Whatever the merits of Proust’s work, even a fervent admirer would be hard pressed to deny one of its awkward features: length. As Proust’s brother, Robert, put it, “The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time.” And as they lie in bed with their limb newly encased in plaster or a tubercle bacillus diagnosed in their lungs, they face another challenge in the length of individual Proustian sentences, snakelike constructions, the very longest of which, located in the fifth volume, would, if arranged along a single line in standardized text, run on for a little short of four meters and stretch around the base of a bottle of wine seventeen times:
Alfred Humblot had never seen anything like it. As head of the esteemed publishing house Ollendorf, he had, early in 1913, been asked to consider Proust’s manuscript for publication by one of his authors, Louis de Robert, who had undertaken to help Proust get into print. “My dear friend, I may be dense,” replied Humblot after taking a brief and clearly bewildering glance at the opening of the novel, “but I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.”
He wasn’t alone. Jacques Madeleine, a reader for the publishing house Fasquelle, had been asked to look at the same bundle of papers a few months earlier. “At the end of seven hundred and twelve pages of this manuscript,” he had reported, “after innumerable griefs at being drowned in unfathomable developments and irritating impatience at never being able to rise to the surface—one doesn’t have a single, but not a single clue of what this is about. What is the point of all this? What does it all mean? Where is it all leading? Impossible to know anything about it! Impossible to say anything about it!”
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Madeleine nevertheless had a go at summarizing the events of the first seventeen pages: “A man has insomnia. He turns over in bed, he recaptures his impressions and hallucinations of half-sleep, some of which have to do with the difficulty of getting to sleep when he was a boy in his room in the country house of his parents in Combray. Seventeen pages! Where one sentence (at the end of page 4 and page 5) goes on for forty-four lines.”
Since all other publishers sympathized with these sentiments, Proust was forced to pay for the publication of his work himself (and was left to enjoy the regrets and contrite apologies that flowed in a few years later). But the accusation of verbosity was not so fleeting. At the end of 1921, his work now widely acclaimed, Proust received a letter from an American, who described herself as twenty-seven, resident in Rome, and extremely beautiful. She also explained that for the previous three years she had done nothing with her time other than read Proust’s book. However, there was a problem. “I don’t understand a thing, but absolutely nothing. Dear Marcel Proust, stop being a poseur and come down to earth. Just tell me in two lines what you really wanted to say.”
The frustration of the Roman beauty suggests that the poseur had violated a fundamental law of length stipulating the appropriate number of words in which an experience could be related. He had not written too much per se; he had digressed intolerably given the significance of the events under consideration. Falling asleep? Two words should cover it, four lines if the hero had indigestion or if a Labrador was giving birth in the courtyard below. But the poseur hadn’t digressed simply about sleep; he had made the same error with dinner parties, seductions, jealousies.
It explains the inspiration behind the “All-England Summarise Proust Competition,” once hosted by Monty Python in a south coast seaside resort, a competition that required contestants to précis the seven volumes of Proust’s work in fifteen seconds or less, and to deliver the results first in a swimsuit and then in evening dress. The first contestant was Harry Baggot from Luton, who hurriedly offered the following:
Proust’s novel ostensibly tells of the irrevocability of time lost, of innocence and experience, the reinstatement of extra-temporal values and time regained. Ultimately the novel is both optimistic and set within the context of human religious experience. In the first volume, Swann visits—
But fifteen seconds did not allow for more. “A good attempt,” declared the game-show host with dubious sincerity, “but unfortunately he chose a general appraisal of the work before getting on to specific details.” The contestant was thanked for his attempt, commended on his swimming trunks, and shown off stage.
Despite this personal defeat, the contest as a whole remained optimistic that an acceptable summary of Proust’s work was possible, a faith that what had originally taken seven volumes to express could reasonably be condensed into fifteen seconds or less, without too great a loss of integrity or meaning, if only an appropriate candidate could be found.
What did Proust have for breakfast? Before his illness became too severe, two cups of strong coffee with milk, served in a silver pot engraved with his initials. He liked his coffee tightly packed in a filter with the water made to pass through drop by drop. He also had a croissant, fetched by his maid from a boulangerie that knew just how to make them, crisp and buttery, and which he would dunk in his coffee as he looked through his letters and read the newspaper.
He had complex feelings about this last activity. However unusual the attempt to compress seven volumes of a novel into fifteen seconds, perhaps nothing exceeds, in both regularity and scope, the compression entailed by a daily newspaper. Stories that would comfortably fill twenty volumes find themselves reduced to narrow columns, competing for the reader’s attention with a multitude of once profound, now etiolated dramas.
“That abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper,” wrote Proust, “thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty-thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of café au lait.”
Of course, it shouldn’t surprise us how naturally the thought of another sip of coffee could derail our attempt to consider with requisite care those closely packed, perhaps now crumb-littered pages. The more an account is compressed, the more it seems that it deserves no more space than it has been allocated. How easy to imagine that nothing at all has happened today, to forget the fifty thousand war dead, sigh, toss the paper to one side, and experience a mild wave of melancholy at the tedium of daily routine.
It was not Proust’s way. An entire philosophy, not only of reading but of life, could be said to emerge from Lucien Daudet’s passing remark, informing us:
He read newspapers with great care. He wouldn’t even overlook the news-in-brief section. A news-in-brief told by him turned into a whole tragic or comic novel, thanks to his imagination and his fantasy.
The news-in-brief in Le Figaro, Proust’s daily paper, were not for the fainthearted. On a particular morning in May 1914, readers would have been treated to some of the following:
- At a busy crossing in Villeurbanne, a horse leapt into the rear carriage of a tram, overturning all the passengers, of whom three were seriously injured and had to be taken to the hospital.
- While introducing a friend to the workings of an electric power station in Aube, Mr. Marcel Peigny put a finger on a high-voltage cable and was at once fatally electrocuted.
- A teacher, Mr. Jules Renard, committed suicide yesterday in the Métropolitain, in the République station, by firing a single revolver shot into his chest. Mr. Renard had been suffering from an incurable disease.
What sort of tragic or comic novels would these have swelled into? Jules Renard? An unhappily married, asthmatic chemistry teacher employed by a Left Bank girls’ school, diagnosed with colon cancer. The electrocuted Marcel Peigny? Killed while impressing a friend with a knowledge of electrical hardware in order to encourage a union between his harelipped son, Serge, and his friend’s uncorseted daughter, Mathilde. And the horse in Villeurbanne? A somersault into the tram provoked by misjudged nostalgia for a show-jumping career, or vengeance for the omnibus that had recently killed its brother in the market square, later put down for horse steak, suitable for feuilleton format. Echoes of Balzac, Dostoyevsky, and Zola.
A more sober example of Proust’s inflationary efforts survives. In January 1907 he was reading the paper when his eye was caught by a headline of a news-in-brief, which read A TRAGEDY OF MADNESS. A bourgeois young man, Henri van Blarenberghe, had, “in a fit of madness,” butchered his mother to death with a kitchen knife. She had cried out, “Henri, Henri, what have you done to me?” raised her arms to the sky, and collapsed on the floor. Henri had then locked himself in his room and tried to cut his throat with the knife, but he had had difficulty severing the right vein, and so had put a revolver to his temple. Yet he wasn’t an expert with this weapon either, and when the police officers (one of whom happened to be called Proust) arrived at the scene, they found him in his room, lying on his bed, his face a mess, one eye dangling by connecting tissue out of a blood-filled socket. They began to interrogate him about the incident with his mother outside, but he died before an adequate statement could be drawn up.
Proust might quickly have turned the page and taken an extra gulp of coffee had he not happened to be an acquaintance of the murderer. He had met the polite and sensitive Henri van Blarenberghe at a number of dinner parties, they had exchanged a few letters thereafter; indeed, Proust had received one only a few weeks earlier, in which the young man had inquired about his health, wondered what the new year would bring for them both, and hoped he and Proust would be able to meet up again soon.
Alfred Humblot, Jacques Madeleine, and the beautiful American correspondent from Rome would possibly have judged that the correct literary response to this grim crime was an appalled word or two. Proust wrote a five-page article instead, in which he attempted to place the squalid tale of dangling eyeballs and daggers back into a broader context, judging it not as a freak murder defying precedent or understanding, but rather as a manifestation of a tragic aspect of human nature which had been at the center of many of the greatest works of Western art since the Greeks. For Proust, Henri’s delusion while he stabbed his mother linked him to the confused fury of Ajax massacring the Greek shepherds and their flocks. Henri was Oedipus, his dangling eye an echo of the way Oedipus had used the gold buckles from the dead Jocasta’s dress to puncture his own eyeballs. The devastation Henri must have felt at seeing his dead mother reminded Proust of Lear embracing the body of Cordelia and crying out: “She’s gone for ever. She’s dead as earth. No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all?” And when police officer Proust had arrived to question Henri as he lay expiring, the author Proust had felt like acting as Kent had done when telling Edgar not to awaken the unconscious Lear: “Vex not his ghost: O! let him pass; he hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer.”
These literary quotations were not simply designed to impress (though Proust did happen to feel that “one must never miss an opportunity of quoting things by others which are always more interesting than those one thinks up oneself”). Rather, they were a way of alluding to the universal implications of matricide. For Proust, we could not judge Blarenberghe’s crime as though we were wholly unrelated to its dynamics. Even if we had only forgotten to send Mother a birthday card, we would have to recognize a trace of our guilt in the death cries of Madame van Blarenberghe. “ ‘What have you done to me! What have you done to me!’ If we wanted to think about it,” wrote Proust, “perhaps there is no really loving mother who could not, on her dying day, and often long before, address this reproach to her son. The truth is that as we grow older, we kill all those who love us by the cares we give them, by the anxious tenderness we inspire in them and constantly arouse.”
By such efforts, a story that had seemed to deserve no more than a gruesome few lines in a news-in-brief had been integrated into the history of tragedy and mother-son relationships, its dynamics observed with the complex sympathy one would usually accord to Oedipus on stage, but consider inappropriate, even shocking, when lavished on a murderer from the morning paper.
It shows how vulnerable much of human experience is to abbreviation, how easily it can be stripped of the more obvious signposts by which we guide ourselves when ascribing importance. Much literature and drama would conceivably have proved entirely unengaging, would have said nothing to us had we first encountered its subject matter over breakfast in the form of a news-in-brief.
- Tragic end for Verona lovebirds: after mistakenly thinking his sweetheart dead, a young man took his life. Having discovered the fate of her lover, the woman killed herself in turn.
- A young mother threw herself under a train and died in Russia after domestic problems.
- A young mother took arsenic and died in a French provincial town after domestic problems.
Unfortunately, the very artistry of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Flaubert has the tendency to suggest that it would have been apparent even from a news-in-brief that there was something signifìcant about Romeo, Anna, and Emma, something which would have led any right-thinking person to see that these were characters fit for great literature or a show at the Globe, whereas of course there would have been nothing to distinguish them from the somersaulting horse in Villeurbanne or the electrocuted Marcel Peigny in Aube. Hence Proust’s assertion that the greatness of works of art has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter. And hence his associated claim that everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensées.
Blaise Pascal was born in 1623, and was recognized from an early age—and by more than just his proud family—to be a genius. By twelve, he had worked out the first thirty-two propositions of Euclid; he went on to invent the mathematics of probability; he measured atmospheric pressure, constructed a calculating machine, designed an omnibus, got tuberculosis, and wrote the brilliant and pessimistic series of aphorisms in defense of Christian belief known as the Pensées.
It should come as no surprise to discover things of value in the Pensées. They are written with seductive immediacy, broaching topics of universal concern with modern succinctness. “We do not choose as captain of a ship the most highly born of those aboard,” runs one aphorism, and we can admire the dry irony of this protest against inherited privilege, which must have been so galling in the unmeritocratic society of Pascal’s day. The habit of putting people into important offices simply because they had important parents is quietly ridiculed in an analogy between statecraft and navigation: Pascal’s readers might have been intimidated and silenced by an aristocrat’s elaborate argument that he had a divine right to determine economic policy, even though he had failed to master the upper reaches of the seven-times table, but they would be unlikely to swallow a similar argument from him if he knew nothing of sailing and was proposing to take the wheel on a journey around the Cape of Good Hope.
How frothy soap looks beside this. How far we have drifted from the spiritual realm with this long-haired maiden, clutching her bosom in rapture at the thought of her toilet soap, handily kept with the necklaces in a padded jewelry box.
It seems difficult to argue that soapy bliss is truly as significant as Pascal’s Pensées. But such was not Proust’s intention; he was merely saying that a soap advertisement could be the starting point for thoughts which might end up being no less profound than those already well-expressed, already well-developed in the Pensées. If we were unlikely to have had deep thoughts inspired by toilet soaps before, it could merely have been out of adherence to conventional notions about where to have such thoughts, a resistance to the spirit that had guided Flaubert in turning a newspaper story about the suicide of a young wife into Madame Bovary, or the spirit that had guided Proust in taking on the initially unprepossessing topic of falling asleep and devoting thirty pages to it.
A similar spirit appears to have guided Proust in his reading matter. His friend Maurice Duplay tells us that what Marcel most liked reading when he couldn’t get to sleep was a train timetable.
The document was not consulted for practical advice; the departure time of the Saint-Lazare train was of no immediate importance to a man who found no reason to leave Paris in the last eight years of his life. Rather, this timetable was read and enjoyed as though it were a gripping novel about country life, because the mere names of provincial train stations provided Proust’s imagination with enough material to elaborate entire worlds, to picture domestic dramas in rural villages, shenanigans in local government, and life out in the fields.
Proust argued that enjoyment of such wayward reading matter was typical of a writer, someone who could be counted on to develop enthusiasms for things that were apparently out of line with great art, a person for whom a terrible musical production in a provincial theatre, or a ball which people of taste find ridiculous, will either evoke memories or else be linked to an order of reveries and preoccupations, far more than some admirable performance at the Opéra or an ultra smart soirée in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. The names of northern railway stations in a timetable, where he would like to imagine himself stepping from the train on an autumn evening, when the trees are already bare and smelling strongly in the keen air, an insipid publication for people of taste, full of names he has not heard since childhood, may have far greater value for him than fine volumes of philosophy, and lead people of taste to say that for a man of talent, he has very stupid tastes.
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Or at least, unconventional tastes. This often became apparent to people who met Proust for the first time and were quizzed on aspects of their life which they had previously considered with all the meager spiritual attention usually paid to ads for household goods and timetables from Paris to Le Havre.
In 1919 the young diplomat Harold Nicolson was introduced to Proust at a party at the Ritz. Nicolson had been posted to Paris with the British Delegation at the peace conference following the Great War, an assignment he found interesting, but clearly not as interesting as Proust ended up finding it. In his diary, Nicolson reported of the party:
A swell affair. Proust is white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced. He asks me questions. Will I please tell him how the Committees work. I say, “Well we generally meet at 10.00, there are secretaries behind…” “Mais non, mais non, vous allez trop vite. Recommencez. Vous prenez la voiture de la Délégation. Vous descendez au Quai d’Orsay. Vous montez l’escalier. Vous entrez dans la Salle. Et alors? Précisez, mon cher, précisez.” So I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all: the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons. He listens enthralled, interrupting from time to time—“Mais précisez, mon cher monsieur, n’allez pas trop vite.”
It might be a Proustian slogan: n’allez pas trop vite. And an advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process. For Nicolson, an early morning that had been summed up by the terse statement “Well we generally meet at 10.00” had been expanded to reveal handshakes and maps, rustling papers and macaroons—the macaroon acting as a useful symbol, in its seductive sweetness, of what gets noticed when we don’t go by trop vite.
Less greedily, more importantly, going by slowly may entail greater sympathy. We are being a good deal more sympathetic to the disturbed Mr. van Blarenberghe in writing an extended meditation on his crime than in muttering “crazy” and turning the page.
And expansion brings similar benefits to noncriminal activity. Proust’s narrator spends an unusual number of pages of the novel describing a painful indecision; he doesn’t know whether to propose marriage to his girlfriend Albertine, whom he sometimes thinks he couldn’t live without, and at other times is certain he never wants to see again.
The problem could be resumed in under two seconds by a skilled contestant from the All-England Summarise Proust competition: Young man unsure whether or not to propose marriage. Though not as brief as this, the letter the narrator one day receives from his mother expresses his marriage dilemma in terms that make his previous, copious analysis look shamefully exaggerated. After reading it, the narrator tells himself:
I’ve been dreaming, the matter is quite simple….I am an indecisive young man, and it is a case of one of those marriages where it takes time to find out whether it will happen or not. There is nothing in this peculiar to Albertine.
Simple accounts are not without their pleasures. Suddenly, we are just “insecure,” “homesick,” “settling in,” “facing up to death,” or “afraid of letting go.” It can be soothing to identify with a description of a problem which makes a previous assessment look needlessly complicated.
But it usually isn’t. A moment after reading the letter, the narrator reconsiders and realizes that there must be more to his story with Albertine than his mother has suggested, and so once again sides with length, with the hundreds of pages he has devoted to charting every shift in his relation with Albertine (n’allez pas trop vite), and comments:
One can of course reduce everything, if one regards it in its social aspect, to the most commonplace item of newspaper gossip. From outside, it is perhaps thus that I myself would look at it. But I know very well that what is true, what at least is also true, is everything that I have thought, what I have read in Albertine’s eyes, the fears that torment me, the problem that I continually put to myself with regard to Albertine. The story of the hesitant suitor and the broken engagement may correspond to this, as the report of a theatrical performance made by an intelligent reporter may give us the subject of one of Ibsen’s plays. But there is something beyond those facts that are reported.
The lesson? To hang on to the performance, to read the newspaper as though it were only the tip of a tragic or comic novel, and to use thirty pages to describe a fall into sleep when need be. And if there is no time, at least to resist the approach of Alfred Humblot at Ollendorf and Jacques Madeleine at Fasquelle, which Proust defined as “the self-satisfaction felt by ‘busy’ men—however idiotic their business—at ‘not having time’ to do what you are doing.”
Originally published as part of How Proust Can Change Your Life by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, in 1997.”
Excerpted from How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.