Reflections on My “Summer of Proust.”

Gretchen holding a Proust book

Every spring, on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, my sister Elizabeth and I talk about our yearly resolution to “Design your summer.” (You can listen to us talk about this theme in episodes 27, 67, 118, and 224.)

This resolution was originally inspired by this passage from a writer I love, Robertson Davies:

Every man makes his own summer. The season has no character of its own, unless one is a farmer with a professional concern for the weather. Circumstances have not allowed me to make a good summer for myself this year…My summer has been overcast by my own heaviness of spirit. I have not had any adventures, and adventures are what make a summer.
— Robertson Davies, “Three Worlds, Three Summers,” The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies

This passage inspired me to make sure that every summer has some sort of adventure (what I consider adventure). For this summer, I wanted the “Summer of Proust”—also an item on my “19 for 2019” list.

For years, I’ve been meaning to read Remembrance of Things Past, also translated as In Search of Lost Time by Proust, a multi-volume work published between 1913 and 1927 that’s considered one of the great masterpieces of the last centuries.

But while I wanted to read it, I never felt like reading it now. Much as the White Queen said to Alice, I always thought, Proust yesterday, Proust tomorrow, but never Proust today.

Partly because I knew that once I started, I wanted to read all the novels in quick succession. So I had to have a clear path.

Partly because the opportunity cost was great—once I started reading Proust, it would mean a lot of books I wouldn’t be able to read until I was finished. And these are long, dense, slow-read novels.

I decided I need to make reading Proust into a kind of adventure or undertaking. I do love a PROJECT (like The Happiness Project). That’s when I decided to make it a “Summer of Proust.”

I prepared myself by reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life and Andre Aciman’s The Proust Project. I’d already read my friend Caroline Weber’s Proust’s Duchess (but I read it before I’d read Proust, so now I want to re-read it). After some debate, I decided to read the Moncrieff translation.

And now I’ve completed my Summer of Proust. I’ve read the seven novels that makeup Remembrance of Things Past Only the first four—Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrahwere published during Proust’s lifetime, and completed by him. The last three novels—The Captive, The Fugitive, and Time Regainedwere published after Proust died in 1922 at age 51.

I was a little annoyed to discover, after I finished Time Regained, that my volumes of Proust concluded with a helpful “Guide to Proust” about characters, people, and themes that would have been enormously useful to me as I was reading. I discovered this resource too late.

Am I glad I did my Summer of Proust?

Absolutely. In fact, I plan do this every year, with a challenging author whose work I’ve wanted to read or re-read. The summer of 2020 will be the Summer of Woolf, I’ve already decided. I love the work of Virginia Woolf—she may be my favorite writer—but at the same time, her work takes so much out of me that I haven’t re-read her masterpieces in a long time. I can’t wait to dive in—but I do have to make space in my calendar and in my head to tackle it.

The Summer of Proust was satisfying for several reasons.

Most basic: I crossed something off my lifetime to-do list.

I thought I would love the books, and I did. I love the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and it was interesting to compare the two projects. Both authors offer fascinating meditations on time, and how people change with time, and how our understanding of our own experience changes over time. Note: If you’re considering reading the works of either of these authors, I highly recommend reading the volumes in quick succession. Part of the fascination of the books is seeing elements and people appear, disappear, and reappear, and if you space out your readings of the books, you’ll enjoy them less.

For my next writing project, I’m thinking a lot about the five senses, and no one writes about the senses as well as Proust. (Madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea, hawthorn, sight of church spires, etc., etc.)

I love writers who can notice and describe subtle moments between people—the odd shifts, unspoken thoughts, silent secrets—and no one is a keener observer than Proust.

As a reader, I wanted to challenge myself to read something demanding. The novels of Proust are wonderful, but they are demanding on many levels.

Also, after the hectic activity and conversation of my book tour, I craved silence and stillness. Reading Proust immersed me in that atmosphere.

I always love to collect beautiful passages, and if you subscribe to my “Moment of Happiness” daily quotation newsletter, where I send out a terrific quotation about happiness or human nature, you’ll have noticed a pronounced element of Proust. (You can sign up for the free newsletter here.)

I have several friends who are ardent fans, and now I can’t wait to talk to them about it. I have many thoughts.

Want a flavor (!) of Proust? Here’s his description of the “involuntary memory” that’s the most well-known in all his work.

She [M.’s mother] sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the object of my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself. The tea has called up in me, but does not itself understand, and can only repeat indefinitely with a gradual loss of strength, the same testimony; which I, too, cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call upon the tea for it again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down my cup and examine my own mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But how? What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark region through which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.

And I begin again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof of its existence, but only the sense that it was a happy, that it was a real state in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished. I decide to attempt to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughts to the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I find again the same state, illumined by no fresh light. I compel my mind to make one further effort, to follow and recapture once again the fleeting sensation. And that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut out every obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit all attention to the sounds which come from the next room. And then, feeling that my mind is growing fatigued without having any success to report, I compel it for a change to enjoy that distraction which I have just denied it, to think of other things, to rest and refresh itself before the supreme attempt. And then for the second time I clear an empty space in front of it. I place in position before my mind’s eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.

Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the colourless reflection in which are blended the uncapturable whirling medley of radiant hues, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate to me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea; cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, of what period in my past life.

Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being? I cannot tell. Now that I feel nothing, it has stopped, has perhaps gone down again into its darkness, from which who can say whether it will ever rise? Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the natural laziness which deters us from every difficult enterprise, every work of importance, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and of my hopes for to-morrow, which let themselves be pondered over without effort or distress of mind.

And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

–Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, vol. 1 of Remembrance of Things Past, translated by C. K. Moncrieff

If you were going to have a “Summer of ____,” what author would you choose?



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