Thursday, June 7, 2007

Living inside Time

Reading Proust again, I had planned to post sentences from Swann's Way alone, but it's too difficult to resist going on with at least occasional excerpts from the rest of In Search of Lost Time. Here's one. The narrator's father has acknowledged his son's fixed intention to take up writing (not diplomacy) as a way of life. Might that make the narrator happy?

These words of my father's, though they granted me the freedom to be happy or not in life, made me very unhappy that evening. At each one of his unexpected moments of indulgence toward me, I had always wanted to kiss him on his florid cheeks, just above the beard line; and the only thing that ever restrained me was the fear of annoying him. On this occasion, much as an author, to whom his own conceptions seem to have little value because he cannot think of them as separate from himself, may be alarmed at seeing his publishers putting themselves to the trouble of selecting an appropriate paper for them and setting them in a typeface he may think too fine, I began to doubt whether my desire to write was a thing of sufficient importance for my father to lavish such kindness upon it. But it was especially what he said about my likings probably never changing, and what would make me happy in life, that planted two dreadful suspicions in my mind. The first was that, though I met each new day with the thought that I was now on the threshold of life, which still lay before me all unlived and was about to start the very next day, not only had my life in fact begun, but the years to come would not be very different from the years already elapsed. The second, which was really only a variation on the first, was that I did not live outside Time but was subject to its laws, as completely as the fictional characters whose lives, for that very reason, had made me feel so sad when I read of them at Combray, sitting inside my wickerwork shelter. Theoretically, we are aware that the earth is spinning, but in reality we do not notice it: the ground we walk on seems to be stationary and gives no cause for alarm. The same happens with Time. To make its passing perceptible, novelists have to turn the hands of the clock at dizzying speed, to make the reader live through ten, twenty, thirty years in two minutes. At the top of a page, we have been with a lover full of hope; at the foot of the following one, we see him again, already an octogenarian, hobbling his painful daily way round the courtyard of an old-people's home, barely acknowledging greetings, remembering nothing of his past. When my father said, "He's not a child anymore, he's not going to change his mind," etc., he suddenly showed me myself living inside Time; and he filled me with sadness, as though I was not quite the senile inmate of the poorhouse, but one of those heroes dismissed by the writer in the final chapter with a turn of phrase that is cruel in its indifference: "He has taken to absenting himself less and less from the countryside. He has eventually settled down there for good," etc.

From In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by James Grieve (New York: Penguin, 2002), 55-56
What a remarkable passage: parental permission to live the life one wants turns into a life- and death-sentence. This passage invites a reader to recall her or his earliest recognitions of what it means to live in time (or Time).
All Proust posts (Pinboard)

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