The Discovery of Oneself: An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn
July 1, 2014 | by Ioanna Kohler
Last year, the French magazine La Revue des Deux Mondes published an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn about his experiences reading Proust as part of a special issue on “Proust vu d’Amérique.” We’re pleased to present an English version of the interview here, translated from the French by Anna Heyward.
In Time Regained, Proust writes, “In reality every reader is, when he reads, the reader of his own self. The work of the writer is just a kind of optical instrument that is offered to the reader to permit him to discern that which, without the book in question, he could not have seen within himself.” You read Proust for the first time when you were a Classics student at the University of Virginia. What did you feel then?
Discovering Proust was a real shock—the shock of recognition. I was twenty, and my encounter with this novel gave me a shock that, I believe, is felt by every gay person reading Proust for the first time. It was remarkable to understand that the unsatisfied desires and the erotic frustrations I harbored had not only been felt by someone else—much bigger news in 1980 than today, it’s worth remembering—but, even more extraordinarily, had been made the subject of a great book. And yet, interestingly, when I read Swann’s Way, it wasn’t any specific description of homosexual desire that touched me—that theme is treated much more fully in a later volume, as we know—but something much more general, the novel’s description of unreciprocated desire and, above all, the astounding revelation, or perhaps confirmation, for me, that desire can’t endure its own satisfaction. We see that exemplified in Swann in Love. When Swann succeeds in physically possessing Odette, when she ceases to escape him, his desire for her vanishes. For me, yes, that was a revelation as well as a recognition of something I was feeling in my own early erotic encounters.
And then I had another kind of shock. Thanks to Proust, I found a certain consolation in thinking that all artistic creation is a substitute for erotic frustration and disappointment. That art feeds on our failures. Back then, I remember thinking to myself, I can’t get what I want anyway—by which, at the time, I meant that it didn’t seem possible to have a fulfilled “romantic” life—so I may as well become a writer.
Some readers feel the need to dive straight back into In Search of Lost Time as soon as they’ve finished reading the seven volumes of the book. Was that the case for you?
No. On the contrary, when I read it that first time, and in fact every time I’ve read it since, I need time to absorb it, to let it resonate, or perhaps percolate. After a sentence, a moment, as magnificent as the ones that end Time Regained¹, I find it difficult to return to any reading at all. You feel everything has been said. On the other hand, I’ve reread In Search of Lost Time about every ten years since I was twenty. I’m a little over fifty now, and so I suppose it’s high time I start my fourth reading.
Have these successive readings brought you closer to Proust’s work?
No, I don’t think it’s a question of proximity to the text. Rather, I think that something different can be found in the text each time. To use the Proustian metaphor that you evoked, each reading of Proust is a bit like a visit to the optician—depending on which pair of lenses you’re given to try, you’re either capable or incapable of distinguishing a pattern or a letter projected onto a screen in the dark. Successive readings of Proust are like those different sets of lenses—with each one, you see something different. For instance, when I was twenty, so much of French culture escaped me. I was inexperienced, I had never left the U.S. The whole Proustian world of Faubourg Saint-Germain and of Combray went straight over my head. I was incapable, for example, of understanding the type of person that Françoise represented in French heritage—the earthy peasant type that comes with the social territory, so to speak. Today, I’m not the same person I was when I was twenty. I have all the experience of a life. I’m also well traveled and I know France well, I have many friends living there, and so I understand French culture much better than I did thirty years ago and can appreciate aspects of Proust’s novel I couldn’t before. On the other hand, it must be said that I will never again feel the amazement I felt on my first reading of In Search of Lost Time. It’s an aesthetic experience that you only have once in your life.
The richness of the book is such that it seems impossible to be aware, in just a single reading, of the layers of meaning, the themes that unfold—
There’s a parallel with The Odyssey, about which I’m writing a book at the moment. Like The Odyssey, In Search of Lost Time is a complete work, a text that doesn’t reveal its full meaning in a single reading. To my mind, that is the definition of a true work of art. If you manage to get everything out of a book in a single go, the author can’t have said that much. But Homer, like Proust, is an author who can accompany us through the entire length of a life. Everything is in Homer. Everything is in Proust.
Is there a particular character that stands out for you?
Odette de Crécy, without question. Not because she would be my “favorite,” and certainly not because she’s the most interesting or admirable or complex, but because she represents, to me, a completely realized character. It’s as though Odette emerges from the text in a three-dimensional form. I can imagine her existence beyond the context of In Search of Lost Time. She is a whole entity, she functions so remarkably, which is something that can’t be said for all Proustian characters. Take Oriane de Guermantes, for example—I can’t imagine her outside the book. In my opinion, she doesn’t represent much more than an assemblage of traits that characterize the aristocracy. I feel the same about Albertine, whose relationship to the Narrator, with its obsessisive possessiveness and deep frustrations, is clearly meant to reflect the relationship between Swann and Odette. To me, Albertine is an abstraction, a “notion,” her sole purpose is to crystallize the obsessive thoughts of the narrator. She is a coat hook on which Proust has hung his ideas, next to the young lady’s Fortuny tea gowns. Even much earlier than The Prisoner, for instance in the second volume when Albertine appears in the midst of the little gang of girls at Balbec, I don’t find her credible. (But then, very little of the Narrator’s alleged passion for girls is persuasive.) By contrast, Odette feels real to me. I understand Swann’s feelings for Odette, I feel his desire and his frustration. You know, it’s so difficult for a writer to create a “living” character. And with the “lady in pink,” who appears in the first novel and has such immense consequences for the whole work, although she herself is “minor” in a way, Proust has created a complete character, a truly marvelous creation.
Your book The Lost seems to be directly descended from Proust. You quote directly from Proust’s work², but the connection is also implicit—The Lost, like In Search of Lost Time, is the story of a quest for memory. Proust writes in Time Regained, “A book is a great cemetery in which, for the most part, the names upon the tombs are effaced.” Would you say that Proust played a role in your decision to write about your family history?
Yes, Proust had an enormous influence on the project of The Lost, and I was very conscious of it. It was as though Proust was haunting the project, step by step. Actually, I was rereading In Search of Lost Time just before I started the actual writing of my book. So yes, absolutely, The Lost bears the imprint of Proust. In many ways.
First, I wanted to pay homage to Proust in the title of my book. The full title—The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million—deliberately echoes In Search of Lost Time. This Proustian reference was obscured in the French version, when the title became les Disparus, or “The Vanished.” My book has a similar preoccupation to In Search of Lost Time—how does one resuscitate the past, bring it to life in the present? What can be preserved from the past, and in which form? The Proustian metaphor that you mentioned, of the book as a cemetery, is perfect. Because in a way, The Lost is a project marked by failure. For every detail that I managed to exhume, how many others have been lost?
And then, stylistically, there were elements in Proust I set out deliberately to recreate, to some extent. For instance I’ve always admired the way in which Proust manages to embrace a multitude of elements in the same sentence, whether it’s an analysis, a series of hypotheses, or a paradox. That’s an incredible literary achievement. In certain passages of The Lost, I tried to reproduce that complexity, by testing the limits of a single long sentence. For example, at one point, I made a conscious “Proustian” effort to comprehend two apparently unrelated realities in the same sentence. I’m writing about a single day in 1942 on which, in Poland, certain members of my family were exterminated in a Bełżec gas chamber, while in in the United States, on that same day, my mother, an eleven-year old schoolgirl in the Bronx, took the same route to school that she took every other day. By threading both of these events into the same long sentence, I tried to achieve a kind of pointed juxtaposition which spoke to a large them of my book, which is what I think of as the ironies of “unknowability.” How much of what is transpiring in the world, of what has happened in history, we simply can never know. So that “Proustian” technique was one I occasionally, and quite self-consciously, employed now and then to achieve a sort of heightened effect.
Finally, there is another Proustian method that I have always admired. Quite often Proust “plants” a piece of apparently anodyne information—something minor, something en passant—somewhere, a fact or name or bit of history so seemingly insignificant that you’re almost invited to ignore it. And then all of a sudden, 654 pages later, the information germinates, and takes on all of its rich and unexpected and often ironic meaning. Those moments of surprise, of revelation, are absolutely incredible for me. And that is really what makes In Search of Lost Time the stuff of life. Because that is what happens in real life—you can lose touch with a person for years until, one fine day, you cross paths with them again, and they have been completely transformed. I find it miraculous that Proust succeeds in giving characters the density that is the result only of the passage of time—in reproducing on the page, or rather over the course of hundreds of pages, the different masks that time makes us wear, exactly as time changes us and changes those we know, to the point of that we and they often become unrecognizable over long stretches of time, which is of course one of Proust’s major themes., This is the case at the afternoon party at the Princess de Guermantes, the closing scene of the novel, when the narrator encounters so many characters known to him, and to us, from earlier on but time has ravaged them.
In terms of literary technique, that’s a delicate thing to do—among other things, it’s a technique that can’t succeed unless the narrative itself is quite long—and something that I attempted in The Lost. I wanted to create something of that effect, for instance, in a particular scene—an unexpected and very emotional reunion with a family friend from my childhood, a woman whom I hadn’t seen literally in decades when, out of the blue, in Israel, in 2003, I ran into her at a particularly fraught moment in my search for information about what happened to my relatives during the Holocaust. In order to recreate some of the emotional intensity of that experience in my writing—in other words, to make it emotional for the reader—I had to introduce this family friend early on in the story so that she’d register in the the reader’s consciousness in some small way at the outset—precisely so that the reader would be able to “recognize” her when she popped up again, would be able to share in my shock when I ran into her later. It’s difficult to achieve. With this method, it’s a question of careful, controlled measurement. The information needs to be given early enough, but not so early that it can have been forgotten by the time it comes into play.
In Search of Lost Time shows us the restorative power of writing. In collecting fragments of memory, it is possible to get to the truth of things and people that existed and are now gone. With Proust, this resurrection is accompanied by a kind of aesthetic and moral redemption. Does this apply to your experience as well?
It’s true that In Search of Lost Time finishes “well.” There is a sort of optimism in thinking that a work of art can allow us to recreate and to preserve the past. It’s different for me, though. I never claimed that my writing would be able to do anything at all for my family, long gone. The past is the past, the dead are the dead, that is an unchangeable reality. If literature is able to bring something to life, it’s the writer—and the writer alone—who reaps the benefits, not those he writes about. This is true in the case of Proust’s narrator. All the characters he mixes with have the same fate—transformation into literary fodder, to allow his own reinvention, as a writer.
In the preface to your translations of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s Complete Poems, you write that Cavafy thought of himself as a sort of “poet-historian,” because much of his writing was about antiquity. You also write that his artistic career is similar to Proust’s—Cavafy had a radical literary metamorphosis, in changing from “dilettante” to major writer. Do you see any other resemblances between the two?
It’s funny that you mention Cavafy. He is, along with Proust, the writer who accompanied me along the way working on The Lost. There’s one fundamental similarity between Proust and Cavafy—they are both writers of memory. Both believe in the power of writing as a defense against the passage of time. With Cavafy, too often we make the distinction between his historical poems and his love poems, the so-called erotic poems. But for me this distinction is meaningless. There’s only really one theme in Cavafy’s work, and it’s time—the causes, nature, and effects of the passage of time.
There is, with both those writers, a constant agony. Regardless of status, our existence will be annihilated by time, by history. Proust is equally preoccupied by the great, important people of the world, like the Baron de Charlus, and by the little people, like the tailor Jupien. Cavafy demonstrates it by emphasizing a fundamental irony of history, the fact that emperors and kings are buried in oblivion along with obscure functionaries from far away provinces. With Proust, as with Cavafy, that which survives the past is most often the result of chance—there’s a sort of irony in that observation. It’s precisely reflected in the poem “The Year 31 B.C. in Alexandria.” In ten lines, Cavafy describes a day in the life of a perfume vendor who goes to the Alexandria marketplace to sell his wares and finds the city in a state of advanced agitation. Everyone is bustling and crowding the marketplace, no one pays him any attention. On approaching the palace, he hears that Marc Antony has won the battle of Actium against Octavian, which explains the bustle and excitement in the marketplace of the Egyptian capital. So there is this contrast between the individual anecdote and the march of history, which is typical of Cavafy. The acute, further irony here—also typical—is, of course, is the merchant has been misinformed. In fact, Antony and Cleopatra were defeated at Actium, the news of their victory is just a lie that the palace is spinning.
As for Cavafy’s erotic poems, to my mind they’re only a pretext for speaking about the passage of time, for exploring the traces that an outburst of desire leaves in the memory. When Cavafy speaks of the memory of a beautiful young boy on the beach of Alexandria, thirty years earlier, it’s a question for him of preserving that beauty, of capturing the fugitive moment with poetry.
But even if their predilections are similar, are their styles not radically different?
They both address the same problems with different instruments. Proust’s style is as rich as Cavafy’s is laconic and stripped. Cavafy seems to me to have a quasi-archaeological approach to writing—for him, the more concise things are, the greater chance they have of surviving. The opposite is true of Proust, who attempts to be as exhaustive as possible, to recover traces of the past by means of fantastically detailed descriptions. Should we perceive, thereby, a distinction between Greek and French sensibilities? That’s uncertain. Cavafy seems very French to me in certain ways. He’s a master of the epigram, for instance, a particularly French art.
In your translation, you sought to remain as faithful as possible to “the diction, the structure, and the meter” of Cavafy’s verse, so the contemporary anglophone reader can have a visual, sonorous, and aesthetic experience as close as possible to the Greek. In Search of Lost Time has been translated several times into English. How would you describe the difficulty of translating Proust’s body of work, and how would you define its stylistic specificity?
Proust is complex, but never confused or confusing—the Proustian grammar and syntax are crystalline. Yet, the fact that he often makes use of interpolated clauses, and therefore relative clauses, makes him difficult to translate into English. In an English phrase, a relative clause sounds so intrusive. It’s much less common than in French. For an anglophone translator, the simple solution would be to split the Proustian phrase into several sequences, but this would be a terrible mistake, to my mind. Because the rhythms, the style, is of course as important as “the content” of what Proust says. If the Proustian phrase is long and serpentine, it’s because Proust wanted it thus. It was his stylistic objective. I imagine that if there is a language into which it is truly difficult to translate Proust, it’s Hebrew, which doesn’t love relative clauses the way French—and, for that matter, Greek—do.
As for Proust in English, I think that the best translation of In Search of Lost Time is the one by the Briton C.K. Scott Moncrieff, which came out in the twenties and has been successively revised by two scholars, Terrence Kilmartin in the early eighties and then D.J. Enright in the nineties. Scott Moncrieff did incredible work on Proust’s text. It truly is one of the most beautiful translations in literary history, of any language or any author. It flirts with perfection because it rises to the challenge of giving the reader the same experience of reading Proust in the original.
As a classicist, you often contextualize contemporary literature by going back to antiquity. In your opinion, what sort of new territory did Proust chart in literature?
I think Proust, along with Joyce, represents the limits of the novel. Those two authors signed off on the end of the novel in its existing form. With them, we see the completion of a genre born at the end of the seventeenth century, which, during its development, established itself very deeply in the inner conscience of the individual. After them, there was nothing left to explore.
But if I adopt the view of a professor rather than a critic, I think that Proust also marks a beginning. He opened the door to our interior world. Proust must be read, Proust must be taught, because Proust is good for the soul. He teaches us to read life as though it were a novel. It’s exactly that quote you mentioned—“Every reader is … a reader of himself.” In this sense, Proust, like Freud, has shaped our way of thinking. Thanks to him, we have become the critics of our own psyche.
After having read In Search of Lost Time, we realize that our existence has a common thread, recurrent themes, recurring characters—things that can be analyzed precisely the way they are analyzed in a text, by applying aesthetic and literary criteria to our every day lives. “What is the lesson you draw from your own existence?” This is the philosophy that Proust teaches us.
 “So, if I were given long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the effect were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men as occupying so considerable a place, compared with the restricted place which is reserved to them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure, for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch the distant epochs through which they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themselves—in Time.”
 “When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child we were and the souls of the dead from whom we have sprung come to lavish on us their riches and their spells.” —The Captive