In Search of Lost Time

I have been extraordinarily tired this week. I love to read Proust when I’m tired.

Who is Proust? you say. I’m assuming you are asking this because you are normal and don’t go seeking out 19th-century French memoirists to read. Marcel Proust (Prooooooost! Imagine how beloved he’d be as a football player with a name like that.) is known for his novel-in-six-volumes, In Search of Lost Time. (The real title is in French, which I don’t speak and therefore won’t pretend that I know by quoting.)

I had never heard of this novel or this man until a few years ago, when I had one of those experiences where all of a sudden it seemed I saw and heard his name everywhere. My friend Natalie calls such experiences “tan van”, meaning that you never see a tan van and then one day you notice one and the next week it’s like everyone suddenly decided they needed the light-chocolate kid-hauler because now you’re seeing them all over the place. So Proust had already become tan van for me when I received a catalog for The Folio Society (about which I will wax poetic in another post) and discovered that by joining, I could get as my “free” gift a beautiful, buckram-bound box of books, namely, Proust’s enormous novel.

This was the tipping point.

I jumped over to Amazon and ordered the paperback version of this box. (I still joined Folio, but picked something else as my gift. I’m a sucker for beautiful books.) It was a little daunting to start – the novel is over a million words in length. But then, so is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and I’ve read that in its entirety, almost twice now. If I just keep chipping at In Search of Lost Time, eventually it will get read. (Same goes for Plato. I’ll finish eventually.) I’m about a quarter of the way through volume two, maybe 200,000 words in, after six months of off-and-on reading.

So why Proust when I’m tired? For one, he doesn’t do plot. As a disadvantage, no plot means no rip-roaring read. The advantages, however, are that I can put Proust down for a couple of weeks or months and pick him up again without missing a beat and if I’m reading him at bedtime, he doesn’t keep me up too late. (I do that all by myself, thank you very much.)

Okay, I can see I’m not selling you on Proust.

Here’s the main reason I read him: reading Proust is like tubing on the Frio River.


The Frio is a cold, crystal-clear river running through the hot, dusty, and achingly beautiful Texas Hill Country west of San Antonio. When you tube it, you lay on your back in a black rubber inner tube with your shoulders hunched up a bit and your head lolled back, your feet and hands trailing in the liquid coolness. The water pulls at your fingers, urging you to stay, even as the river sweeps you slowly downstream. Your tube meanders in a leisurely arc so that you’re facing forward sometimes, backwards others—it doesn’t really matter which—while around you limestone bluffs rise from the water’s edge and above you hawks circle in a sky so brightly blue that you squint even in sunglasses. The music you hear is trickling water and summer breeze and birdsong, and the heat of the sun on your skin and the coolness of the water on your back gives you a sense of equilibrium so that you can’t remember a time when you were ever doing anything other than existing in this perfect moment.

And sure, sometimes the music is loud, drunken laughter from other tubers and the sensation is ooky river grass scratching your legs or your butt hitting gravel so that you have to get up and walk downstream until you get to another spot where the river is deep enough to carry you, but that doesn’t stop you from enjoying the experience overall.

And sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, something extraordinary happens.

Imagine you’re lazing in the water, the sun is setting, and you’re drifting both physically and mentally. The birdsong is changing—night is approaching. You round a bend, not fully conscious, when a glance at the shoreline shoots a primal injection of adrenalin through your nervous system. A mountain lion drinks from the water’s edge. You are fully awake, fully conscious now, and you hold her golden gaze for a few moments before she trots away in search of supper. In an instant you became aware of the precariousness of human life, of your own fragility, and your nerve endings hum with gratitude because you are still alive in the now.

That’s what reading Proust is like. It is a lovely, lyrical journey that meanders with no destination other than moving from the past to the present, in search of our lost time, memory. Some pages get irritating and you have to get out and walk, but the journey as a whole continues to be worthwhile.

And every once in a while, something extraordinary happens. I am lulled during the long journey and then unexpectedly awakened. I am surprised, hit with an electric jolt, moved to laugh out loud or to feel an almost physical sadness pushing at my insides because I recognized something that I had always sensed but never had been able to articulate. It is a moment of Truth, and in that moment I know that he understood what it is to be human, the good and the bad. The real.

That is why I keep reading Proust.

Categories: Brain Workouts

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