In Elisa Gabbert’s column Mess with a Classic, she revisits canonical works of literature and addresses the anxiety of confronting the art of the past (and the past in general).
One recent Monday evening, I scanned through our bookshelves for an unread classic—I had one last piece to write in this series on revisiting the canon. I considered writing about Moby-Dick, but did not seriously consider reading Moby-Dick. I want to, very much in fact, but I rarely read long books, and moreover feel that I’m saving Moby-Dick for an unclear future experience, some contained and isolating context it deserves—a long sea voyage, my deathbed. Perhaps I could write about not reading Moby-Dick. Then I thought about In Search of Lost Time, another novel people, especially writers, almost brag about not having read, as though admitting you haven’t read Proust suggests you’ve read everything else. I pulled Swann’s Way off the shelf, read the first paragraph, and was astonished. Its obsessive attention to memory, time, and the minutiae of experience as it occurs through thinking—it was not just good. It was, as they say, extremely my shit. Everyone says you should read Proust, but no one had ever told me that I, specifically, should read Proust.
Over the next couple of nights I read the “Overture” chapter. I had the sense, while I was reading Proust, that I was “reading Proust,” having a packaged experience like a tour of the Louvre. When friends asked what I was reading, I said, “I’m reading Proust, actually,” acknowledging the improbability. “Wow,” said my friend Kathleen, who knows me well. “Do you think you’ll finish it?” “I highly doubt it,” I said. It was more readable than I’d expected, but it wasn’t exactly light reading. That first paragraph was deceptive, in part by virtue of being a paragraph. Later I read that Proust hadn’t wanted In Search of Lost Time to have paragraphs at all. He wanted it to appear as one volume, with no sections, chapters, or even margins. It’s as though he wanted it to be unreadable, more a gesture than a text.
That Friday night, my husband and I stayed in to read, but I was tired and didn’t feel up for Proust. Instead I read My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, which is the kind of book you can tear through in a couple of hours, and I did, only afterward realizing that thematically, it is not unlike Swann’s Way. Lucy Barton recalls a time when she was very sick and had to stay in the hospital for over two months. Her mother, who she hasn’t seen in years, comes to visit and stays in her room, sitting at the foot of Lucy’s bed and rarely sleeping, only dozing in her chair. Their conversations are often disturbing—Lucy grew up in poverty, with an abusive father, and she is not sure how much her mother knows, remembers, or has willfully forgotten. Their talks stir up the sediment of their grim past, but they are also often joyful: “I was so happy. Oh, I was happy speaking with my mother this way!”
The overture to Swann’s Way revolves around a memory or series of memories—the narrator’s difficulty with going to sleep without the benediction of a kiss from his mother—so overwhelming they seem to encompass the whole of his childhood. These memories, amalgamated in a single scene, come back to him each time he falls asleep:
For a long time afterwards, when I lay awake at night and revived old memories of Combray, I saw no more of it than this sort of luminous panel, sharply defined against a vague and shadowy background … the hall through which I would journey to the first step of that staircase, so painful to climb, which constituted, all by itself, the slender cone of this irregular pyramid; and, at the summit, my bedroom, with the little passage through whose glazed door Mamma would enter; in a word, seen always at the same evening hour, isolated from all its possible surroundings, detached and solitary against the dark background, the bare minimum of scenery necessary (like the décor one sees prescribed on the title-page of an old play, for its performance in the provinces) to the drama of my undressing; as though all Combray had consisted of but two floors joined by a slender staircase, and as though there had been no time there but seven o’clock at night.
One night, when the family has been entertaining M. Swann—on such occasions our narrator was routinely sent to bed without his kiss—the boy decides he simply cannot go without it, and contrives to summon his mother by a ruse. He sends a note via Françoise, the cook. The ruse fails. He knows he has already angered his parents—they consider the ritual a silly indulgence and do not wish to coddle his delicate nerves—but having gone this far, he is committed to self-destruction: “I had formed a resolution to abandon all attempts to go to sleep without seeing Mamma, had made up my mind to kiss her at all costs … the calm which succeeded my anguish filled me with an extraordinary exhilaration, no less than my sense of expectation, my thirst for and my fear of danger.”
He waits in the hall for his mother to come up to bed, his heart throbbing “with terror and joy.” She is shocked and tries to send him back to bed before his father sees him, but in an unexpected turn of events, an amoral whim, his father rules in the boy’s favor, sending her in to stay with the child all night: “Go along with him then … you can see quite well that the child is unhappy. After all, we aren’t gaolers.” Alone at last with her he dissolves into sobs. The cook asks, “But, Madame, what is young master crying for?” “Why, Françoise, he doesn’t know himself: it’s his nerves.” His mother cries a little, too, and it seems to be a mutual admission, a giving up: they cannot scare the child out of his fear; he will be delicate forever. He knows this event is “a rare and artificial exception,” it can never happen again: “To-morrow night my anguish would return and Mamma would not stay by my side.” So the night, and its memory, which cannot be separated, are impossibly precious. In retrospect, “the present” is just a memory in real time.
“We aren’t gaolers,” Proust’s father (if we take the narrator to be a stand-in for Proust) had said, but the child did feel like his bedroom was a cell, a place for time to be borne. In the winter of 1940, the Polish artist and writer Józef Czapski was in a Soviet prison camp, and he was thinking about Proust. He was among a small group of officers and soldiers who survived the war; thousands of others were executed. In Czapski’s words—he writes it twice—those others “disappeared without a trace.” To occupy themselves, to keep their intellects sharp, to give “proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind,” Czapski and his comrades in the camp delivered a series of lectures to one another. “Each of us spoke about what we remembered best,” be it architectural history or mountain climbing. For Czapski, who had studied painting in France and been friendly with some of Proust’s old friends, that subject was In Search of Lost Time. As the painter and translator Eric Karpeles writes in his introduction to Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, “A prisoner’s constant state of vigilance was surprisingly conducive to the reclamation of memories.” It came back to Czapski there, in the freezing ruins of a bombed convent, the way Combray came back to “Proust” when he was dozing off or when he tasted the madeleine dipped in linden tea. He delivered the talks in French because he’d read the novel in French—they say you should study for a test at the same time of day you’ll be taking the test, should suck a peppermint during both, so the taste brings the knowledge back. “What Czapski remembered best was the quintessential book of remembering,” Karpeles writes.
In preparation for his lecture, Czapski made a series of elaborate diagrams, like crib notes in tiny, neat print, drawn over with lines and circles in different shades of ink. Several are reproduced in Lost Time, and these too are translated, meticulously re-created in color by Karpeles. On one spread of the insert, we see Czapski’s notes on the right, partially in Polish, partially in French. In the middle of the page is a yellow oval with lines around it, a crude sun. Inside, in all caps, underlined in red: “A MORT INDIFFERENTE.” In Karpeles’s version on the left, the same yellow sun, the same thick red line: “INDIFFERENT DEATH.” Some pale script to the lower right of Czapski’s sun circle is almost unintelligible to me; in the translation, it looks like this:
x PRECIOUS WOUND
x A BIT MIRED IN
These strange visual poems, “a hybrid of writing and drawing” as Karpeles describes them, were meant to serve as an aide-mémoire. The cheat sheets were all Czapski had because, of course, he could not check his quotes, could not fact-check any of his notes. This makes the errors more touching. Karpeles notes a couple: Czapski replaces the word madeleine, the most iconic detail of the novel and one of the most iconic in all of modern literature, with the word brioche. He calls an unnamed character Jeanne. “He has not misremembered her name,” Karpeles writes, “he has simply provided her with one, which Proust had failed to do.” I found a mistake, too. Czapski speaks of finding Proust to be “almost Pascalian,” then refers to a night in Blaise Pascal’s life “that will always remain known as Pascal’s mystery,”
a night yielding an intense vision of a super-terrestrial world which caused him forever after, until his death, to wear around his neck a small scrap of paper on which was inscribed these few words: “Tears, tears of joy.”
I was reminded of Percy Shelley’s corpse washing ashore with a volume of Keats in his breast pocket. Wanting to know more about this story, I googled the phrase “Pascal’s mystery” and found nothing. Had Czapski confused Pascal’s experience with the paschal mystery, or le mystère pascal—no relation? (It’s from the Greek pascha, as in Easter, meaning “passing over.”) It seems likely; he’d also gotten the inscription wrong. It was not just a few words but a longer prayer or poem, a transcription of his vision, that Pascal wrote out on a piece of parchment and sewed into the lining of his coat. Here’s the passage in question:
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I’ve seen it rendered differently; sometimes “Fire” is underlined, sometimes it’s “Fire!” But always, the “tears” line is “Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy”—the word joy is repeated, not tears. Earlier, in his own footnote to the lecture, Czapski notes that he is quoting Goethe from memory, “perhaps distorting his text.” He then quotes (or misquotes?) the Russian writer Vasily Rozanov: “There’s nothing easier than to quote a text precisely, you just have to check the books. It’s far more difficult to assimilate a quotation to the point where it becomes yours and becomes part of you.” “Pascal’s mystery,” those “tears, tears of joy” around his neck, were not Pascal’s but Czapski’s, a semi-invention, a collaborative memory.
In a brief introduction to the lecture, written in 1944, Czapski speaks of “the joy” of that time in the prison camp, the “rose-colored light” of those hours spent giving and listening to lectures, “where a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived.” Others in the camps were having similar, peculiarly happy experiences, somehow between or inside their sufferings. The Polish writer Aleksander Wat, while in Lubyanka, lucked into a Russian translation of Swann’s Way with a Marxist critical introduction. Reading Proust in Lubyanka, Wat writes in his memoir My Century, was “one of the greatest experiences of my life … from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.” Czapski had only dabbled in Proust until bedridden with illness: “I only have typhoid fever to thank for rendering me so helpless over a whole summer that I was able to read his work in its entirety.” I feel a small, perverse twinge of envy—not for the fever or torture or persecution, obviously, but for the life-altering encounter with a book that can happen in a season of despair.
I am always struck by depictions of happiness in wartime, in the darkest conditions—in Chernobyl, in concentration camps. In Family Lexicon, a memoir of life under fascism in Mussolini’s Italy, Natalia Ginzburg writes: “Lola used to remember with great longing the time she spent in prison. ‘When I was in jail,’ she’d often say. She would recount how in jail she finally felt tremendously at ease, finally at home and at peace with herself.” She considered it the “noblest time of her life.” Ginzburg’s father, during bombings, “wouldn’t go down into the shelters … Under the roar and whistle of planes, he ran hugging the walls with his head down, happy to be in danger because danger was something he loved.” When his father returns from a stint in prison, he seems “happy” to have been there. The people in her life treasure their worst experiences; the worst is the best. It’s a form of resistance, to refuse to have pleasure taken away from you. But I think, too, there’s something fundamentally life-affirming about proximity to death. We grow nostalgic for our pain, once it’s safely in the past, because pain’s intensity makes regular life look banal.
Part of Czapski’s lecture concerns Proust’s self-actualization as a writer. In this section he intentionally conflates Proust and the “hero” of the novel, which is probably what we’d now call autofiction, a novelization of the author’s real life. On his way to a reception at the Hotel de Guermantes, Proust has “the sudden conviction of a book existing within him, with all its details, only waiting to be realized.” He enters “a state of feverish clarity.” As Czapski recounts it,
He observes the assembled group of friends from his earlier life, already deformed by age, growing older, bloated or withering away, and then sees young people there emerging among them, a new generation who seem to harbor so poignantly the same hopes his old or dear friends once held. All this he sees with new eyes, lucidly, detached, and from a distance; finally, he knows what he is meant to do with his life.
The force of the realization is such that “death has become a matter of indifference to him.” Czapski uses the phrase once more, at the end of the lecture, this time clearly in reference to Proust, the author, the living (or dying) man. He spent his last years mostly in bed, finishing and revising the novel of his life. Czapski writes: “It’s not possible that he did not understand, given the state of his health, that the enormous and feverish effort required to keep on with his work would precipitate his end. But he had made up his mind, he would not take care of himself; death had become truly a matter of indifference to him.”
“INDIFFERENT DEATH,” as the diagram said. Around that yellow sun, there are echoing paradoxical phrases: “GRANDEUR + MISERY.” “PRECIOUS WOUND.” “DECADENCE OF FORMS OF JOY.” “BLESSED SUFFERING.” “HIS TRIUMPH HIS DEATH.” A question, encircled: “DEAD FOR GOOD?” And under “HIS TRIUMPH”: “THEY WILL LIVE.” Along with his comrades, Czapski found meaning and beauty in the prison camp (“the hours spent with memories of Proust, Delacroix, Degas seemed to me the happiest of hours”), and they survived. Czapski lived to the age of ninety-six. But he had assimilated Proust’s indifference to death, which is not the same as an indifference to living. It is, rather, an apprehension of existence so luminous that the threat of death recedes into dim corners.
Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist, is the author, most recently, of The Word Pretty (Black Ocean).