Time Regained: Reflections on Proust

I’ve been revisiting some literary favorites of my past lately, and I had considered reconvening with Proust for a few months (and frequently while reading the My Struggle series) when I stumbled upon How Proust Can Change Your Life. On first pass, these short and often superficial “self-help” books seem a bit stupid, but last year I happened to read How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (obviously different author). I enjoyed it. A younger me would have been annoyed by the ability, these days, for people to glean what I at the time found to be fairly hard-won knowledge (reading In Search of Lost Time in its entirety, or even Wealth of Nations is no easy feat). These days I’m as pleased that literature’s life lessons come easy as I am that some of my dorkier and more childish amusements: narwhals, unicorns, etc., are ever more popular, and nerdy unicorn shit is readily available everywhere. I want people to like the same shit I do; it increases my ease of access.

One might think it’s a waste of time to revisit books you’ve already read, but I read most classics in high school to stave off tremendous boredom and monotony (and to get a sense of the world outside of my own, having finished high school in rural New York). By the time I graduated, I had read hundreds of classics, many of which resonate on new frequencies nearly 20 years later. In Search of Lost Time was never a favorite in the way Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness have been favorites, but it is no less important, and Proust has likely contributed more to the outcome of my life thus far, and how I live, than have Melville or Conrad. I have never had a soft spot for French culture, and the social conventions of the 1900s gross me out, especially in Europe, which had a strict and petty class system. Proust himself, much like Karl Ove Knausgard (who has been called Norway’s Proust), is not entirely likeable, and his narrator Marcel even less so.  Proust (and Marcel) were completely helpless basket cases… Proust was exceptional in his sense of grace, his generosity to his friends, his refusal to be bitter as a result of his seemingly countless handicaps, whether they were real or he was just a self-indulgent hypochondriac, a spoiled metrosexual from a wealthy family who never needed to have a job to be comfortable. Like most French things, he contains zero masculinity. Somewhat predictably, he was gay. Marcel, his narrator, was not.

And yet, living in the shadow of his famous doctor father, it could easily be argued Proust’s life’s work provided as much benefit to the world: his seven-volume series is a timeless masterpiece. I thought this at sixteen, in my twenties, and now at 35. Proust is the only reason I would ever learn French (I never have, but to read In Search of Lost Time in French would be enough, as it is unbelievably beautiful even after being translated). And while I will probably not be revisiting the entire series, I just finished Swann’s Way, which is to me easily the best of the seven. There are many, many other things to be taken from this series (his reflections on love, on authenticity versus the representation of the ideal in art, essential truth and who people really are) and I am really only going down one road here in this post.

I sat in my kitchen and read How Proust Can Change Your Life in one afternoon last weekend (listening to Alcest, may as well keep everything as French as possible). This book is timely, considering what is happening in the world: something (a lot, actually) can be said for staying home and appreciating the little things — the comfort of your own bed, the meals you eat every day, the walks through the neighborhood. For me, also living in Alaska, a place I would have never dreamed of eeking out a prosperous existence in a million years. The experience of reading. The time you have to reflect on your life, and yourself. People don’t always make time for these things, and we have all regained it (time) in this pandemic.

How Proust Can Change Your Life is broken up into the following chapters:

  1. How to Love Life Today
  2. How to Read for Yourself
  3. How to Take Your Time
  4. How to Suffer Successfully
  5. How to Express Your Emotions
  6. How to Be a Good Friend
  7. How to Open Your Eyes
  8. How to be Happy in Love
  9. How to Put Books Down

Some of these chapters are more memorable than others, and #1-3 (and #7) are probably the most prevalent, and Proust’s largest claims to fame. The book is lighthearted but thoughtful. Returning to Proust has really helped me weather the world today: in a time when many of my colleagues and some of my friends are struggling feeling trapped, bored, confined, are unemployed, running out of money, depressed, I have been relishing very simple pleasures. I don’t know if this skill comes with age, if it comes with natural introversion, relative financial stability, or emotional stability. Books have always been among my top sources of comfort, and Proust’s love for literature made his work possible. There were some interesting takeaways in this book (among the more general Proustian lessons):

  • Through books, you encounter more people via characters, and develop a broader sense and understanding of the world, and of human nature. You build tolerance and empathy.
  • You recognize yourself, and learn about yourself through books, as who you are is reflected into your perception of what you’re reading.
  • People in past eras seem like aliens to us, but books show you that human nature has been fundamentally static through time.
  • Human experience is often vulnerable to abbreviation, and that abbreviation often detracts from what actually took place.
  • You can distill a long story into a headline, but you can pull a beautiful, lengthy narrative out of one as well: it’s almost unimportant what happens… what’s important is how you construct that narrative. The author made an example of Anna Karenina: “a young mother threw herself under a train and died in Russia after domestic problems.”
  • Seemingly superficial thoughts can inspire incredibly complex, deep ones that are barely if at all related to their origins.
  • Feeling things (painfully) is often linked to acquisition of knowledge: “we don’t really learn anything until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped.”
    • We become properly inquisitive only when distressed.
    • Only when plunged into grief do we confront difficult truths.
  • Cliches are superficial articulations of very good ones (this sounds obvious but the lengthy part of this book that talks about cliches is actually pretty fascinating).
  • Happiness may emerge from taking a second look (I’ll stop here, you get the picture… this is from “How to Open Your Eyes”).

I’ve been reflecting on this last point over the past few weeks specifically. When the shutdown of the world began, I wondered how I would feel, having spent the last near-decade of my life traveling almost constantly. I wondered if I’d be able to revert to more of a homebody, to someone who could appreciate simple and domestic pleasures. I’ve slept in my own bed every night for over a month now: this is the longest I have consistently remained where I live in a very long time. I have weathered a few periods where I went into self-imposed hermit mode and immersed myself in books; to my surprise I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed it as much as I am enjoying it now, for a variety of reasons.

When I was a kid I wanted to see everything the world had to offer, and as I got older I grew to appreciate my immediate surroundings and the present instead of only hoping for what was to come, what I had on the books, what trips I had coming up, though travel plans have always motivated me. I find these days in the midst of what could be months of sleeping in my own bed and not being on an airplane, that I’ve begun to wring every bit of enjoyment out of some daily rituals: taking a searing hot shower after walking the dog a few miles out in the cold; switching out lotion and body wash to enjoy different smells daily; digging into the back of my tea cabinet for some more expensive stuff I’ve been saving for a rainy day. I think many of us have also found enjoyment in food: whereas my roommate has channeled some of his energy into cooking, I seem to have returned to extremely modest staples of my youth: steel cut oats; mac & cheese in a box; saltine crackers; honey (a food I typically hate). I was relieved yesterday to see that the Eastern European store in Anchorage is still open, as this weekend my family would typically be together eating pierogies for Easter. We will be convening on video chat instead. We (he and I) are also both originally from New Jersey, so we’ve returned to our Jersey roots: Taylor Ham, Italian food (my favorite is Italian wedding soup; his is eggplant parmesan). We have both, to some extent, been sustained and comforted by memories. Living a rich life insures your future against boredom, as you are unlikely to run out of nostalgic moments, opportunities to reflect on your experiences, big and small, pleasurable and not so.

Where this comes back to Proust is that really taking heed of some of these rituals has allowed me to reflect on my life: I told a friend recently that when I was a kid, my father would drag us out to ski on weekend mornings (I hated this as I wanted to sleep in like a normal kid after getting up at the ass-crack of dawn every morning during the week)… the liftlines became busy around 11-11:30am and we would turn in after freezing our asses off for a few hours on the heap of ice and rock we call “resorts” in the Northeast. I’d immediately take a burning hot shower afterwards. I loved that experience even more than I loved the hours before I had been burning laps on the mountain… the scalding water on my cold, red lobster-colored skin. I found a small tin of almond-scented lotion recently and was thinking about how that smell reminds me of eagerly awaiting, as a small kid, Stella D’oro almond toast at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey. Those little almond toasts were so exotic to me at that time in my life; my grandparents’ house was so peaceful, and they were so interesting. I always loved that smell: almond, amaretto, and also Sambuca (I have the same endless love for anise and fennel for this reason)… it always reminded me of them. And this — these moments in time unlocked by repeating them, by a smell or a sensation so many years later — is the Proustian experience, and so much of what gives life meaning. My grandfather died suddenly, shortly after I moved up here, and I could not go home for his funeral, but I found myself at times adding a splash of Sambuca to my coffee in the months after he was gone. That single smell, the mix of Sambuca and coffee, contained a childhood of memories. I could hold onto him. I still can.

I don’t know what value all of this has other than it puts my entire life in perspective. Who is anyone without all of these experiences? And as Proust says at times, the origin of the memory isn’t particularly special when it happens… until you remember it and realize how much it defines you and brings joy to your life. Many times earlier in my life I felt there was nothing worth remembering: when I moved up here and realized I would have to make my own traditional food on holidays… when I could not find a single good Italian restaurant… when there were Mormons and evangelical Christians instead of Jews… I gained a unique perspective on my life and the formative experiences I had earlier taken for granted, because even having finished high school in a rural area, I was born into and further exposed to so much culture; my family held onto a lot of tradition, from my mother’s Swedish and Italian parents, and my father’s Carpathian ones. They grew up in microcosms of their roots: Italian-American New Jersey, and heavily Carpatho-Rusyn Northeast PA. I’ve missed that diversity deeply living up here, as well as the passive, peaceful presence of Judaism, which to me is easily the least tyrannical Judeo-Christian group. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…or until you have to make your own golubtsi, or seeing an Orthodox Jew in the post office is a total aberration when it used to be ordinary.

I realize fully that on top of all of this, to have the brain space to consider these things is not so much a privilege, but it did require years of hard work, diligence and discipline (and luck… luck is important). To be a person who can really enjoy this time, to be unafraid of shelter in place because my home life is warm, comfortable, peaceful, is not a mental (or literal) space in which I have always lived. Proust had the same, though it was privilege — his parents were wealthy, he was doted on by his mother — the end result is the same. Without the mental, emotional, intellectual space to ponder these things, of course you’re unhappy, afraid, and miserable, as all of your energy is put forth into survival. I think, to some extent, people with plenty a-safety net are blind to these simple delights, though, and I am grateful to not be one.

This blog’s contents have become increasingly personal, and while I’ve avoided doing so in the past. No regrets.. for now.

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