Proust is a master when it comes to describing man’s inner psychological world; he puts into words all the things people feel, but could never define or elaborate by themselves. So, he has this amazing ability to express his thoughts in a descriptive manner, and you often find yourself reading and gasping with enthusiasm saying – that’s it! This 19th century French author is best known for his monumental novel In Search of Lost Time, but he is also a great thinker and we may even say – a philosopher. For this Saturday’s reading, we have prepared for you a review of his book of essays, and also a few interviews Proust gave (among them the famous Proust Questionnaire).
In his essay, On reading, Proust discusses the aesthetic enjoyment reading provides, but also the exploration of memory and personal development through the act of reading. He talks about all the little things life consists of, those tiny fragments of time, and how the way we remember them – is almost magical. Proust has discussed, on several occasions, how fragrances are the most powerful time portals for us. If we deliberately try to remember something from the past, we will – but in a broken mirror. Our present has shaped our perspective of the past. But, if we remember something spontaneously, if our memory is triggered by a scent, then we will get a more accurate image of the past. In this sense, the songs we listened to, the books we read, the streets we walked, all of those play an important part as triggers, in re-creating the past. In the referenced essay, Proust says:
Books we read… If we flip through them today, we may experience them as some sort of preserved calendars that are guarding the way we were, and on their pages we will find some reflections of the places we once were, and the ponds that are now gone.
Time and the mysteries it holds, how it affects us, how it shapes who we are – those are some of the main themes for Proust.
In another essay, On literary creation, Proust shares his thoughts about the identity of a writer. A writer is a regular person: he has his ups and downs, he has his everyday life, he buys groceries, he travels, he needs vacations and he needs his alone time. But, what makes him different from others – is his gift of creation. In his times of inspiration, he creates words, giving his thoughts real shape that can be recognized by others. A writer may go through some difficult psychological states:
Insomnia, doubts, comparing himself to other masters of literature, self-doubt, spending time on things that don’t require his genius, commiting too much to earthly things…
But, as he mentions in the essay, The power of a novelist:
Facing a novelist and his work, we always feel like slaves facing a ruler: he can set us free with just one word.
Proust opened a great theme here, the one about the power of words and the power of literature. We can read a novel that has an overall sad or tragic tone, but it can make us happy, and in that power lies its magic. Proust also gave us his thoughts about the meaning of one literary piece: it does not necessarily need to conform to only one, universal message, composed by the author. A novel is layered, and it can have several meanings. That is where the reader steps in! The meaning of one work lies in the interpretation of a reader. Proust says:
There are no wrong interpretations. That is the beauty of it.
So, the reader is an active participant in the creation. Proust explains this by the many connotations that words have: all of us have different cognitive frames, and different associative images appear in our minds, when we hear or read a certain word. That is why reading creates a unique, unrepeatable experience. Besides that, reading one book several times will leave a different impression every single time, and our interpretations of its meaning will vary. And that truly is the beauty of it, as Proust said.
In his essay called Pulses of a heart, Proust discusses how the way we remember things from the past – intersects with our emotions, especially when it comes to death:
If we lose someone we love, we tend to forget about it, as time goes by. But, when that person, involuntarily, comes to our mind, the feeling that occurs is twice as painful: it hurts because it is a reminder that the person is no longer with us, but it is also painful because of the guilt that appears, because we have forgotten our loss, even if it was just for a small period of time.
This essay is actually interpolated in Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time , in the part named Sodom and Gomorrah.
One of the most interesting things regarding Proust’s personality is revealed to us through Proust’s Questionnaire. He had to answer this set of questions during his voluntary soldiership, or shortly after that period of his life. What is certain is that Proust had to be in his twenties while answering these questions, although there are some questions that he allegedly answered while he was a teenager. Be that as it may, there is still a common mistake, when people assume that Proust was the one who created the questionnaire. That is not true, but the questionnaire did get its name from Proust, because his answers became famous, with the passage of time. Vanity Fair once submitted the questionnaire to several celebrities including David Bowie, Jane Goodall, and the comedian Louis C.K. If you wish, you can fill out the questionnaire for yourself, and read the full answers Proust gave, as well as the ones of other people from all around the world, here.
Here is our pick of the top three answers Marcel Proust gave:
What is it you most dislike?
Proust: My own worst qualities
What is your favorite color?
Proust: Beauty lies not in colors but in their harmony
How would you like to die?
Proust: A better man than I am, and much beloved
There is also an interesting interview you could read (read here), that holds Proust’s inspiring answer to the question of what he would do if there were an apocalypse coming. Here is a part of that answer.
And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are human and that death may come this evening.
What an inspiring message to us all! We shouldn’t wait for the notice of the end of the world, in order to do all the things our hearts desire. As one wise man said: the trouble is, you think you have time. Time is the only non-renewable resource we have. What would you do, if you knew the end was near? And what’s stopping you from doing that today?