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Where Does the Time Go?
On reading Proust and life's wormholes
Time did something tricky to me during the pandemic. Like so many, I worked hard to keep myself and my family going. The kids were doing school from home, I started waking up at four in the morning to get quiet working hours, and I was so busy that time flew but also seemed to be on pause because we were all waiting to get back to “normal.” When my kids went back to in-person school at the beginning of 2022, life returned to our regular routine so suddenly that it was like I’d been spit out of a wormhole.
On top of that, I’d reached my forties and my big-kid-mom era. This is starkly different from the little-kid-mom era, and for me it came with a glorious sensation of freedom and renewed agency. But it didn’t come without time’s relentless passing. It felt like someone had hit fast forward on the last decade of my life. I remember finding out I was pregnant with my third child in 2012, blinking my eyes a handful of times, and suddenly my baby was turning nine and my hair was turning gray.
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How did I get here? Where does the time go? I have asked myself these questions more times recently than I ever remember doing so in my twenties or thirties. I suppose then it was simply whooshing by. But with all this whirling around in my head, I decided I deserved something, like a treat, or at least a break. Covid wasn’t really over yet, and I have three kids on a freelance budget. And so this break, like most others for me, came in the form of reading. I’d heard somewhere once that reading Proust was kind of like a vacation. And because I’ve been to graduate school for writing, I’ve been told I should read it. And so I decided: 2022 would be my Proust Year. I deserved it.
I downloaded the Moncrieff translation on my Kindle, and on New Year’s Day I began. Because reading Proust was an undertaking I had to incorporate into an already busy reading life, I planned to read one volume per month or so. And it was truly everything I’d heard it would be: art appreciation, high society, France, and moments long lingered over with flourishing sentences. And within this lush world, life unfolds and the protagonist moves through that eternal quest for time and its meaning.
So where does the time go? To answer this question, Proust links art with time, renders it on the page, and illuminates its true nature.
In Search of Lost Time is a work closely linked to the art world. The protagonist’s cast of friends includes Elstir the visual artist, Bergotte the writer, and Vinteuil the musician. In addition to his “bad marriage,” the character Swann is best known in society for his vast collection and impeccable taste in art. When Proust’s protagonist goes to parties, he looks at the host’s art. He debates works with the others in scenes on the page. Reading it was like falling into another world; a vibrant, fully inhabited place that enriched everything else. And it was a balm for me as my real world struggled to right itself or find a new normal or whatever it is we were doing.
Proust became my favorite influencer because of the way he connected the work to so many others. My to-be-read list expanded; I revisited Flaubert and Hugo, I added Sand and Stendahl to my list. I googled artists and looked at pictures of their paintings; I found a playlist of French composers on YouTube. I remembered why I loved the impressionists. One of our first outings since the start of the pandemic was going to the art museum in Savannah. Those quiet galleries revived us. Even my three video-game-obsessed children, who roll their eyes when I tell them they should be reading, fell into peaceful, open-minded civility within range of so much art. Art is important to the people in the book, but it is also important to all people; it is so much of what makes us people.
Proust’s highest power, his art, is words; beautifully crafted universal images, impossible to not want to read. Proust is funny, ridiculous, and melodramatic, using juxtaposition and dramatic irony to make his jokes. Every scene is a complete unpacking of the narrator’s obsessions, and at all times, there is a lot to unpack. I expected to get swept into French high society with elegant parties and fascinating company, and I expected realizations about art. But there were also the peculiar sensations of existing in the world with other people.
Proust uses his powerful attention to show small interactions, minuscule exchanges, the little stuff of humanity, in prose so luxuriant it nearly stops time. The way he rolls over the moments with a slow, careful examination narrows our focus on everything that makes us human.
In Search of Lost Time is a thorough examination of human motivation that comes with a thrill of knowing so many other realities exist, how ridiculous they all really are. The art of these small moments, even rendered through a fancy Frenchman’s eyes, reminded me of the nuances of society, setting, friends, the pros and cons of socializing. Social interactions are driven by the self-centeredness of those involved. Every word uttered, every gesture, every slight, real or perceived, has an intellect and thought process behind it. The frivolity and small interactions make up a bigger picture as you read. By examining the smallest moments so thoroughly, Proust slows the tick of time on the page, expanding the moments in a way perhaps only art can do.
And art is, of course, a conduit for memory. Everyone knows about Proust’s cookie and tea transporting him to his childhood, but that is only the beginning. Throughout the books, experience and art trigger memories and their corresponding slips through time. He is walking in Paris on a wintery day, musing at how, “in the gentle breeze that floated about the column of playbills I had recognized, I had felt reappear the eternal, the universal substance, the familiar moisture, the unheeding fluidity of the old days and years.” And when he and his girlfriend are listening to music, “Thus nothing more closely than some such phrase of Venteuil the peculiar pleasure which I had felt at certain moments in my life, when gazing, for instance, at the steeples of Martinville, or at certain trees along the road near Balbec, or, more simply, in the first part of this book, when I taste a certain cup of tea.” Art can fill the time; art can stop time; and through art, we travel through time.
In the spring, I got behind on other work and set Proust aside after finishing the third volume. But even when I wasn’t reading it, I looked forward to getting back, like a favorite place to go and sit. And I found, a few months later when I picked up volume four on the day Roe vs. Wade was overturned, that it was a perfect escape from the troubling reality. But Proust’s world wasn’t without familiar strife.
The Search for Lost Time takes place in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, with anti-semitism creating divisions in families and friends, which felt both distant but not far off from real life either. Proust's characters are obsessed with sexuality. Political divisions rupture relationships. When the telephone comes into use, the new technology is incorporated into daily life. Instead of texts, they send letters, which are just as fraught with meaning as our modern missives. And the rich are as spoiled and out of touch, while the working class are as tolerant of it, as many seem to be today. Reading Proust both took me away from my troubles, from the troubling times, and showed me how it’s always perhaps been troubling. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s the human experience.
Meanwhile, as all this experience collects within us, time passes. We will spend time on our obsessions and feelings; we will each see things in our own way. And the art we consume becomes a part of us, a part of that personal timeline. Time is what it takes to make us who we are. Everything before now adds up to it, produces it. We can fill ours with society, with art, and live the richer. The only way to really see it and appreciate it is to pay attention, and the only way to really share another person’s unique experience—all the stuff of human perspective—is through art.
Proust, of course, writes about the power of art best:
“The lost country composers do not actually remember but each of them remains all his life somehow attuned to it; he is wild with joy when he is singing the airs of his native land, in seeking fame turns his back upon it, and it is only when he despises it when he utters, whatever the subject with which he is dealing, that peculiar strain the monotony of which—for whatever its subject it remains identical in itself—proves the permanence of the elements that compose his soul. But it is not the fact then that from those elements, all the real residuum which we are obliged to keep to ourselves, which cannot be transmitted in talk, even by friend to friend, by master to disciple, by lover to mistress, that ineffable something which makes a difference in quality between what each of us has felt and what he is obliged to leave behind at the threshold of the phrases in which he can communicate with his fellows only by limiting himself to external points common to us all and of no interest, art, the art Vinteuil like that of Elstir, makes the man himself apparent, rendering externally visible in the colors of the spectrum that intimate composition of those worlds which we call individual persons and which, without the aid of art, we should never know. A pair of wings, a different mode of breathing, which would enable us to traverse infinite space, would in no way help us, for, if we visited Mars or Venus keeping the same senses, they would clothe in the same aspect as the things of the earth everything that we should be capable of seeing. The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is and this we can contrive with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we really do fly from star to star.” (V.5, ch.2, p. 2831)
The ending wasn’t what I expected. A surprise, almost, even after so much reading. As I was closing in on it, my roommate from college and her family came to vacation at the beach near where I live. We met at the resort where they were staying, seeing each other in person for the first time in three years because of the pandemic. Her twins, whom I hadn’t seen since they were in diapers, were starting first grade, and she’d had a baby since then who was already walking. My friend started her family much later than me; but I remembered when mine were so little. The inches our children had grown were the physical manifestation of time’s passing. The subtle signs of aging we wore on our faces. The memories of our shared experiences, and what we’d each taken from them. When I told her about how I’d been feeling about time rushing past, like I’d blinked my eyes and ten years were gone, and she smiled and nodded, maybe too in the thick of parenting little kids to fully understand. But something like recognition of her future passed across her face.
Reading Proust fulfilled all the promises of the endeavor: it restored my faith in art, in the importance of experiencing it, of making sure I read Proust and others. It reminded me of the way the importance of moments, experiences, people often reveals itself so much later; the way explanations often come with time. It reminded me to savor the moments down to the last drop. Time: we will agonize over it and the years will speed by, leaving memories folded up within me, within the bodies of my children. Our lifetimes will be held within us and whatever we make with our time. On my eldest son’s birthday this past August, I went to write the date, and, right there at the end of my pencil, seventeen years flashed past me, so fast I had to catch my breath. Such is life.
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