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Great Stuff, Cheers: Flannery O’Connor and I Read Marcel Proust

In 1921, an American living in Rome wrote a letter to Marcel Proust. She tells him that for the past three years, she’s read nothing but In Search of Lost Time. This may lead one to surmise that she adores the seven-volume novel, but a fan letter this is not. Instead, she chastises the French novelist: “I don’t understand a thing, but absolutely nothing. Dear Marcel Proust, stop being a poseur and come down to earth. Just tell me in two lines what you really wanted to say.” If this reader found nothing in all of Proust’s writing, why then did she dedicate three years to it?

Literature is a bustling bevy of varying relationships: some last the length of a book or a poem or an essay—some only a paragraph or two. Others stretch on for years, decades even, and they shift and morph from platonic to romantic to antipathetic and back again. There is no monogamy here; the written word is polyamorous, pantextual. Literature goes on dates, trysts, booty calls; it rarely settles down. It is on-again-off-again. As in real-life relationships, we often spend the most time focused on people we don’t love or find reprehensible. But the feelings are deep and dense and rooted and real.

And just like love, the hold a literary relationship has on you is often inexplicable. Why, for instance, do I love reading Marcel Proust so much? Unlike the American in Rome, I see meaning bounding out of every line, but that alone doesn’t solve the mystery of why I’ve spent so much time (years, in fact) engulfed in Proust. On paper, his work shouldn’t interest me as much as it does. In Search of Lost Time spends the better part of its pages ruminating on fin de siècle Parisian society. It’s concerned with social status and regal hierarchy and does so in ever-snaking sentences that sometimes go on for so long you forget how it began (one of which, according to Alain de Botton, “would, if arranged along a single line in standard-sized text, run on for a little short of four metres and stretch around the base of a bottle of wine seventeen times”). Edmund Wilson refers to this as Proust’s “remarkable technical virtuosity”; a less generous reader might describe it differently. There is no plot to speak of, certainly not a dramatic one. Paragraphs stretch and bloat almost indiscriminately. The narrator also meditates on love and sex and art and life—but again: elaborate meditation does not a compelling narrative make. 

Yet I’ve read all seven volumes, all 4,215 pages, all 1,267,069 words of In Search of Lost Time, and although I now readily acknowledge it as one of my favorite works of art, I’m still hard-pressed to explain why. Much the way Swann can’t account for the depth of his love for Odette (“who was not my type!”), I’m at a loss about this love (though, unlike Swann, I don’t lament the pairing). So if I can’t accurately account for my fascination with Proust, maybe I can find answers in the way others experience his work. Judging by the sheer volume of critical scholarship and literary appreciation, my somewhat inexplicable adulation must be a common occurrence.

The Polish painter and writer Józef Czapski—who would later give lectures on Proust from memory while imprisoned in a Soviet camp in World War II; who, in other words, used his love of Proust to help him and his fellow prisoners survive the unimaginable—initially found Proust’s style to be excessive and gave up. Months later, after what translator Eric Karpeles describes as “the aftermath of a failed romance,” Czapski picked up In Search… again, and this time it stuck. In an interview with Charles Ruas, Gore Vidal suggests that he tried to read Proust in his twenties but “couldn’t” because “you have to be over thirty to enjoy Proust.” Both Czapski and Vidal persisted past their first impressions; why? This isn’t exactly a rare thing—I myself have given certain novels or writers multiple attempts. But with Proust, you find this kind of dynamic often. As Phyllis Rose opens her book The Year of Reading Proust, mimicking the opening line of Swann’s Way: “For a long time I used to try to read Proust. At first, I could not.” Yet there she was, years later, writing a whole book on him. 

The list of Proust devotees is formidable: Vladimir Nabokov greatly admired Proust and gave lengthy lectures on him; Virginia Woolf so envied Proust’s style that reading him, in biographer Hermione Lee’s words, “almost stops her writing”; Susan Sontag held Proust in very high regard, above even Joyce and Mann and Gide; and Samuel Beckett spent his summer vacation in 1928 rereading every volume of In Search… and wrote a book-length essay on Proust. These are titans of 20th-century literature and some of its most distinctive stylists, which promote Proust’s writing as much as it renders it wholly intimidating. Also, their love for Proust didn’t go through the kind of clumsy development that mine did.  

Perhaps the perfect exemplification of reading Proust comes from Flannery O’Connor. I’m not particularly a fan of O’Connor’s fiction, and I find her casual racism deplorable. What’s interesting to me is how exactly her experience with Proust mirrors mine. In The Habit of Being, a lengthy collection of O’Connor’s letters, one can trace the whole of O’Connor’s shifting relationship to In Search of Lost Time. In a letter to Betty Hester, a fan who became one of O’Connor’s most frequent correspondents (Hester wished to remain anonymous when the letters were initially published and is thus referred to in them as “A”), dated April 7, 1956, O’Connor laments that she’s “read Swann’s Way but not other Proust,” which she felt was “very uncultured of me, but I don’t see the day when I am going to rectify it.” Proust’s epic and challenging tome overwhelms; approaching it from the first pages’ deep valley suggests an enterprise too daunting to attempt. I read the first volume when I lived in Boston, the book another in my impossible laundry list of requisite classics. Although I enjoyed it quite a lot, I had no pretenses about endeavoring the subsequent entries. Reading Swann’s Way gave me a sense of what Proust was up to, I thought, which at the time seemed suitable enough.

In December 1960, four years after her lament to Hester, while hospitalized for complications with lupus, a friend bought O’Connor a two-volume edition of In Search of Lost Time. “I hope I’m not here long enough to read it,” she writes. On Christmas Eve, once again, writing to Hester, she writes, “I read 50 pages of Proust in the hospital and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.” Despite liking Swann’s Way, O’Connor didn’t expect the other books to compel her, which is another notion I understand and similarly believed. When I finally undertook In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the second volume, I was relieved and surprised by how engrossed I became in it. After reading Swann’s Way, I suspected that there wouldn’t be anything as compelling and narratively dramatic as its “Swann in Love” section. I wasn’t wrong: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, in its numerous digressions, lack of conventional plot, and its steadfast fidelity to its first-person account (whereas in “Swann in Love,” Marcel the narrator basically disappears to tell the third-person story of Swann’s marriage), more accurately reflects the tone and style and approach of the work as a whole. It had every potential to bore me, and instead of merely being tolerable, it was uniquely absorbing.

A month after her hospital stay, O’Connor tells James Tate, a military officer on duty in Iceland, that she is now “eating my way through [Proust’s novel] like a mole.” She thinks, “it would make good Iceland reading for either you or the Captain. Maybe you can keep him quiet with it.” A week later, she informs Hester that she’s 513 pages into it and that she “cain’t [sic] get over it.” By March, she’s recommending to the playwright Maryat Lee, “If you really want to read somebody, read Proust for pity’s sake.” But O’Connor isn’t merely suggesting that Lee sample Proust’s work. Rather, she says, “You have to read all 7 volumes before you get to see what he’s about.” She concludes by saying, “I am falling out of my chair.”

Any fan of Proust knows that the more you read, the more you become convinced of Proust’s genius. The scope and design of In Search of Lost Time can’t be fully appreciated until its finale, though the suggestion of its structure and intent can be tantalizingly glimpsed throughout. As I read The Guermantes Way and Sodom and Gomorrah, for instance, a rising suspicion grew in me that Proust didn’t merely write seven novels and call them one novel but rather that the expanse of his creative imagination constructed something massive and multiform but altogether singular and united. There are few sensations like the discovery of Proust’s momentous accomplishment, ingested piecemeal over the course of thousands of pages. 

O’Connor’s next phase is scholarship. In September 1961, she sends a copy of Samuel Beckett’s book-length essay “Proust” to Hester, suggesting that she read it first and is recommending it. Proust’s world contains hundreds of characters, explorations of real-life events (Richard Davenport-Hines calls ISOLT “a historian’s novel”), and in-depth examinations of aesthetics, politics, and sexual mores—undertaking contextual history and critical commentary is almost as crucial to reading Proust as the novels themselves. And since there exists a preposterously vast number of books and articles and essays and lectures on Proust, you can spend the rest of your life submerged in its dizzying plentitude. O’Connor mentions no other Proustian criticism, but she obviously perused some of it. I myself own dozens of books about Proust, his era, his contemporaries, and his writing. I can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. Partly this is due to my complete ignorance of Proust’s historical epoch; I want to grasp as completely as possible the nuances and contemporaneous allusions found in his fiction, which is a truly Herculean task. I may be reading Proustian analysis until I die.

But maybe not, if O’Connor is anything to go on. A year after mailing the Beckett to her friend, with some perspective gained in the interim, O’Connor mentions Proust one final time in a letter to Maryat Lee. Here is her ultimate assessment: “About old Proust. I read the whole bloody thing and liked the first books best and the last book. In the middle there were some drear spaces. As long as he kept it in society, it was strong; great stuff, cheers. I have no desire to read any of it again…”

Perhaps, with time, my infatuation with all things Proust will fade, perspective will be gained, and a more reasonable conclusion reached. Maybe with time, the books’ flaws will announce themselves more clearly, my attachment to their brilliance will dissipate, and my attention will become available to other aesthetic experiences. This is the only part of O’Connor’s journey with Proust I don’t relate to. As of this writing, I maintain an intense desire to read Proust, read Proustian analysis, read biographies, essays, letters, and interviews. 

Since In Search of Lost Time covers so many themes and topics, it’s not a surprise that Proust too considers this experience with an artist and suggests a similar fate as O’Connor does. In The Guermantes Way, the narrator characterizes a reaction to an original artist this way (here, specifically, Renoir):

To gain this sort of recognition, an original painter or an original writer follows the path of the occultist. His paintings or his prose acts upon us like a course of treatment that is not always agreeable. When it is over, the practitioner says to us, "Now look." And at this point the world (which was not created once and for all, but as often as an original artist is born) appears utterly different from the one we knew, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different from those we used to see, because they are Renoirs, the same Renoirs we once refused to see as women. The carriages are also Renoirs, and the water, and the sky: we want to go for a walk in a forest like the one that, when we first saw it, was anything but a forest—more like a tapestry, for instance, with innumerable shades of color but lacking precisely the colors appropriate to forests. Such is the new and perishable universe that has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a new painter or writer with an original view of the world.

So maybe some other writer’s “geological catastrophe” will one day untether me from the one unleashed by In Search of Lost Time, but for now, when I move through the world, all I see are Prousts.