Introduction – My Decipherings of Proust
“What we have not had to decipher and to analyse by our own efforts, anything that was clear before we came, does not belong to us.” [Vol III TR 914]
The decipherings gathered here are some of my own efforts to make The Search clear and to make it belong to me. Perhaps they are most meaningful to the second time reader. These are small pieces, little joys that rise and fall like selves, little insights – like the little clan, the little church, the little phrase, the little flowers.
My decipherings were often set in motion by little questions : Where did the Swanns live after marriage? What kind of music did Mlle Vinteuil’s friend value? Why was the young Marcel joyous when seeing the trees? Invariably, the little questions led me into larger territory, resonances and understandings.
The image above shows the first page of the Search. Its famous first line “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” is firmly installed in the pantheon of famous first lines along with “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood” or, “Let us go, then, you and I … “ or, “Call me Ishmael.” The first page is flanked by the little Proust booklets with pictures on the covers (“bookies.”)
Generally, I read The Search neither as roman à clef nor as autobiography – although there are certainly elements of both. Reading this way may be rewarding to the historian or critic – what real life person does X in the book represent? What events in Proust’s own life are told? However, neither of these two labors rewards me with my own joy in Proust. From him, I learned many new things about how to read, about history and society, about seeing, connecting thoughts, interiorizing the outside, exteriorizing the inside.
For the identities of conversationalists in some Proust discussion venues, I use first names or initials. These venues – my own Manhattan Proust Salon, the Proust discussion list at Yahoo, the Proust Society at the Mercantile Library – have all contributed in various ways to my understanding and joy in reading Proust. I am deeply indebted to so many for ideas, questions, criticism, corrections.