Theories of Relativity
Marcel Proust lived from 1871 to 1922, an era that he characterized as the Age of Speed. These exciting, momentous years encompassed the Fin de Siècle, Belle Epoch, and World War I. By the time Proust was forty, the gas-lit world of his youth had been transformed by electric lighting, the telephone, the phonograph, the automobile, the airplane, and motion pictures. When he began writing his novel, Paris streets bustled with an astonishing variety of pedestrians, ambulatory vendors, drivers and their horses, and a number of the new self-propelling vehicles called automobiles. He could see the past and future on parade, as horse-drawn carriages made way for cars. Part of the fascination of reading In Search of Lost Time derives from its vivid depiction of the major social, political, and technological forces that changed daily life, and the way people perceived time and space.
In September 1905, when Proust was thirty-four, his mother died. His intense grief lasted until 1907, when a summer vacation brought about a dramatic change in him. Depressed and ill, he had in recent months gotten out of bed only once a week, without dressing. After he arrived at the seaside resort, the pure air, joined with a deadly dose of caffeine—seventeen cups—allowed him to hire a driver, Alfred Agostinelli, and go out every day in a closed car. Riding across the Normandy countryside with Agostinelli in his red taxi was, Proust said, like being shot out of a cannon. As the taxi sped along the road toward Caen, famous for its medieval churches, Proust watched the distant spires appear and disappear against the horizon in constantly shifting perspectives, and he marveled at the phenomenon of parallax and relativity, so keenly felt in the automobile.
Stillness and mobility relate to art and desire in Proust’s world. Girls in motion, most often seen on bicycles, aroused desire in the narrator. Albertine, chief among the girls whom Proust calls “creatures of flight,” always exhibits an enthusiasm for sports and bicycles, automobiles and airplanes. Fast by nature, Albertine becomes, through the narrator’s obsessive jealousy, a truly volatile figure: “Even when you hold them in your hands, such persons are fugitives. To understand the emotions they arouse, and which others, even better-looking, do not, we must realize that they are not immobile, but in motion, and add to their person a sign corresponding to that which in physics denotes speed.”
Proust’s elaboration on the theme of time shows that he is not only aware of the constantly shifting nature of things, but is haunted by it. Change, and reaction to change, set the tone of the period. The Great War, in which common soldiers became the heroes, and also the first one in which airplanes were used to launch bombs, accelerated the process of transformation. After the war, the Guermantes’ salon, once the epitome of aristocratic elegance and snobbery, is described as a broken-down machine no longer functioning properly and unable to maintain its fierce exclusivity. This is but another turn of the Proustian kaleidoscope. Even the ultra-chic Faubourg Saint-Germain must yield to the forces of time, as the narrator observes: “Thus it is that the pattern of the things of this world changes. That centers of empire, assessments of wealth . . . all that seemed to be forever fixed is constantly being refashioned, so that the eyes of a man who has lived can contemplate the most total transformation, exactly where change would have seemed to him to be most impossible.”
Late in life, the narrator returns to the Bois de Boulogne, hoping to find living memories of his youth. “Smitten by a desire to see again what I had once loved, as ardent as the desire that had driven me many years before along the same paths, I wished to see anew before my eyes at the moment when Mme Swann’s enormous coachman . . . endeavored to curb the ardor of those horses,” frenzied and light as wasps on the wing, as they thundered over the ground. “Alas! there was nothing now but motor-cars driven each by a moustached mechanic. . . . How horrible! I exclaimed to myself. Can anyone find these motor-cars as elegant as the old carriage-and-pair?”
“The places we have known,” he concludes, “do not belong only to the world of space, on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”
The new heroes of the Age of Speed—the cyclist, the chauffeur, and the aviator—all appear in Proust’s novel. Albertine the cyclist is a mysterious, erotic creature, while the aviator symbolizes the artist. At the beginning of the novel’s climactic scene, the narrator, at last looking inward for the keys to his past, suddenly feels himself rising in flight, like an airman who, hitherto, has progressed laboriously along the ground, abruptly taking off. “I soared slowly toward the silent heights of memory.”
One of the most modern aspects of In Search of Lost Time is that it is an open-ended novel, built on the model of the universe. In 1931, Edmund Wilson declared this book the literary equivalent of Einstein’s theory: “Proust has re-created the world of the novel from the point of view of relativity. He has supplied for the first time in literature an equivalent on the full scale for the new theory of physics.” In doing so, Proust creates new ways of looking at the world, making In Search of Lost Time one of the most complex and stimulating optics that we have for viewing our own lives. Through the dynamic use of shifting perspectives, as the narrator journeys toward his goal, Proust offers the reader a kaleidoscopic view of a world in motion. Few writers have given us so many enthralling ways of looking at the world and our own experience. By making us aware of the unplumbed layers within ourselves, Proust expands and celebrates the range and depth of our perception.