and having divorced my husband’s father, a Russian aristocrat, who had escaped the Russian revolution, traipsed through Europe for much of her life going from one European spa to another, looking for a cure. A long lean lady, she would lie langorously draped across  a chaise longue, pumping her inhaler between breathless sentences, studiously ignoring me. She and her son talked of nothing but the Baron de Charlus, Swann, Robert de Saint Loup, the Verdurins, and Odette as though they were the people living next door.

“Doesn’t she rather remind you of Odette?” she would say with a grin when some poor woman had just walked out of the door. Or dropping a French word or two, “Don’t you think he’s a bit louche, something of Charlus about him, no?”  

Not having read Proust, and indeed at eighteen not having read much more than the nineteenth century English writers taught in my South African boarding school, I was decidedly and humiliatingly left out of the conversation. I did not know these fascinating people and longed to know them and join the conversation too.  

During our honeymoon-- we married at nineteen, a shot-gun marriage, I attempted to fill this lacuna. It was spent in Paris in a one room apartment with blue walls on the Rue de Noisiel near the Portuguese embassy with our two grey Siamese cats, called Kochka and Minette and my old and best friend who had come to visit.

I lay on one bed against one wall trying to read Proust in French, turning the fine pages of my Pleiade volume slowly, while my then-husband lay on his bed on the other side of the room reading a polycopié. He was studying French literature at Yale but doing his junior year abroad, attending Science Po. (or the Institut de Sciences Politiques)  and maintained that you didn’t have to go to the lectures but could just read the polycopié, a written version of the lectures, which were the same anyway, year after year.

My friend who I’ll call Martha, a girl of German Jewish origin was left to try and establish some sort of order in the apartment, organizing clothes and food in the one and only cupboard, sweeping up the straw which the cats clawed from the wicker furniture, and watering the azalea plant. 

At first I think she tried to go out and leave us alone, but the truth was that when she did we fought. Finally she stayed home and she and my new husband would sit on the carpet and play honeymoon bridge for money and drink Champagne splits through the night. I think he mostly won. All three of us drank the splits of Champagne we had been given as a wedding present rather than the water from the tap which was still suspect in those days.

All of this was going on in the background, you understand while I tried to follow Proust’s meandering sentences through the Méseglise and the Guermantes paths of Combray and Swann’s misguided but passionate love for Odette. Sometimes I would read in the  sabot (shaped like a clog) bath. Mostly I confess, I would fall asleep. Proust, I’m afraid, who had such trouble sleeping, had a soporific effect on me.  Perhaps it was the warm water, or the Champagne I should surely not have been drinking, or because of my pregnancy. The baby would vanish as quickly as it had begun one night in my bed with a great flood of blood and Proust at my side .

Years later I would take up the great books and read them in English and marvel at the scope of what Edmund White calls the consummate Bildungsroman, the apprenticeship novel. I would revel in the humor—I had not at eighteen realized how funny Proust was, the intensity of each moment conveyed with such precision and psychological depth, and yes, of course, the characters with all of our very human foibles and fantasies laid out so clearly for us to contemplate. 

With the cover of Edmund White's wonderful biography of Proust. 

Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.(link is external) is external)

Becoming Jane Eyre: A Novel (Penguin Original) (link is external)by Sheila Kohler Penguin Books click here(link is external) is external)

Dreaming for Freud: A Novel (link is external)by Sheila Kohler Penguin Books click here(link is external)