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  • Re-reading Proust
  • Maxime Philippe (bio)

Georges Poulet has taught us to consider, in A la recherche du temps perdu, the juxtaposition of different temporal layers rather than the unmediated experience of an identity, given or recovered by an act of consciousness (involuntary memory, proleptic projection, etc.). The specificity of Proust's novel would instead be grounded in the play between a prospective and a retrospective movement. This alternating motion resembles that of reading, or rather that of the re-reading which the intricacy of every sentence as well as of the narrative network as a whole constantly forces upon us.1

I remember once striking out the sentence "every time I re-read Proust" from an article after it was met by the understandable reaction "how pretentious!" by one of my reviewers. But I daresay that I have read Proust several times, or at least some sentences, some passages and some volumes of his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. And maybe telling the story of my experience with Proust would help me atone for such a confession.

The first time that I picked up one of Proust's books was from the shelves of my secondary school's library. I had no idea who he was, but the title of the volume caught my attention: Swann's Way. There was a catchy tune by a Franco-Dutch singer from the seventies always airing on local radios bearing the same title. Why would someone write a song about that book? Reading from the summary, it was talking about a salon, there was something definitely Balzacian about it. I was reading Balzac at the time to impress people at first, then out of curiosity about the life of the characters which would appear in different novels and also out of identification with Rastignac and the likes. But Proust's story, as the gaudy illustration on the cover was suggesting, seemed more like a cheesy love story, possibly explaining the mood and some lyrics of the song. I was curious though about this contradictory Swann's character and his love for Odette. I borrowed the book.

I started to read it and I remember finding it particularly challenging. There were many references which I didn't get, there was something [End Page 120] really—yes—pretentious, bourgeois and pompous about it which I could not relate to. I persisted and read two thirds of it and got really into the story, particularly because of the psychological analysis of the characters, their contradictions. But after three renewals, I had to return the book. I never finished it. The impression, which lingered and which was not totally fair to my experience of reading, was that this book was not worth it. During the following years, in Summer, while camping, I would literally be put to sleep by a friend who was reading aloud the beginning of Proust's novel, starting famously with the sentence "for a long time, I went to bed early," while we were laughing at the sentences' intricacy and at the schoolboyish irony of this situation repeated over and over as a ritual.

I came back to Proust much later as several writers, filmmakers, professors and friends whom I liked and admired were raving about him. I wanted to understand why they revered him and I remember being hooked by a friend reading a passage from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower describing Charlus's refined way of dressing and practically outing Charlus to the happy few, in particular by singling out the red lining in his black pants. There seemed to be such a red lining running through the entire novel. How had I not seen it? This book was filled with surprises and characters always revealing themselves differently from what they seemed to be. This character, Charlus, that I had heard about and appreciated particularly in the first opus because of his intelligence, taste and kindness for Odette and Swann, was completely different from what he had seemed to be, or rather he was composed of multiple layers which were in constant movement, bringing different signs to the surface of his shimmering personality which I...


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pp. 120-125
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