We read Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time - that greatest work of his the title of which is more commonly translated as Remembrance of Things Past both because of the simple beauty of his language and because of the power that he has to find our own lost pieces of time. For while he makes us interested in his past because of his marvelous descriptions of his own childhood and we become entranced by his memories because of the elegant and lush way that he conveys them to us, we also read the book because it seems to offer to us a type of magic, seems to serve as a talisman to all pasts, not just his alone. This paper examines the narrative structure of In Search of Lost Time and the ways in which that structure, joined to Proust's language and symbolism, can help each one of us gain a better sense not only of our own past but of time itself and the changes it creates in us.
Proust writes at the beginning of this novel:
Of that state of mind which, in that far-off year, had been tantamount to a long drawn out torture for me, nothing survived. For in this world of ours where everything withers, everything perishes, there is a thing that decays, that crumbles into dust even more completely, leaving behind still fewer traces of itself, than beauty: namely grief. (Time Regained, 8)
The basic thrust of the first sentence is "of that state of mind... nothing survived." And the second sentence could of course be more clearly put as "grief decays more completely than beauty." In my own observations of subtle movements in my consciousness, the effect of the narrative gap is that the logical narrative that the mind is following - that is, the linear mode of thought organized into the logical structure of language - suddenly stops, the meaning is put on hold while another logical narrative arises in consciousness, and the two meanings overlay and are experienced simultaneous.
This occurs during the gap, and then when the original logical narrative returns and concludes it is experienced with enhanced profundity and impact as the mind races back to connect the current meaning with the logical narrative that preceded the gap. This distance gives it beauty, a principle that the narrator recognizes when returning to his childhood home:
And so I was obliged, after an interval of so many years, to touch up a picture which I recalled so well -- an operation which made me quite happy by showing me that the impassable gulf which I had then supposed to exist between myself and a certain type of little girl which golden hair was as imaginary as Pascal's gulf, and which I thought poetic because of the long sequence of years at the end of which I was called upon to perform it.
It is all too easy to read Proust's work as an exercise in nostalgia; this may be exacerbated by reading the work even in an excellent translation such as this one, for the work in translation loses some of the lush insistence on connecting to the world of the past. The translation holds fast to the beauty of Proust's language, but there are internal assonances and alliterations that are lost when shifting from French to English that serve as metaphors or perhaps metonyms for the ways in which the similar texture of different experiences binds past to present.
Neither Nosalgia Nor Tragedy
Proust's work is often discussed as a catalogue of nostalgic longings, a catalogue of griefs. But, as Walter Benjamin, in the opening of his essay "The Image of Proust" (in Illuminations) argues, Proust understands that the losses that time brings are a fair exchange for the practice of memory. What he is seeking in this search for lost time is the pleasure that comes from the winding together of memories, from the ways in which we weave memories together as the essential act of creating ourselves. The book is both a complex text and an escape from the confines of textuality: Proust is continually seeking to draw us into his own particular story and to thrust us out into the world. (In the same way that memory, both within the novel and within my own personal experiences, constantly draw us back into the past while at the same time push us outward to the present and the future so that we may gain new materials for yet more memories. In its reliance on the reliability of narrator and text (which are complex, but not mendacious), the work is an essentially Modernist one. The clear belief that Proust has in the power of his novel (or of any text) to transform us and to perform real work in the world is something that we have, for better or worse, lost in our postmodern era.
This sense of the novel as more fundamentally tragic than it is fact is may in fact arise from the common translation (and one might argue mistranslation) of its title by pegging it to a line from Shakespeare's thirtieth sonnet - "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought." Shakespeare is certainly here celebrating a nostalgic mood, and this mood has to some degree been transferred to Proust's work, not entirely doing either the sonnet or the novel justice. This may well have occurred because so many people know only the title of Proust's work along with a touch of Shakespeare, and so they have transferred what they know of Shakespeare onto what they do not know of Proust.
Proust understands that there is indeed sadness in the world, and any trip that we make to the past - whether one intentionally undertaken or one pursued against our own intentions because of the alchemy of memory - is likely to expose us to sadness. But sadness is different from both tragedy and nostalgia. Nostalgia is too frail to build bridges with, and tragedy too self-absorbing. Benjamin summarizes the goal of Proust's work:
For the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection. Or should one call it, rather, a Penelope work of forgetting? Is not the involuntary recollection, Proust's memoire involuntaire, much closer to forgetting than what is usually called memory? And is not this work of spontaneous recollection, in which remembering is the woof and forgetting the wharf, a counterpart to Penelope's work rather than its likeness? For here the day unravels what the night has woven. When we awake each morning, we hold in our hands, usually weakly and loosely, but a few fringes of the tapestry of lived life, as loomed for us by forgetting. However, with our purposeful activity and, even more, our purposive remembering each day unravels the web and the ornaments of forgetting. This is why Proust finally turned his days into nights, devoting all his hours to undisturbed work in his darkened room with artificial illumination, so that none of those intricate arabesques might escape him.
Benjamin is of course correct to suggest that Proust sees the act of weaving memories as something that is central to the act of writing: Gerard Genette in fact argues that the entire novel is really an elaboration of a three-word sentence: Marcel devient ecrivain. For those of us who are not becoming writers, or who are becoming writers but of our own texts rather than of this one, the purpose of such weaving of memory - that closing of the gap between the present and the past - is more an act of constituting the self than of creating literature, although for many these two acts are the same.
All of us tell stories - if only to ourselves, in our journals and the conversations that we have with our lovers and in our dreams - that weave together elements of past and present to make sense of both. Proust simply does the same thing - in public, with a far greater sense of style.
Memory As Tool
We cannot read In Search of Lost Time without believing in the power of memory to give meaning to time, especially the fragmentary time of childhood in which memories swim in a blackness of ignorance about our own past. The maturation of the individual is in many senses the ability of that individual to form connected memories: The adult is able to look back on life in a more or less continuous line. We remember yesterday and the day before, and last year. The memories may not be well detailed, but they are cohesive and they form a simple narrative.
Proust, by himself returning to childhood and by urging us to return to our own childhoods, suggests that such simple narrative strategies for memory are…