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Book review - Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time Book review - Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time
by Joseph Gatt
2021-12-02 06:18:34
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This book is important because,

It's a first person narrative account of late 19th century Paris. Those were times, like in 2021, of social, political and technological revolution.

pru0001_400Proust discovers this thing called “coffee” that no one really knows how to drink without getting the jitters. Many people become sick for drinking too much of it.

Travel by car and airplanes is new and luxurious. People are not sure how to go about travelling by car or plane.

New social codes. Today we have this thing called Tinder. In the late 19th century, perhaps for the first time in history, men were expected to freely court and date women. And Proust, like many men, had no idea how to go about the art of seduction. First time in history men hang out with women freely.

New social norms. Should the elite hang out with the elite. Or should commoners be welcome to hang out with the elite. “New” ideas like socialism and communist come to the high-class dinner tables. And you have monarchists arguing with communists, republicans arguing with internationalists.

New fashion trends. Individuals, like today, all have their fashion quirks, which leads many to be judgmental about individuals and their fashion tastes.

New food. Food from the Orient and the Indies becomes widely available.

Photography is a novelty. And to avoid competing with photography, painters invent this thing called cubism and abstract art.

Bank telegraphic wire transfers (novelty)

Odd thing is: the high class does not seem to resist new trends and technologies. (So far I haven't seen any description of nostalgia for times where those technologies did not exist).

So In Search of Lost Time would be kind of like describing what goes on today with people not sure how to use a smartphone and how to go about fashion and arguing about organic food vs. processed food.

First celebrities. First mass newspapers. First illustrated magazines. Leisure life (golf and tennis, which were the big sports back then, soccer only came a couple of decades after that).

Adolescence + young adulthood of a  very rich Paris kid who doesn't need to study or work to survive. So he goes out and explores the city.  

Proust and homosexuality: no hint at that. (So far he seems to be into women, albeit a little sensitive)

Proust and Judaism: some say he had a Jewish father (or mother). He spent his youth going to Catholic Church. He lives in a Catholic (albeit somewhat secular) household. And he discusses Jews like he would describe any foreign people or at least different, quirky people). Jews seem to puzzle him.

The real madeleine de Proust: the madeleine de Proust, or Proust muffin, is that breakfast muffin Proust describes at the beginning of the book and is of no significance. I would say what serious literary critics refer to as the madeleine de Proust is when the narrator falls in love with a girl named Albertine. The muffin is to In Search of Lost Time what Adam and Eve are to the Bible or what the pound of lead and the pound of feathers is to Karl Marx's Das Kapital: one paragraph on page 3.

The narrator is a young adult who falls in love with a girl named Albertine and thinks about Albertine all day and all night, every day. Though he spends little time with her and doesn't really date her, he is vulnerable, and overanalyzes all of Albertine's words, physical attributes, gestures, personality, social circumstances, decisions, fashion choices and attitude towards him. The narrator makes a list of reasons why any love relationship with Albertine could fail. The narrator takes too much time to approach Albertine. The narrator is also very possessive with Albertine before they even start formally dating. And the narrator makes an inventory of reasons any relationship with Albertine should not even happen in the first place, as in social status, social standing, fashion tastes, personality, chastity and the like. And the narrator hesitates whether he should just try out and date Albertine or whether he should contemplate marriage with her. ----- Several years go by. Not clear what happened in Albertine's love life, but she comes back to Proust, albeit being very cold with Proust. Proust dates Albertine by default, consummates the relationship, but Proust is irritated by Albertine's aloofness. And Proust's social clan is not proud of him for dating Albertine because of her rather modest financial means. A few weeks or months go by and Albertine gradually gets comfortable in the relationship and opens up. But Proust resents the fact that Albertine is comfortable in the relationship.  (to be continued).

Such fidgeting and overthinking throws off Albertine who wants a secure man and does not want a man full of insecurities and a man who puts too many feelings and energy into the relationship. So Albertine is cold, distant, defensive with Proust, and takes lots of distances with Proust, as Albertine tries to remain as independent as she can in the relationship. This coldness and desire for independence throws off Proust, who is madly in love, and could not imagine spending a second without Albertine within site. And Proust wants the mad love feelings to be reciprocal.

Also of significant importance, Proust spends as much time as he can with Albertine without confessing his feelings. Albertine is bothered by the ambiguous nature of the relationship, while Proust beats around the bush and does not state clearly why he wants to spend so much time with Albertine.

After what appears to be months of courting, Proust eventually gives up on Albertine and his feelings wane, albeit wondering what his life would have been with Albertine. Interesting thing is, once Proust's interest in Albertine wanes, Proust starts showing interest in many different women, and is a lot shabbier in his personal courting. Proust sharpens and refines his fashion and style and manners, but tends to be superficial with (most) of the women he meets.  

New trend: trading or giving or sharing pictures of love interests (the advent of photography)

Some things never change: in the latter part of the book, in his adult life, Proust hangs out with the Paris aristocracy and cultural scene (some names I recognized) at the mansion of the Counts of Guermantes. The thing that still hasn't changed in 2021 is that, back then, the French intellectual scene has a decent grasp of the foreign political scene (European politics mainly) but is very confused by the local political scene where no one seems to understand what really goes on in French politics.

Reading those long passages reminded me that while music producer Haim Saban holds an annual multilateral international forum on Israeli politics (which includes Israelis and politicians, academics etc. from around the world, both Jews and non-Jews, to give their view points and analysis on the Israeli political scene) perhaps France needs its version of the Saban Forum.  

What makes the autobiography pure genius: Proust is not like “as a teenager I knew everything I know now and acted accordingly.” The autobiography traces Proust's life from his teenage years well into adulthood. But you can clearly see how his ideas, train of thought and way of life evolves and grows, from that of a clueless teenager to that of an increasingly sophisticated adult. His ideas sharpen, his tastes sharpen, and his expectations about life sharpen.

The Dreyfus affair. One of the central themes of the autobiography. A very personal one for me, and I learned a lot about the affair itself, but also about my own personal heritage and memories.

So a lot of the conversations that take place at the house of the Counts of Guermantes center around the Dreyfus affair. And the conversations center around these themes (and still centered around those themes 10-15 years ago in France, from what I recall, maybe still today).

-Should the Jews all move to Jerusalem and get out of France. So you had that debate. And, that debate also took place in the Russian Empire, which is why my ancestors moved to the Holy Land, which is why I was born.

-How do you recognize a Jew. I found that part both interesting and sad. A lot of the conversation among the aristocracy goes around trying to figure out how you can recognize a Jew. Do you look at their nose? (some actually think you can recognize a Jew by looking at their nose). Do they have gestures that they use and no one else uses. Some argue that perhaps Jewish body language is different from French body language. Do you look at their last names, or first names, or both? So you look at their language use and speech patterns. Perhaps Jews use words no one else uses.

Of course (more on this later perhaps) the general feeling you get from late 19th century France and the aristocracy was that “the Jews are spying on us, they steal our ideas and build their own empire out of the ideas they steal from us, so we need to find ways to recognize them so we can prevent them from infiltrating our clan.” That's the general idea.

Which brought an interesting thought in my train of thought: employment discrimination among minorities in France (and around the world). I had my Eureka moment. On one leg, the saying goes that if you have a smart Black kid or Arab kid or Jewish kid apply for a job, the saying goes like this “you're smart, educated, you have all the credentials, but your people are sloppy and disorganized and can't get organized, so no, you're not working with us”. Sad thing is, people who know me know that I have lots of trouble getting organized, and know that my desk tends to be very messy, and that's a cultural trait alright. But how do you keep your desk clean, when as a Black kid, Arab kid or Jewish kid, you have that extra pressure to be productive and useful at work.

Later on you can feel the events leading to World War I (or Thee Great War as it was called back then). Proust starts hanging out with a powerful crowd. Ambassadors, Europeans princes, politicians, cultural figures spend a lot of time at the Guermantes and discuss current events. Problem is: as you progress through the book, you get the feeling they all gradually start getting bored with each other. What was novelty and excitement at the beginning, becomes boredom and predictability. And boredom and predictability leads to personal attacks. Personal attacks in those tiny salons, in a butterfly effect kind of way, slowly escalate lead to European empires fighting each other and to what became World War I.

Chronology of social life:

-Teenage years spent with his parents and plays something of an observer role in his parents' social life. Proust has vague familiarity with the Swann family.

-In young adult life, Swann discovers the Counts of Guermantes and spends most evenings there. Famous and important people hang out at the Guermantes', and most of them are “anti-Dreyfusards” or think Alfred Dreyfus is guilty. Lots of anti-Semitic talk, the rise of nationalism, most believe France should get rid of all minorities. But the atmosphere is very warm and cordial.

-Europeans and Turks (technically Ottomans but Proust calls them Turks) start hanging out with the Guermantes. Very warm and cordial atmosphere. But as time goes by the group no longer gets along. Personal and racist attacks are frequent. No one hangs out at the Guermantes anymore.

-Proust is left without his social circle and moves back to his parents and tries to find their social circle. Proust finds out that Swann, his childhood neighbor and friend, is Jewish. And the more discoveries irks him and disgusts him. As in “had I known, I would never have talked to him.”

-Proust is isolated and has few friends left. Earlier in his adulthood Proust was madly in love with Albertine, and Albertine did not read the signs. Albertine and Proust separate (they never dated at first) but Albertine comes back to Proust when Proust is isolated. A complicated relationship dynamic sets up between Proust and Albertine, one where Albertine, a woman from a lower class, fears offending Proust, who is of higher class. But when Albertine opens up, Proust is irked by Albertine's lack of humility. But while dating Albertine, Proust is also very uncomfortable with the idea that he lost his entire social group and has been left out all alone, and does not know what to do with Albertine. What's the point of dating someone if you can't “show off” your lover to the rest of the group? But the dilemma is also that, had Proust stayed with the Guermantes, he would probably never have dated Albertine in the first place, because she wouldn't fit into the group, due to her lower-class background.

-Proust and Albertine move to the French countryside and discover a different world. Politics are not really discussed, most conversation centers around nature, trees, plants, agriculture, birds, nature's gifts basically. Proust also discovers a morally conservative, but humble side of France. Proust gets lots of praise for random intellectual remarks (usually for statements about philology or the origin of words and names). People are not too judgmental about him or Albertine or their background. But the local landowner class also expect Proust to stay humble and not to brag too much. Example: using English words, while a classy thing to do in Paris (speaking English is even classier) is very much frowned upon in the countryside.  

*In the countryside, Proust is rumored to be homosexual because men in the countryside are expected to behave impulsively and spontaneously, and Proust's refined manners and habit of thinking twice before acting lead many in the circle to spread rumors about his homosexuality.

-After being rumored as a homosexual, Proust starts hanging out with the landowning class in the countryside. They discuss philology (lots of it), go on anti-Semitic rants (lots of them) and gossip about the wealthy class (mainly about whether they are attached to France or to their nation of origin, because many in the wealthy class have ancestors who came from all over Europe, a testament of the days when the European wealthy class intermarried).

Proust also shares women with the landowning class of the countryside, and decides that Albertine is getting in the way. Albertine plays a passive role and is an absent figure of sorts. But, on the train back to Paris, Proust decides to breakup with Albertine, who was contemplating marriage.

Proust would think Albertine would be devastated. But Albertine accepts the breakup. Then comes a game where Proust realizes he can't live without Albertine. He sends her frequent telegrams asking her to come, and she shows up every time. Despite officially being separated, Albertine and Proust hang out a lot, and spend quite a few nights together. Proust is no longer interested in other women (the main reason for his breakup) and is contemplating making his relationship with Albertine permanent. Albertine has a “do as you wish, let me know and I'll follow you” kind of attitude.

-Let's not spoil the rest of the book. Simply put, Albertine becomes Proust's almost exclusive focus in life, and he leaves out all the rest. For better and worse.

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