Marcel Proust for the Messy Undergrad

January 25, 2019

Between being caught in the thralls of a dying relationship and working five days at a restaurant that barely passed health inspection inspired a special case of the winter break blues in me. My English major intuition told me to spend my days gobbling up door-stop-sized novels as a distraction. Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, the first volume in a seven-part novel In Search of Lost Time, simultaneously crushed me and remolded the broken bits into some sort of patient, meditative and grateful version of myself. Here is what I, a messy undergraduate student who has no authority to speak on Proust whatsoever, think we can reap from this freakishly large book:

 

The Reward is in the World Around You

This book is polluted (or decorated, you decide) with endless passages where the Narrator is describing flowers, the way the sun hits the church steeples and the different nature walks he would take with his family around his hometown, Combray. While reading these, I found myself waiting for the scene to unravel only to find out that action hardly ever occurred in the way I expected it to. In American novels, we are often badgered and almost intoxicated by endless streams of action while the scenery is only meant to serve as the background—something to disregard. Instead, Proust wants you to revel in the scenery. He wants your walks to Brothers College for your 10:25 a.m. class to be invigorated by the brilliant morning sunlight, the faint trail of an N.J. Transit train whistle or the deceptive way buildings emerge and disappear and emerge once again amongst a sea of trees. Cry over a sunset sometime, see how you like it.

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE IRISH TIMES 

 

Perfect People Suck

Halfway through the narrative, we see the title character, Swann, rapidly favored and then destroyed by the socially mobile and seemingly progressive Mme. and M. Verdurin. The Verdurins are trendy. They have all the coolest friends and seem to be on the cutting edge of what’s considered art. The perfect party with the perfect people is always somewhere else and we, like Swann, are gazing in from the outside hoping to someday be admitted into the “little clan.” This feeling has never held truer than for college students. Instagram and Facebook present us with false images of everyone else. We want to believe that other people are having more fun than we are, learning more important things than we are, progressing more rapidly in their field than we are. This could not be more wrong. Eventually, the untouchable Verdurins fall from grace and are seen as they are—self-righteous, talentless egotists who got lucky. So stop comparing yourself to these perfect people because they’re undoubtedly just as miserable as everyone else.

 

You and I and All of Us Are Our Memories

Early on in the novel, the Narrator reports that he has suffered insomnia for many nights now and is therefore somewhat depressed. All this changes one day when he famously eats a Madeleine with some tea causing in him a memory spasm that takes him back to his childhood in the French countryside. Not to say that depression is not a serious ailment to be taken lightly, but the narrative unravels to show this memory spasm having a profound effect on the Narrator’s psyche. In a way, these memory spasms happen to all of us. Often, we are reducing (or building up, you decide once again) our existences with memory, with what it means to be whoever we are. Sometimes life can manifest trauma we wished would fade from our persons while, other times, it can transport us back to a time when we were truly happy, relaxed or excited. Memories are powerful, and they must be mastered, managed and, when necessary, reimagined in order to remind us that we are not just our presents, but we are also our pasts; unforgivable, joyful and fading.

 

Andrew is a sophomore English major with a minor in International Relations.

 

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