Marcel Proust died of pneumonia at fifty-one, in Paris, on November 18th, and last year was the centenary of his death. Since I first read “ In Search of Lost Time,” his immense and unique autobiographical novel, a long passage about what writing is—from “ Time Regained,” the seventh and last volume—has stayed with me. It takes place at the mansion of Princess Guermantes, where the narrator has been invited to a musical reception. On his way to the Guermantes, he encounters M. de Charlus, a member of the Guermantes family. Ancient and ruined by a stroke, Charlus is like a ghost of a possible future for the narrator himself. At this point in the novel, the narrator is nearly middle-aged, bored, over-sophisticated, and aware that he is not the writer he had dreamed of becoming for lack of talent. Although unwritten, everything in the first six volumes is behind him—Swann, Gilberte, Vinteuil, Albertine. He steps back onto two uneven stones in the mansion's courtyard, avoiding a departing car. He is suddenly overtaken by the memory of standing on two uneven stones in the baptistery of St. Mark's in Venice. The intense happiness that he feels in the presence of this memory displaces his depression. It is a happiness that he has felt before at select times in his life—at “the sight of trees” near the seaside resort of Balbec, at “the twin steeples of Martinville,” sensing “the flavor of a madeleine dipped in […]
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