Through four years of undergraduate study in English literature, Proust somehow evaded me. Or rather I avoided him. I watched numerous classmates and friends flip eagerly through the pages of Swann’s Way, but I decided to stick with Joyce as far as my scholarly impulses towards early twentieth century epic fiction were concerned. I did, however, promise myself that I’d get around to reading In Search of Lost Time (or at least the first two volumes of it) after graduation.
Of course six months after receiving my diploma, I was no closer to encountering Marcel Proust than I had been while I was still in school. Needless to say my interest was piqued when I heard about The Proust Project, a collection of writings from twenty-eight authors each asked to comment on his or her favorite passage from In Search of Lost Time.
Edited by Andre Acimen, The Proust Project contains musings from a wide range of writers, professors and historians, some seasoned pundits of Proustian criticism, and others, up-and-coming authors. From novelists and poets to attorneys and publishers, not to mention a slew of Harpers and New Yorker contributors, the book offers a variety of unique perspectives, some extremely personal and others more academic in tone. Passages and criticism are arranged chronologically and each section is preceded by a brief synopsis of its corresponding portion of text.
Not long after I began The Proust Project, it became clear that this book was not meant for readers unfamiliar with the Proustian apparatus, nor for those yet to develop some sort of empathetic devotion to the prolific author. Rather, it celebrates the very act of discovering Proust, an occasion Acimen likens to “wandering through a totally unfamiliar land and finding it peopled with kindred spirits and sister souls and fellow countrymen.” With that said, for those who have not “discovered” Proust, the experience of reading The Proust Project will most likely be that of a stranger.
Contrary to the edicts of literary criticism, The Proust Project examines the relationship between reader and subject, subject and author, and consequently reader and author. Acimen writes:
Ask any literature majors in college and they will instantly remind you that the first two things to do when thinking critically about a work of literature is to banish all references to its author’s life and all references to ours. But this is precisely the problem with Proust. The Search is a novel about someone’s past that allows us-indeed invites us and ultimately compels us-to graft, to “bookmark” our own past onto his.
The Proust Project relies heavily on nostalgia, without which one may not understand what these various writers are trying to convey about their emotional, psychological and scholarly attachments to a single novel. But this should not dissuade Proustian novices or even beginners from exploring this diverse collection of criticism and prose. Rather it may help inquisitive minds determine whether or not Proust’s epic work is in fact worth the time they will lose should they choose to read it.
As per Acimen’s account of “discovering” Proust, most of the contributors make experience itself the subject of their essays. Judith Thurman claims that Proust’s was a soul, “weak with hunger for experience and sensation.” Among the experiences one will encounter while reading The Search are death, jealousy, revelation, sexual desire, recollection and fandom. Translator Lydia Davis explores the experience of literary creation, while historian Olivier Bernier analyzes Proust’s integration of art and reality and our individual relationships with works of literature, “in which our personality, our experience, enrich our judgment.”
Even essays dealing with more material literary devices cannot escape the grip of empiricism, and often venture into the metaphysical realm. Richard Howard’s discussion of Proust’s famously long sentences for example, reads like the elaboration of some existential crisis. According to Howard, Proustian sentences are, “all concerned to unite our experience of the physical world to our interpretation, our understanding, our interior possession of that world in a grammatical reticulation of limitless resource.” Similarly, Susan Minot writes, “Each sentence seemed to lift off the page with a kind of divine truth.” Hyperbolic as they may seem, such claims do effectively demonstrate these individuals’ commitment to the author, as well as revealing the life-altering consequences his novel has produced for them.
The most interesting writings in the collection are the essays on homosexuality and anti-Semitism and those on the novel’s use of music. Edmund White analyzes a series of conflicting theories of homosexuality and anti-Semitism in a passage from Sodom and Gomorrah, illustrating the manner in which Proust, “overtly subscribe[d] to the to the prejudices of his day [while] covertly undermining them.” Jonathan Burnham and Jeremy Eichler both selected a passage from The Captive in which Marcel bears witness to a symphony. Burnham examines the uplifting effect music has on the narrator, which affords him “happiness above and beyond the illusive rewards of love.” Similarly Eichler, a classical music critic for The New York Times, underscores a tension between the private and public acts of listening, reminding us that in both cases, “powerful works can draw us blissfully away from ourselves and into another state of mind.”
For the individuals whose reflections comprise this study, the writings of Proust are indeed examples of such works, and their personal experiences of reading The Search are testaments of the novel’s transcendent capacity. With that said, while The Proust Project may not be an effective introductory tool, it is an imperative read for anyone who is deeply passionate about this novel.