“For a long time I would go to bed early,” begins Marcel, Proust’s narrator, and thus embarks on his 4,200-page epic, a narrative that is about to become a permanent fixture of my daily life.
It is both a quiet, inauspicious beginning and one weighted with deep importance. I have been told, both by Peter our beloved Comp. Lit. Advisor (whose general advice on Proust will appear in a later post), and in various introductions and guides to the novel, that these first few pages are enormously significant in the book’s trajectory. As simple and even dull as they seem, people say, read them over and over, for you will come back in several months or a year, and realize that, in some ways, the entire narrative is encapsulated in these introductory paragraphs.
These scenes where a childhood Marcel tosses and turns, recalling his inability to go to sleep (an insomnia which persists throughout the rest of his life), have a certain circular quality to them. He recollects this restlessness, the sounds outside his window and the glow of the candle beside his bed, the desperation to have his mother come upstairs and kiss him goodnight.
It seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V.
In my own way, these first few pages seem to contain a self-reflective element, to echo back a restlessness I myself cannot shake. At this particular point in my life, I am in a suspended state of sorts, waiting out my time at home until I can move to New York in a little over two weeks and start my job. College is over, real life (in a way) has not yet begun. And so I find myself drifting between these two worlds, dreaming of my freshly-painted apartment and missing my Hamilton single, sipping endless cups of iced coffee and listening to Ben Lee and Regina Spektor and trying with all of my might to enjoy being home, when I itch to get in my car and drive up I-95, yearn for the hum of the city and the morning slant of light on fire escapes as I walk down the long avenues. I wake in the night, unsure of where I am, and if I go to bed early, like Marcel, it is in the hope that the next day will come sooner than the last.
Suspension, waiting, memory all seem central to this narrative which I have only begun to explore. The extraordinary thing about Proust, as Nora and I recently discussed, is the fact that we both feel as if we know a great deal about In Search of Lost Time already, and yet neither of us really knows the plot. Certain elements—the daunting length of the narrative, the question of its autobiographical nature (the main character and the author share a name), the immortal Madeline which Marcel eats as an adult, and is immediately and vividly transported back to a moment in his childhood—are a part of our literary education. Yet, unlike so many canonical works (The Great Gatsby, Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men), the plot of In Search of Lost Time has not become widely known, and so we do not feel as if we have read the novel already. It is fresh, new, waiting to be discovered in a way few great works still are, and I am eager to see where the next year will take us, eager to climb out of bed, throw wide my curtains, and plunge into the bright and unknown dawn.
Until then, I can only keep reading.