Was it in the summer? It probably was . . . when you thought you had enough time on your hands to fill them with a book, when an unappointed space had appeared in your life . . . the summer when you decided to read Proust. Perhaps the impossible purpose appeared to you in late afternoon, at an hour customarily assigned to tea and to fingering volumes by Henry James. You would have had to have been—hear the toll of those terrible tenses?—you would have had to have been young. Or recently retired. Ambitious. Or convalescent. Feeling the need, sensing the opportunity, to improve yourself.

When André Gide first looked into Swann’s Way, it must have seemed a stack of sheets like any other, so his mind would not have been filled with the kind of foreboding that faces the climber of a mountain while still in the foothills looking up at his goal, a blanched peak whose slopes are already dotted with many a failed ambition. Gide’s encounter with the name “Proust” would not be like any of ours. He would remember the frivolous social snob while we would be ready to regard that same person as bearing a title, perhaps like others so often in the literary news—Joyce and Kafka and Mann—so that if we didn’t positively love what of Proust we finally read, we would never let on, for some small sins are more shameful to the soul than many a public crime.

Yet that’s the way we should have got into Swann’s Way—unaware, when it first came out—because during every decade after, in addition to the rambling work itself, books of commentary and criticism would begin to surround it like a barricade, adding to one’s trepidations. Not to mention idle conversations about the great work’s length, its difficulties, and laughable place in summertime’s hammock—attitudes that built its popular reputation. Am I ready? Am I worthy? Couldn’t I settle for Colette or even Sagan, each equally French?

When we begin Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, how much of the story does the author expect us to keep in mind as we read along? He expects us, I think, to remember about as much of Tom Jones’s history as Tom Jones does—for instance, to remember that Tom broke his leg, but not to remember all that was said by the visitors who appeared at his bedside. The text is meant to dwindle away, as past times do, and if some element is supposed to be retained for future use, we can be confident that Fielding will prompt us. How otherwise it is with Joyce, to name the most guilty. He would have us recollect Bloom’s orangeflower water hundreds of pages after its first appearance, while recognizing that the soap with which it is associated is even more important. The text is not a boat’s wake, meant to subside behind us; instead it rises up like a tidal wave, and pursues us as we read, ready to flood each succeeding page with previous meanings, and altering all that has gone before the way Henry James’s predicates surprise and abash their subjects with an ultimate turn of phrase.

How can past time be found, if the text in which its discovery is meant to be made is itself as forgetful as Smollett or Fielding or Scott or Trollope? Nor must a text that is the result of dauntless revisions be read as the skater skates, at the sharp edge of blade and the blunt of ice. Proust’s novel remembers more fully than any memory might. Moreover, it remembers in words redolent with sensation and rich with reflection. What has taken place in this novel, what has been rendered into such a verbal vision, it now remains for us to seek and realize and serve. That M, whose world I read of there, also stands for me. So much less was once required.

When the world is remembered in writing, it alters almost utterly in its density, in its absence of detail. “It, my body,” M says about waking, subsiding, waking up again, “my body would recall from each room in succession what the bed was like, where the doors were, how daylight came in at the windows, whether there was a passage outside, what I had had in my mind when I went to sleep, and had found there when I woke.” And the master makes certain that the reader has M’s sense of fullness, as if nothing has been or will be overlooked: “and my body . . . brought back before my eyes the glimmering flame of the night-light in its ball of Bohemian glass, shaped like an urn and hung by chains from the ceiling . . .” Yet it is only the suggestion of completeness that is given, not its reality, for those chains are darkening their brass with dust, the blue in the flame is rhythmically retreating before the orange, and in the chimney-piece of Siena marble that M mentions, there is a noticeable nick that I just put there—in short, no description possesses as much “this or that” as a camera might catch in the flicker of a finger, not to omit the states of mind that furnish a room from time to time with longing, appreciation, and panic.

Things and creatures in the real world buzz and blossom by the billions and we know to beware of their brevity, because decay and death are as continuous as being born or burgeoning. Reading Proust we are constantly, sadly, guiltily, reminded of the paucity of our own recollections: that life went on around us and we missed it; we might have pondered our place but we did not; we might have discerned connections, for they were there in Jamesian numbers, yet we failed to follow; we might have indulged an obsession, but we were too distracted by the trivial; we might have retained a fond touch, a glimmer of insight, a bit of wit; we might have; we might . . . have . . .

If the distance between what happens and what we have understood about it is dismaying, what of the difference our memory makes on the third day thence, the fifth week after, the seventh year just passed? An habitual victim of his body, Proust knew how great the chasm was between the mind and body. Outside M. Teste’s and Paul Valéry’s theater of the head, there was a reality indifferent to the plays put on by consciousness. We knew that world in part; it supplied our senses; it gave us occasion for concern, for delight, for desire; it gave us our place—Balbec, Paris, Combray—yet of us that world of matter and motion remained utterly unaware. Our lungs knew their air, but not our aspirations. Speaking of his grandmother’s failing health, M says, “It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.”

To remember, to imagine, to dream (all specialties of this house), is to depart the body for a land through which the body cannot travel. To read is to leave the library. Yet it is the body, as it stirs restlessly through the opening pages, that remembers M’s rooms; it is the body that prompts him; it nudges him without knowing he is there; its posture reminds him; his stiffened side reminds him, but his muscles do not feel the cramp they bear. So when we assume the position we habitually assume when we read, we ready our departure; our body must know, like a pet from the smell of our luggage, that we are off, and our eyes will see no more floor or wall or ceiling because we, as the true Proustian performer always does, will adopt another body, that of the type-furrowed field—the conceptual page—and become its syllabic music.

The real world is full of pointless purpose, inattentiveness, confusion, pain, and perplexity, as well as the hazards of its satisfactions. Yet in Proust’s pages, it is perceived, it is felt, it is contemplated, in a manner so utterly satisfying that those pains, in their depiction, become pleasures; confusions are given an order only we are permitted to understand; defeats are now worth every word of their account; failures victories if only in their voicing. And that is why—to live for a while, as we ought, in a fully realized world, though its understanding will be forever incomplete and quite beyond us—that is why we read Proust.