By Dennis Abrams
As you might have noticed, we here at Publishing Perspectives have a special fondness for Marcel Proust and his masterwork, In Search of Lost Time. (See our complete guide to Proust, “The Cork Lined Room”, other articles here and here and here.) So we were especially pleased to see, in the New York Review of Books 50th anniversary edition, an interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer celebrating Proust and his work in honor 100th anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way.
I read the “Recherche” when I was working as a legal intern at an American law firm in Paris. I was trying to learn French, so I read all seven volumes in French. Every night I drew up vocabulary index cards with lists of the new words that I’d learned from Proust. But luckily I found that the lists became shorter and shorter as I made my way deeper into the book! In any case, it was with Proust’s work that I first began to read authors in the original French. And that was something I continued with other French authors.
in that period of my life, I had plenty of time and I could afford to devote myself to that challenging text. I had no final exams to study for, no particular pressure at all. And for that matter, once I reached the end of the Recherche, I immediately reread it. Which is something that happens, I believe, to many readers. In “Time Regained,” it becomes clear that everything you’ve read up to this point constitutes the inner journey of a man who aspires to become a writer and finally finds his subject, his material: himself and the whole of his life, during which he was convinced that he had lost, or wasted, his time. At that point, you feel the urge to reread the book in order to better understand this inner journey.
It’s all there in Proust—all mankind! Not only all the different character types, but also every emotion, every imaginable situation. Proust is a universal author: he can touch anyone, for different reasons; each of us can find some piece of himself in Proust, at different ages. For instance, the narrator of the Recherche is obsessed with the Duchesse de Guermantes. To him, Oriane embodies a slice of the history of France and glows like a stained-glass window, wreathed in the aura of her aristocratic lineage. Now, however different the situations may be, we have all of us—in our childhood, our adolescence, or later in life—admired from afar someone who has dazzled us for this reason or that. And when we read Proust, we get a glimpse of ourselves. In fact, I think that the only human emotion he never explored—because he never experienced it himself—was that of becoming a father.
What is most extraordinary about Proust is his ability to capture the subtlest nuances of human emotions, the slightest variations of the mind and the soul. To me, Proust is the Shakespeare of the inner world.
What I especially remember is the meditation on the passing of time at the very end of that volume, when the narrator strolls through the Bois de Boulogne just as Odette used to do so many years before. But the forest he walks through is no longer Odette’s forest. Time has passed. Women are no longer dressed the same way, the fashion has changed, automobiles have made their appearance. And as he watches the women promenade down the chestnut-lined allées, the narrator wonders: “Where has Odette’s world gone? Has it vanished forever?” The answer of course will come much later, in “Time Regained.” This world still exists, but it does so in our memory, in our recollections, and what gives it new life, what rescues it from oblivion, is literary creation. It is the work of art that allows us to rediscover lost time.
Read the entire interview (originally conducted in French by Ioanna Kohler for La Revue des Deux Mondes), including Judge Breyer’s thoughts on the crucial role literature plays in democracy here.