The little phrase I’m about to read comes from a famous passage in Sodom and Gomorrah when Marcel the narrator is suddenly reminded of his grandmother. He had stayed at the same beach resort in Balbec with her once, but now, more than a year after her death, he’s back at the very same hotel. What he finds, as Proustian characters always find when they expect maximum emotion is, however, minimum sensation. He encounters, more or less, what he experienced at the time of her death, a sense of surprise at feeling so singularly numb, almost indifferent, blasé. All of it is colored by Marcel’s overloaded feeling of not feeling enough, and by the hope that this shamed admission of emotional inadequacy might itself pass for a form of genuine emotion. Now, surrounded by the indolent charm of the grand hotel, what the young adult Marcel thinks of when he arrives at Balbec is not his grandmother, but the social life awaiting him, of the band of young girls he had met there once before, and of the vague, tantalizing thing which Marcel always looks forward to: something exotic, someone new, unexpected, different, who might ultimately lure him out of his humdrum, bookish cocoon, into what Proust calls a new life.

As for his grandmother: well, if bereavement is the toll the living must pay for the loss of a loved one, then clearly Marcel, to use Jane Austen’s words, has been let off easily. But we are, of course, being set up. For as soon as Marcel is in his hotel room, and bends down to undo one of his boot buttons, something his grandmother had helped him do in that very same room, he suddenly bursts out sobbing, vehemently. What hits him is not just that he misses her terribly, but that he will never, ever, see her again. Because for the first time in his life, and in a manner that devastates him, the arch-premeditator Marcel finally understands, long after it happened, that his grandmother is in fact dead. Yet, come to think of it, this shouldn’t be surprising. Emotion, as every reader of Proust knows after about thirty pages, always comes unannounced, obliquely, inadvertently, just as it does, say, in Freud. The more unexpected, the more poignant it is.

This is how life works in Proust. Conversely, one may bump into the right people, but never when one wants to. One may get what one wants, but only after giving it up, or wanting something else instead. We reach out to seize precious moments not as they are happening to us, but once it’s clear that we’ve lost them. So far, so good. The set up is familiar enough. Proust—this cross between Freud, Woody Allen, and Murphy of Murphy’s Law—is one of us. How well we know him, and how well he knows us. How well he understands repression. And how simple and direct that outburst of earnest grief, and how admirable his knowledge that it is always better to feel something, anything, than to feel nothing at all; that human beings should, and want to, feel things; that we are each of us heat-seeking subjects starved for feeling. Which is why, even at the risk of getting hurt, or making tremendous fools of ourselves, we will not shirk from being drawn to certain places, to certain objects, certain odors, to art, to tears, to plants, to writing, to memory, to music, to vice, and of course, to other human beings. Because by so doing, each of us finds a secret, private conduit to an inner life that is not just our new life, or our true life, but our whole life.

How magnificently—and predictably—modern Proust is. So, for the sake of argument, because I am perverse, let me overturn everything I’ve been saying and ask: What if this true inner life is nothing more than a life made to be lost? But lost before it was ever possessed, or even glimpsed, though it seems to have been lived, because it claims to be remembered. What if this true, inner life hovers on the horizon like a ghost ship that never materializes, but never vanishes either? What if this other life were an ancillary life called: paper. An unlived life made on paper, lived for paper, by a man raised and fed on paper, who has learned that life itself can be so drearily unimaginative sometimes that by a sort of miracle that justifies his life-long commitment and confinement to paper, life will mimic what could only have happened on paper. Where else but on paper does a man desperately seeking a woman among millions in Paris actually bump into her on the streets at night? Proust’s bookish eye is transfixed by those moments in life that are stunning, not because of their inherent beauty, but because they cry out to be committed, that is returned, to paper, to literature, to fiction, the ultimate seat of the inner life.

Small wonder that Proust put so much stock in style. The Proustian sentence, which personifies procrastination, allows him to sink in to paper and never to come up for air, to pile up metaphors and clauses, and take all sorts of sinuous turns, the better to take sorrow and pain and spread them out like gold into cadence, just cadence, because cadence is like feeling, and cadence is like breathing, and cadence is desire, and if cadence doesn’t reinvent everything we would like our life to be, or to become, or to have been, then just the act of searching, and probing, in that particularly cadenced way, becomes a way of feeling, and of being in the world. And yet, having built such a paper world, Proust can suddenly overturn everything I’ve been suggesting, and jolt out, like someone waking from a dream, sputtering things as randomly, and inchoately, as a man who has barely learned how to speak.

No reader of Montaigne can forget that stunning moment when, after probing why he loved his deceased friend Etienne de La Boétie so much, the author of the essays, this master-stylist of baroque prose, breaks down and scrawls out one of the most beautiful sentences penned in French: “You ask me why I loved him,” Montaigne says. “I don’t know. All I can say is parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi.” Because it was he, because it was I. Proust too knows how to cut through layer after layer of searching and probing prose and write as brief a sentence, if only because it too, like his sudden outburst, wells up in him and erupts on something that is more than just paper now. “You ask me why I love my grandmother,” he says. “I don’t know. All I know is this”—and here is the little sentence I promised you earlier— “Elle était ma grand-mère et j’était son petit-fils.” She was my grandmother, and I was her grandson. And if that’s not enough, a few lines down, Proust will say it again, more forcefully. While staring at her photograph in his hotel room, he will say it in even more guileless terms: “C’est ma grand-mère, je suis son petit-fils.” It’s my grandma. I’m her grandson. Anyone can write this. But of course, what surrounds it makes it eloquent. More to the point: life can’t compete with this. Life doesn’t even come close. And, come to think of it, perhaps no one alive can today.