After the Fall
Without official approval, I should like to dedicate these proceedings to the reading groups and secret Proust readers who are here tonight, and who have produced something called a house. A full house, for Marcel Proust. And we will honor Proust most, I believe, if we stick for just a few minutes to scripture. Therefore, here beginneth the first verse of the first chapter of the book called A la recherche du temps perdu, In Search of Lost Time:
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: “Je m’endors.” Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu’il était temps de chercher le sommeil m’éveillait . . .
And now a translation of the opening passage composed for this occasion. Those of you who have tried to translate the first sentence will know that it is impossible. Therefore it has to be translated:
Early to bed with a book. I have tried that for years. Many times I would blow out my candle and drop off to sleep so fast that I didn’t register what was happening and, half an hour later, the thought that it was time for me to go to sleep would wake me up again. During that brief sleep, I had entered into the life of the book I was reading, had entered it so utterly, that I became its subject. A quartet, a church, the rivalry between Francis I and Charles V. This belief in a new identity didn’t trouble me, but like a film over my eyes, it prevented me from noticing that my candle had blown out. Tenderly, I pressed my cheek into the plump pillow, so cool and soft that it seemed to offer me the cheeks of childhood itself . . .
Soon Proust does go on to describe the magical childhood of the young Marcel. But something not often noticed happens first: there comes the great fall. By about page three, we are swept away into a swift and deep descent, a descent back to childhood, a descent back to Adam and Eve, a descent back to the cavemen, and finally, back to the condition that Proust calls “the abyss of non-being.” This distinct fall at the beginning links Proust’s book to Genesis, to Dante, with the descent into Hell at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, and to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, beginning with the rabbit-hole. But Proust’s descent, or his narrator’s fall, is much more dire and dreadful than that of these other books. If you grasp the true significance of that immense fall at the beginning, then you will also understand why it took Proust three thousand pages to climb back up out of that hole to find the present again, to find his own skin, and finally, to find that puzzling set of conventions that we call civilization. Along the way, Proust offers us a million little details, delicious items, small things like—I shall only mention it—the asparagus. Like the street cries, which the narrator listens to in his bed. And, if you’ve read far enough, like the two pimples which appear on Albertine’s forehead, signifying what? We never quite learn.
But all these millions of little things add up, I believe, to one big thing. In Search of Lost Time offers us a record of how it feels, of how it feels in our very system, to be alive—both to be alive as generic human beings, and to be alive as our own sorry, yearning selves. Proust, many of us understand, is the most sensuous novelist who ever lived and wrote for us, and we give thanks.