Magazine | May 3, 2010, Issue

The Depths of Time

For a long time, I went to bed late. The reason was that I was reading aloud, to my wife, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. We did it in the city and the country, so this is both City Desk and Country Life, though the locations are not New York and upstate, but Combray, a small town in the île de France; Balbec, a Channel resort; and Paris, or parts of it: the Champs-Élysées, the Bois de Boulogne, a few homes, theaters, and brothels.

I have read aloud some long books — Travels in Arabia Deserta (two volumes), The Lord of the Rings (three), The Arabian Nights (four) — but In Search of Lost Time is the winner. I used the new Penguin translation, which prints the original seven novels in six volumes, and assigns each tale to a different translator. Years ago, I owned, as every bookworm did, a Modern Library edition of C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s version, done in the 1920s; mine was assembled from lucky visits to street fairs and the Strand. I remember Scott Moncrieff’s English as being more euphonious (his Shakespearean title, Remembrance of Things Past, captures the flavor). Yet I never finished him. He was narcotic, then soporific. The Penguins seem brusque and occasionally brittle, but they get the job done.

The great work would be greater if it were shorter. Proust (I will call the author Proust, and the narrator Marcel) badly needed an Ezra Pound or a Maxwell Perkins, or even a good copy editor. I think 500 pages could easily be trimmed from Search; a thousand would probably be excessive. The problem is that Proust is a lapsed essayist. He talks around his subjects, sometimes around and around his subjects; he writes ten sentences where one would do. Too often he is the boring man at a party who pins himself to your lapel.

He sets himself tasks he cannot perform. Music is important to Search, and Marcel learns an important lesson from a sonata and a septet by a fictional composer named Vinteuil. Unfortunately, describing music is devilishly hard. An impressionist can manage it (Mencken: “Debussy — A pretty girl with one blue eye and one brown one”). The only successful extended example I know in fiction is Thomas Mann’s riff on Beethoven’s Opus 111 in Doctor Faustus. Proust on Vinteuil is deaf and mute. Natural beauty — the flowers of Combray, the sea at Balbec — is equally important to Marcel. Another blank: Proust is no Thoreau.

#page#Sometimes Proust does what he intends, but he might better not have bothered. Marcel is both an invalid and a hypochondriac; medicine naturally provides him with hundreds of metaphors. These have aged badly, like Elizabethan discussions of humors. Sometimes what Marcel thinks was nonsense the day it was written. Love fills his thoughts — his own for two girls, Albertine and Gilberte, and the loves of friends of his, notably that of Charles Swann, a rich Jewish aesthete, for Odette de Crécy, his kept woman, later his wife. But Marcel believes that love does not exist: It is always a delusion, always at the wrong time for the wrong person, always an expense of suffering in a waste of shame. Marcel spends one novel keeping Albertine in his mother’s apartment — the longest slumber party in history. He spends most of that time wondering whether she is a lesbian. She seems to be, but she also seems genuinely to like him, and to want to make him happy. Of course he cannot notice that.

About homosexuality. Hurricane Gay will have to subside before we can assess the matter fairly. It certainly seemed to me that there was too much of it in Search. It was dismaying to realize that some gay obsessions (who is gay?) are a century old, as are the answers (everyone!).

When Proust is not saying too much, he says too little. He hyper-analyzes certain topics, such as jealousy, in a manner that is very French. But he is obtuse and incurious about others. He shows no interest in why his characters are what they are. The best Marcel can offer is steampunk science — when someone becomes gay, it is the hereditary gayness of his family manifesting itself, liked webbed feet in H. P. Lovecraft.

So what did I find? A surprisingly vivid sketch of Paris in World War I. Proust and Marcel turn out to be French patriots (you probably have to be a Francophile to like Search; I plead guilty). Parties. Give Proust a gathering, and he is home free. He is a master of the comedy of boredom, idiocy, and pretension. After reading him, these will never torment you so again. People. Marcel meets a lot of people, and Proust loves them all. Sometimes he loves them too much — he will sculpt a portrait, sharp as a Houdon bust, then mar it by hitting it with a hammer. This overwork damages Swann, and Odette and Marcel’s aristocratic young friend Robert de Saint-Loup. Proust rarely mars his secondary figures or his villains. The Duc de Guermantes and Madame Verdurin are monsters of selfishness; the Marquis de Norpois, a diplomat, is the perfect trimmer (D.C. is full of him; make sure, dear reader, that he is not you). Jupien, the ambitious waistcoat-maker, is another ideal type. Perhaps the most extraordinary character is the Baron de Charlus. We enjoy him because he is an adult baby: He wants what he wants, and he has (he thinks) the social position to get it. He sinks into the most abject vice. Yet in volume six we learn that he fought against sinking further: He turns out to be one of the few characters who is both moral and pious.

Marcel has the last word: “. . . if enough time was left to me to complete my work, my first concern would be to describe the people in it, even at the risk of making them seem colossal and unnatural creatures . . .” That’s worth a thousand and one nights.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

The Battle of Marja

February’s seizure of the Taliban stronghold called Marja, in Helmand Province, was the largest operation in the Afghan War since 2001. It was conducted by approximately 4,000 American and 1,500 ...
Politics & Policy

Kentucky Syndrome

In the mid-1990s, Kentucky was one of eight state governments that voluntarily adopted aspects of Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan even though the federal government had abandoned it. Insurance premiums in ...

Features

Politics & Policy

A Treaty for Utopia

On April 8, in Prague, the United States and Russia signed what they call the “New START” bilateral arms-control agreement, important specifics of which, in hallmark Obama-administration fashion (see health ...
Politics & Policy

Goodbye, Supply-Side

There are two schools of thought about the Reagan tax cuts. The conventional conservative view: They spurred investment, entrepreneurship, and real economic growth, helping to resuscitate the post-Carter economy, and, ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Vision of a Century

This excellent study of one of America’s greatest media pioneers is entirely consistent with the rigor and elegance of the large body of Prof. Alan Brinkley’s previous work. The book ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ So it turns out that Congress literally cannot even manage its own health care. ‐ When Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) voted for Obamacare, he had several excuses, their multiplicity ...
The Bent Pin

Cyber Psycho

Every Churchill biography contains the story about the Duke of Marlborough who finally discovered how to use a toothbrush. Getting ready for bed, he brushed his teeth but nothing happened. ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

THE TRUTH OF MATERIALS “ . . . Brancusi taught me the truth of materials.” – Isamu Noguchi In my father’s house is a propeller, Not a work of art, or nature, not steel Or ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

Bad Hand or Bad Play? If Ramesh Ponnuru were a fan of Butler’s basketball team, which came within inches of knocking off mighty Duke for the national title, he would be ...

Most Popular

Film & TV

A Film for All Christians

‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” wrote George Eliot in Middlemarch, “and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” The passage provides the title ... Read More
Film & TV

A Film for All Christians

‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” wrote George Eliot in Middlemarch, “and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” The passage provides the title ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The FBI’s Corrupt Cops

White-collar criminals should hope for one thing this Christmas: that they get to live under the Horowitz rules. Michael Horowitz has testified that he found no evidence of political bias on the part of the decision makers who, under the Obama administration, relied on hilariously implausible “evidence” ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The FBI’s Corrupt Cops

White-collar criminals should hope for one thing this Christmas: that they get to live under the Horowitz rules. Michael Horowitz has testified that he found no evidence of political bias on the part of the decision makers who, under the Obama administration, relied on hilariously implausible “evidence” ... Read More
White House

The Horowitz Report and the Power of Inertia

The best thing I've read about the report is by Julian Sanchez. An excerpt: The heart of the Horowitz report deals with the Carter Page FISA application, and documents a progression that ought to sound familiar to anyone who’s studied the history of the intelligence community: An investigation begins with a ... Read More
White House

The Horowitz Report and the Power of Inertia

The best thing I've read about the report is by Julian Sanchez. An excerpt: The heart of the Horowitz report deals with the Carter Page FISA application, and documents a progression that ought to sound familiar to anyone who’s studied the history of the intelligence community: An investigation begins with a ... Read More