I first read Proust as a correspondent for The New York Times covering the war in Bosnia, one of the huge volumes of the six part series tucked into the outer pocket of my heavy jacket or cargo pants.
I next read Proust when I was dating my wife who is an actor. We would meet before one of her shows in New York in a coffee shop and talk about, as well as read aloud, the passages we had digested since we last were together. I hear the most lyrical passages of the book when I reread them through her voice. Proust defines our courtship.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
The power of Proust is his acute observation of human nature, the world around him and the fact that he writes the book aware of his, and our, mortality. He knows he is dying. His last volume is published posthumously.
From the first page his observations are infused with impending mortality, the certain loss of all that he loves and loved, and the fragility and beauty of life.
Proust grasps the sacredness of love, although the only real loving relationship he has is with his mother. His trenchant understanding of human beings, their incongruities and ambiguities, their capacity for venal deceit and deep compassion, runs throughout the 4,500 pages of this twentieth century masterpiece.
Proust, like all great writers, has given me words to express aspects of reality that before Proust I had trouble articulating. The numbing quality of habit, the mutation of the self over time that changes us imperceptibly, the ethical dilemmas that face us as we struggle to define and make sense of our life, the deadness of the life of the mind when it is divorced from the vie spirituelle are all constant themes in Proust. There is little real plot.
The demimonde of turn-of-the-century French salons is the backdrop for one of the greatest and profoundest meditations on art, memory, mortality, love and the mystery of existence ever written.
I consider myself fortunate in my marriage for many reasons, but one of them is that I love a woman who is as moved as I am by Proust.
Hear Chris Hedges speak on September 21 at 8 p.m. at the West End Cultural Centre.