“Cross-Pollination,” by Nadine Gordimer, appears in PEN America 2: Home and Away. This talk was originally presented at a Twentieth-Century Masters Tribute to Marcel Proust, sponsored by the PEN American Center, Lincoln Center, the PEN Forums Committee, and Lipper Publications.


There are two ways in which great literature impacts upon society. The one is cultural, a narrow definition of culture as practice of the arts. The writer breaks the traditional seals of the word, takes off into exploration of new modes of expression, challenges and changes what fiction is. After Proust, after Joyce, yes, the novel could never be the same. How Marcel Proust changed the concept of the novel as a form, I know, has been and will be expounded in this company of eminent Proustian scholars, and so I shan’t have the presumption to enter the debate, which I find, so far, has been a very fascinating one.

The other impact of great literature is its power of changing the consciousness of the reader, even if that lay reader were to have no awareness of how it’s been done—the literary techniques and devices the writer has taken up, activated, re-invented, or invented. As a fiction writer, I have of course been alertly privy to and, no doubt, I’ve learned from the literary innovations of Marcel Proust. But a writer finds her or his own voice, or isn’t a writer. What has remained with me for a lifetime is the influence of Proust’s emotional and aesthetic perceptions. So what I want to talk about is this other impact, the Proust who influences the persona—the Proust after reading whom, the reader can never be the same. This is a grave matter, wonderful, perhaps dangerous. For there are those among us whose epiphany comes not from the face of religion, philosophy, or politics, but from the illumination of the subterranean passages of life by the imaginative writer. I was at quite an advanced age, I think in my late teens, for one who’d lived in books since early childhood when, long after Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Flaubert, I came upon that mistitled Remembrance of Things Past, in the Scott Moncrieff translation. I’d survived a lonely, mother-love–dominated childhood, and so my first response was one of recognition. Here was a writer who understood that childhood better than I did myself. It was an identification.

But later, as I read and returned to that book, its effect was something different, prophetic to the series of presents, existential stages, I was coming to, passing through. Holed up in an armchair in the tin-roofed house of a mining town in the South African veldt far, far away from Combray, Balbec, and the Boulevard Haussmann, I discovered that the intense response that I had to natural beauty, to flowers, trees, and the sea, visited once a year, wasn’t something high-mindedly removed from the drives of existence I was struggling with, but was part of a sensuality which informs and belongs with awakening sexuality; the conflation of emotional and the aesthetic formation.

Every time—anytime—one turns back to the novel, one finds the delight of something relevant to past perception that one had missed before. For example, in my recent rereading of A la recherche du temps perdu, my third in French, I’ve seen how pollen recurs: the natural product become a metaphor, the wind-distributed fecundity part of the very air which we breathe. First coming from the regard of the girl—you will remember that the narrator follows with his eyes on the drive with Mme de Villeparisis in A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. And then there’s that bumblebee that enters the courtyard with pollen that signifies the attraction cast in the air between the Baron de Charlus and the lowly waistcoat maker Jupien. Proust himself pollinates ineffable connections between needs and emotions aroused by various means in us. In the context of projected existence, I came to Proust from D. H. Lawrence and Blake. Sexuality was fulfillment guaranteed to the bold, to anyone who would flout interdictions and free desire:

Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs & flaming hair,
But Desire gratified
Plants fruits of life & beauty there.

And this Blakian gratification between men and women was the image, to me, of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, dancing on simulated clouds. Like Italo Calvino, I formed my notion of future emotional life as innocently and lyingly portrayed by the movies of the time.

The processes of loving, as exemplified in the desperate pilgrimage of Swann—and what a way that is: ecstatic, frustrating, impossible to turn away from, viewing the pursued beloved from the terrible angles of suspicion, losing the will to continue, grabbed by the will to go on. Always, moving along with him, one has moments when one wants to shake him and say, “Stop!” And one sees he cannot, he will not. Maybe that’s the principle of love. And in the end, of course, that devastating conclusion, this woman, for whom he spoiled years of his life, was really not his type at all.

Proust reformed, informed, my youthful understanding of the expectations of sexual love, showed me its immense complexity, its ultimate dependency on the impossibility of knowing the loved one—the very defeat of possession—and this concomitant process of self-knowledge, often dismaying. The cloud-mating of Fred and Ginger dispersed forever. In the life of the emotions I was embarked upon, my expectations were tutored by the greatest exploration ever made of the divine mystery of the sexual life in its ambient world of sensuality.

There’s no time to discuss the continuation of the theme with Albertine, only I’d like to observe that not only does it not matter a damn if Albertine was really an Albert transformed by the alchemy of imagination rather than a sex-change operation. No one has written better than Marcel Proust, himself a homosexual, of heterosexual relations. Perhaps literary genius can be defined yet once again as creativity that is all things, knows everything, in every human.

After early readings of the book, I read Les Plaisirs et les jours, Jean Santeuil, and Contre Sainte-Beuve, but to these I haven’t returned. I have more or less the gamut of Proust scholarship in English and French, but all has been surpassed, for me, by the publication this year of Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way, an amazing feat of originality where one would have thought that all the gold-bearing ore had long been brought to the surface. My present reading of The Book has become a new one because of Roger Shattuck’s book, filled with new understanding, possibilities, and new joys, through the variety of lenses provided by Shattuck’s radiant vision: Marcel Proust is a writer with whom one moves along for life, reading, and re-reading, without ever exhausting the sources he reveals only when one is ready for them.

At the grand and poignant final social gathering of all social gatherings, narrator Marcel finds past friends and acquaintances unrecognizably changed by age while still having the sense of himself as he’d been in his mother’s eyes. And you’ll remember that he replies to a young woman’s invitation to dine: “With pleasure, if you don’t mind dining alone with a young man.” And only when he hears people giggle, he adds hastily: “or rather, an old man.” Later he realizes that the span of time represented by the aspect of that gathering not only had been lived through, but was his life presented to him. As I grow old, I find myself ready for the revelation in Time Regained, of this Proustian source, when among old friends with whom I was always the youngest of the circle, I realize we are now, all alike, disguised in the garb of aging. And I, like everyone else, have to be introduced to myself. Proust makes it another epiphany.