B1 Intermediate US 1974 Folder Collection
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Marcel Proust was an early 20th century French writer responsible for what's officially the longest novel in the world:
"A la recherche du temps perdu" (In search of Lost Time).
which has 1.2 million words in it, double those in "War and Peace" .
The book was published in French in 7 volumes over 14 years,
and was immediately recognized to be a masterpiece, ranked by many as the greatest novel of the century,
or, simply, of all time.
What makes it so special is that it isn't just a novel in the straight narrative sense.
it's a work that intersperses genius level descriptions of people and places
with the whole philosophy of life. The clue is in the title:
"In search of lost time". The book tells the story of one man
a thinly disguised version of Proust himself, in his ongoing search for the meaning and purpose of life
it recounts his quest to stop wasting time
and to start to appreciate existence
Marcel Proust wanted his book to help us above all
His father, Adrien Proust, had been one of the great doctors of his age
responsible for wiping out cholera in France
towards the end of his life, his frail, indolent son Marcel, who had lived on his inheritance
and had disappointed his family by never taking up a regular job
told his housekeeper Celeste
if only I could to humanity as much good with my books
as my father did with his work
the good news is that he amply succeeded
Proust's novel charts the narrator's systematic exploration of three possible sources of the meaning of life.
the first is social success
Proust was born into a comparable bourgeois household,
but from his teens, he began to think that the meaning of life
might lie in joining high society, which in his day meant, the world of aristocrats, of dukes, duchesses and princes.
but if you convert this to the present day, that would mean celebrities.
For years, the narrator devotes his energies to working his way up the social hierarchy
and because he's charming and erudite, he eventually becomes friends with lynchpins of Parisian high society
the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes
But a troubling realisation soon dawns on him
These people are not the extraordinary paragons he imagined they would be
The Duc's conversation is boring and crass
The Duchesse, though well mannered, is cruel and vain
Marcel tires of them and their circle
He realises that virtues and vices are scattered throughout the population without regard to income or renown
He grows free to devote himself to a wider range of people
Though Proust spends many pages lampooning social snobbery
it's in a spirit of understanding and underlying sympathy
it's a highly natural error, especially when one is young.
to suspect that there might be a class of superior people somewhere out there in the world
and that our lives might be dull principally
because we don't have the right contacts.
But Proust's novel offers us definitive reassurance: life is not going on elsewhere
there is no party where the perfect people are
The second thing that Proust's narrator investigates in his quest for the meaning of life
is love
In the second volume of the novel
the narrator goes off to the seaside with his grandmother
to the voguish resort of Cabourg (the Barbados of the times)
There he develops an overwhelming crush on a beautiful teenage girl called Albertine
She has short hair, a boyish smile and a charming, casual way of speaking
For about 300 pages, all the narrator can think about is Albertine
The meaning of life surely must lie in loving her
But with time, here too, there's disappointment
The moment comes when the narrator is finally allowed to kiss Albertine
Man, a creature clearly less rudimentary than the sea-urchin or even the whale
nevertheless lacks a certain number of essential organs
and particularly possesses none that will serve for kissing
For this absent organ, he substitutes his lips
and perhaps he thereby achieves a result slightly more satisfying
than caressing his beloved with a horny tusk
The ultimate promise of love, in Proust's eyes
is that we can stop being alone and properly fuse our life with that of another person
who will understand every part of us
But the novel comes to darker conclusions
no one can fully understand anyone
Loneliness is endemic
We're awkwardly, lonely pilgrims trying to give each other tusk-kisses in the dark
This brings us to the third and only successful candidate for the meaning of life:
For Proust, the great artists deserve acclaim
because they show us the world in a way that is fresh, appreciative, and alive
The opposite of art for Proust is something he calls habit
For Proust, much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity
that descends between us and everything that matters
habit dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything
from the beauty of a sunset to our work and our friends
Children don't suffer from habit
which is why they get excited by some very key but simple things
like puddles, jumping on the bed, sand or fresh bread
But we adults get spoilt about everthing
which is why we seek ever more powerful stimulants (like fame and love)
The trick, in Proust's eyes
is to recover the powers of appreciation of a child in adulthood
to strip the veil of habit and therefore
to start to appreciate daily life with a new sensitivity
This for Proust is what one group in the population does all the time
Artists are people who know how to strip habit away
and return life to its true deserved glory
for example, when they show us water lilies or service stations or buildings in a new light
Proust's goal isn't that we should necessarily make art
or be someone who hangs out in museums all the time
the idea is to get us to look at the world, our world
with some of the same generosity as an artist
which would mean taking pleasure in simple things
like water, the sky or a shaft of light on a piece of paper
It's no coincidence that Proust's favourite painter was Vermeer
a painter who knew how to bring out the charm and the value of the everyday
the spirit of Vermeer hangs over his novel
it too is committed to the project of reconciling us to the ordinary circumstances of life
and some of Proust's most compelling pieces of writing
describe the charm with the everyday like reading in a train
driving at night, smelling the flowers in spring time
and looking at the changing light of the sun on the sea
Proust is famous for having written about the dainty little cakes the French call 'madeleines'
The reason has to do with his thesis about art and habit
Early on in the novel, the narrator tells us
that he'd been feeling depressed and sad for a long while
when one day he had a cup of herbal tea and a madeleine
and suddenly the taste carried him powerfully back
(in the way that flavours sometimes can)
to years in his childhood when as a small boy
he spent his summers in his aunt's house in french countryside
A stream of memories comes back to him, and fills him with hope and gratitude
Thanks to the madeleine
Proust's narrator has what has since become known as
a moment of sudden involuntary and intense remembering
when the past promptly emerges unbidden from a smell, a taste or a texture
Through its rich evocative power
what the Proustian moment teaches us is that life isn't necessarily dull and without excitement
it's just one forgets to look at it in the right way
we forget what being alive
fully alive, actually feels like.
The moment with the tea is pivotal in the novel
because it demonstrates everything Proust wants to teach us
about appreciating life with greater intensity
it helps as narrator to realize that it isn't his life which has been mediocre
so much as the image of it he possessed in normal, that is voluntary memory
Proust writes
The reason why life may be judged to be trivial
although at certain moments it seems to us so beautiful
is that we form our judgment ordinarily not on the evidence of life itself
but in its quite different images
which preserve nothing of life
and therefore we judge it disparagingly
that's why artists are so important
Their work is like one long Proustian moment
they remind us that life truly is beautiful, fascinating and complex
and thereby they dispel our boredom and our ingratitude.
Proust's philosophy of art is delivered in a book
which is itself exemplary of what he's saying
It's a work of art that brings the beauty and interest of the world back to life
Reading it, your senses are reawakened
a thousand things you normally forget to notice are brought to your attention
he makes you for a time, as clever and as sensitive as he was
and for this reason alone, we should be sure to read him
and 1.2 million words he assembled for us
thereby learn to appreciate existence before it's too late.
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LITERATURE - Marcel Proust

1974 Folder Collection
Priscilla published on September 7, 2018    Priscilla translated    Evangeline reviewed
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