The other evening, I pulled from the shelf the sixth and last volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or to use the Scott-Moncrieff translation, still evocative across the Anglophone countries with their Shakespearean heritage, Remembrance of Things Past. This volume, Finding Time Again, in the awkward 2002 translation of Ian Patterson, or Time Regained, still so in my mind from Scott Moncrieff’s 1920s translation, is the culmination and summation of Proust’s long circumambulation through the illusions of society, friendship, love, introversion, aestheticism and misguided ways through literature. It is in Time Regained that Proust makes his ultimate discovery within himself, within his own experience, of his redemption through literature, memory and the synthesis of subjective perception with the sensual world.
“Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as in the artists. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it… Thanks to art, instead of seeing only a single world, our own, we see it multiplied, and have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, all more different one from another than those which resolve in infinity and which, centuries after the fire from which their rays emanated has gone out, whether it was called Rembrandt or Vermeer, still send us their special light.” Proust, Finding Time Again, p. 204
This identification of life and literature occurs as a consequence of the realisation of time regained through the involuntary memories that transport the narrator beyond the constraints of past and present. The narrator stumbles on the cobblestones as he leaves his coach, and he regains the sensation and perception, enclosed within a memory, of his past and ever-changing self, searching the streets of Venice for the experience of John Ruskin’s ideas of beauty. It is the turning point that allows Proust or the narrator of In Search of Lost Time to put aside his doubts about his literary ability, his many diversions, his weak will grounded in the indulgence of his mother, and set down to write.
But it is not an aestheticization of life so much as inundation of literature by life. The processes of perception and symbolisation that Proust recreates throughout In Search of Lost Time are not those of writers or artists alone. They are processes available to all ordinary people. They are ways of seeing, and moral challenges – to see life aright, finally uncovered and clarified – we all know, even if we all do not give ourselves over to the vocation of documenting the unique tapestries of experience, symbol and mind that is great literature.
“The book whose characters are forged within us, rather than sketched by us, is the only book we have.” p 188.
Why did I choose to pull Time Regained from the shelf now? The death of my mother has prompted reflection on memory, old age, death and the disappearance of treasured worlds – and these are all themes in the great coda to In Search of Lost Time Proust composed in Time Regained. I recalled, as I read the book again, the sunny, spacious room in a Victorian terrace, with a rush mat floor and a view onto nothing but another terrace’s wall, in which, in my early twenties, I read all of Proust with the fervour of seeking an aesthetic philosophy of life, just as perhaps Proust sought in Ruskin. All that was so strange and unfamiliar for me in Proust – the life of the French aristocracy in La Belle Époque, the flowers and landscapes of Europe, the Romanesque churches and the travel to Venice, the Dreyfus Affair and the demoralisation French society by world war one – created a beautiful pageantry for me, but the heart of the drama was the long delayed realisation of the vocation of the writer.
For years I have felt – like Proust’s narrator in the time before he enters fatefully he Guermantes library, and conceives the great artwork he will live and die for – that:
“I now had proof that I was no longer good for anything, that literature could no longer bring me any joy, whether through my own fault, because I was not talented enough, or through the fault of literature, if it was indeed less pregnant with reality than I had thought.” (Time Regained, p. 174)
And when I pulled Finding Time Again from myself, I recreated Proust’s own act of taking from the shelf of the Guermantes library Georges Sand’s Francois Le Champi, which his mother had read to him long into the night to soothe his anxiety, and recovered the magic of art and story-telling and memory within the deep mind of the house of culture.