And so the trek has begun: with the complete Remembrance of Things Past now in my possession, I’m a little over 150 pages of small print into Swann’s Way. As is appropriate for such a lengthy series, the thoughts about it are already flowing, and I’m sure I’ll lay down more than my fair share as I move through it. Other than the fact that I did, in fact, retain some vague memory of the protagonist’s intense fixation on his mother early in the book, what’s coming primarily to mind at present is this: the way in which I’m seeing similarity of endeavor between Proust’s grand send-up of detailed memory and two very different projects: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine.
The relationship to the first of those is most obvious, just by virtue of sheer size, although Knausgaard’s six-volume foray into his own life is more explicitly and purely autobiographical than is Proust’s saga. Or maybe it’s better to say that Knausgaard admits that, yes, this is me on the page, taking no effort to mask that fact, to protect himself or anyone associated with him from condemnation or any other reaction to what a reader finds in his writing. (Both authors have also received accusations of navel-gazing, and questions about why anyone should care about the minutiae of an individual’s everyday activities.) And in what may be more indicative of the preferences and protocols of contemporary literature than authorial style, the Norwegian author hardly ever (if ever, at least as far as I’ve gotten in the series, namely, through the fourth book) glosses over or euphemises the scenes he’s presenting. Sex is very clearly sex, and no detail is spared when depicting despicable or unflattering acts.
In Proust, though, there’s a certain coyness, or delicacy, or—I don’t know: a tendency, with particular times and types of literature, to speak in a sort of code that a certain class of reader will understand, but which is a bit, if not totally, confusing for an outsider. An example comes with the case of M. Vinteuil’s daughter, who’s shunned because she’s hanging out with an unacceptable woman—and I’m unsure whether it’s just because they’re ill-behaved, racing their carriage all over the place, or whether said woman is “fallen” and the two are lovers, a possibility that seems to be present, based on the main character’s seeing the two through a window (I guess) cuddling with each other. But it’s hard to understand whether these are just two girls being girls, or whether there’s something a little more risqué going on, all because the author won’t just come out and say it. I may, of course, just be dense—but I’m reminded of the case of one of the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude, who’s so prudish about telling her doctor what’s actually wrong with her that she speaks with such completely cryptic vocabulary that the poor physician has no idea what’s going on.
The comparison with The Mezzanine, now, has nothing at all to do with length, or even, ostensibly, topic. For one thing, Baker’s wonderful creation, the entirety of which takes place over the course of a lunch break and involves extended considerations of, for example, the laces on one’s shoes, is blessedly short. And now I’m wondering whether he intended it as such—if, in fact, he read Remembrance at some point and realized what I have: that such an incredibly dense and exhaustive presentation of detail is just too much, if carried on for too long. Proust’s nearly getting down to the granular level when telling us all about a stained-glass window and a tapestry is fine in itself—but these merely two paragraphs carried out over the course of two pages make up only a tiny percentage of an 1100-plus page book. (1)
It’s no wonder I have virtually no memory of having read Swann; there’s absolutely too much here to hold in one’s head, and the brain becomes overwhelmed with a swarm of details that completely overtake the general picture. I suddenly sympathized with the not-quite-up-to-it emperor in Amadeus, who criticized one of Mozart’s operas by saying, “There are, in fact, only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening… There are simply too many notes.” Of course, his advice to “just cut a few” would be equally as ridiculous when applied to Proust’s production—but what I feel sometimes in reading this book is the weight of certain technophiles who attempt to document and save every waking moment of their lives via digital extensions of themselves (first with lifelogging, and now just social media). The linked article in that sentence mentions “data fatigue,” and that phrase may be the best encapsulation I can summon when a particularly Proust-driven tiredness comes over me.
Of course, I think Proust, in his investigation of memory and how the world only carries on and truly shows itself and lives in and through memory, would have been intrigued by all of this recording of the moment. At the same time, I’m also guessing he would have seen it as a pale consolation prize for those who can’t truly pay attention to what they’re doing. In other words, I’ll assert that he would have felt sorry and/or sad for those people who spend their vacations taking pictures of their food and of themselves in particular landscapes, who spend family get-togethers and chidren’s recitals and ballgames filming the action, instead of actually experiencing and participating in the moment. It’s only because Proust (or his fictional stand-in) was fully immersed in the occasions he lived through and the places in which he found himself that he could recall with such clarity the things he experienced. In participating in what he was doing, he was going beyond mere lifelogging. Anyone can take a picture, he might have thought; anyone can save that picture and look back at it for recall—but only someone who’s experienced what was going on in that picture can bring back, unaided, the feeling and atmosphere of what happened there.
So: data fatigue, definitely. But I also don’t want to put the book down, and am drawn into the world Proust creates for us, especially when amid all the surplus of detail, you find beautiful, clear descriptions such as this one, with which I’ll leave you, of a rain shower coming in:
A little tap at the window, as though some missile had struck it, followed by a plentiful, falling sound, as light, though, as if a shower of sand were being sprinkled from a window overhead; then the fall spread, took on an order, a rhythm, became liquid, loud, drumming, musical, innumerable, universal. It was the rain. (2)
(1) This particular book contains vols. I–III of Remembrance. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 1: Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff (New York, Random House, 1934).
(2) ibid, 77.