Life outside the window: Proust at 150.

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Author: Adam Watt
Date: July 9, 2021
From: TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 6171)
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,548 words
Lexile Measure: 1790L

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"Long books, when read, are usually overpraised, because the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time." E. M. Forster's notes in his commonplace book were written in reference to Richardson's Clarissa, but his point may equally resonate with readers familiar with Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). As Proustophiles the world over commemorate the 150th anniversary of the author's birth on July 10 and look ahead to the centenary of his death in November next year, the time is ripe to reflect on Proust and his writing and to take stock of his status in contemporary literature and culture.

Forster's observation is most apposite of course for Proust, a writer whose novel sequence repeatedly lays bare the travails of those preoccupied by what others think of them and which has at its heart an exploration of time--time wasted, time lost, time regained and newly understood. Our sensitivity to time's passing, the calibration of our bodies and minds to the minutes, hours, days and weeks by which we measure out our lives, has shifted markedly in the course of the past eighteen months. Indeed, many have turned to Proust as their lockdown reading, a work of longue haleine and longue duree for turbulent times. David Hockney, whose 1977 double portrait My Parents includes the blue and white spines of the original Chatto and Windus edition of the Scott Moncrieff translation of A la Recherche, plunged into the novel for a third time during lockdown, as reported in Martin Gayford's fascinating recent book Spring Cannot Be Cancelled: David Hockney in Normandy, a work with many Proustian qualities. Hockney, like Proust (who characterized Normandy apple trees in blossom as standing "les pieds dans la boue et en toilette de bal"--dressed for a ball with their feet in the mud), lives an intense connection to his surroundings and their interaction with the weather, every breath and whisper, shadow and sparkle observed, appraised and enjoyed. Despite his reputation as a deserter from the army of the upright, Proust's extraordinary capacity to connect or reconnect us with the phenomenological riches of life outside the window is highlighted repeatedly in his novel at moments "when the habitual grey of the world is rent asunder and the colour of life splashes forth in song and poem" (these are Henry Miller's words accounting for the experience of Matisse's paintings, which he compares directly to Proust's writing, "capable of transforming the negative reality of life into the substantial and significant outlines of art").

As the turbulence of his own times changed life and society irrevocably between 1914 and 1918, Proust adapted and expanded the outlines of his art to accommodate the horror and upheaval of war, as well as its unexpected moments of beauty or companionship. Besides his own frequent reclusion dictated by his severe asthma and hypersensitivity, Proust was also familiar with the practices and rhetoric of containment, confinement and control to which we have...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A669344371