Wasting Time or Finding Time?

You can kill time and then revive it with Marcel Proust.

Posted Aug 04, 2009

Hourglass
Have you read Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time? I just did. Closing the last of the six books felt like an accomplishment, as though all the shorter novels I've read all my life, novels of relatively superficial psychological depth, existed solely to prepare me for this challenge.

From Swann's Way, where Proust so elegantly introduced his famous themes (love, loss, memory), which I began reading perhaps a decade ago, to the epic finale of Time Regained, this series has been part of my life. My husband Stephen and I sat together many evenings searching for lost time with Proust. Each reading in our own cushiony living room pew, we would make delicate crack, crack sounds before spitting out our sunflower seed shells. Once I interrupted Stephen's focus by reading aloud:

Our dread of a future in which we must forgo the sight of faces and the sound of voices which we love and from which today we derive our dearest joy, this dread, far from being dissipated, is intensified, if. . . we feel that there will be added what seems to us now in anticipation more painful still: not to feel it as a pain at all -- to remain indifferent . . . .

Crack, spit. He was unmoved and insisted I was secretly a nineteenth-century French homosexual. No, I'm not. But I can relate on the profoundest level with Proust's obsession with Time.

If you're at all like me, you'll find yourself logging in numerous nights of interminable parties minutely described, long passages filled with incomprehensible references to historical French society figures. I, like so many patient readers before me, found all the effort (and nearly all the digressions) absolutely worthwhile, especially when I reached the climactic rumination on regaining lost time by capturing memory and turning it into art.

My just-about-favorite experience, flow, is best at something Proustian: negating awareness of time and of the way the times of a life pass, are lost forever, and then you die. Here's another quote (this one relates back to a previous post of mine about dealing with death).

But let a noise or a scent, once heard or once smelt, be heard or smelt again in the present and at the same time in the past, real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, and immediately the permanent and habitually concealed essense of things is liberated and our true self, which seemed ... to be dead but was not altogether dead, is awakened and reanimated as it receives the celestial nourishment that is brought to it. A minute freed from the order of time has re-created in us, to feel it, the man freed from the order of time. ... One can understand that the word "death" should have no meaning for him; situated outside time, why should he fear the future?

Once the character Marcel decides to stop wasting his time on petty obligations and to write, finally, his great work, he tells the reader, "Amongst other things I was indifferent to the verdict that might be passed on my work." Then he elaborates at great length on his indifference to judgment contemporary and future.

The essential point, though, is that once he sets his mind to creation, he is utterly intrinsically motivated, and only the work matters. Indeed, Proust was single-mindedly obsessed with finishing before his time ran out, as I learned when I read Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret, the housekeeper who attended him for the final years of his life as he worked long nights in his cork-lined room.

For a writer who tends to piddle away hours and hours, that kind of puts things in perspective.

Share your own experiences with Proust?

I read the C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin translation, revised by D. J. Enright (Modern Library). Stephen read an older translation; you can also find older versions online; and there's a new set of translations on the market, not all published in the U.S. yet.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry