Monday, July 25, 2011

In Search of Lost Nuance, or, Twitter and Proust

I quoted the following line from Francisco Goldman's moving, awkwardly intimate memoir Say Her Name (2011) on my Twitter feed today:
Show me the Proust of forgetting, and I'll read him tomorrow.
Stephen Mitchelmore, a blogger and critic I enjoy reading both for his perceptiveness and for his well defined taste and point of view, replied
What do you mean? Proust is as much about forgetting as remembering; habit and the sudden ending of habit.
Realizing I'd been quoting, he wrote that he presumed Goldman hadn't read In Search of Lost Time. I explained that I'd quoted the line because I liked the idea of an author who was as identified with forgetting as Proust is with remembering, but Mitchelmore wasn't convinced, writing:
I think it's awful; it's based on what's at best a misrepresentation, at worst a philistine refusal to understand.
It's nothing new to point out that Twitter's 140-character limit can kill nuance, but I do think this question deserves a bit more delving. First off, Mitchelmore is unquestionably right; in fact, what most surprised me about reading In Search of Lost Time for the first time fourteen years ago was that it was at least as much about losing the past, losing those things and people that we for so long in our lives take for granted as perpetual, as it was about retention. The famous memory-laden madeleine, which for the general literary public has essentially become a synecdoche for the whole sprawling novel, is itself as much a token of forgetting and neglect as it is of memory: it brings the past to life precisely because the mind has let it languish, unthought of. As Proust explains later in the second volume, Within a Budding Grove,
Now the memories of love are no exception to the general laws of memory, which in turn are governed by the still more general laws of Habit. And as Habit weakens everything, what best reminds us of a person is precisely what we have forgotten (because it was of no importance, and we therefore left it in full possession of its strength). That is why the better part of our memories exists outside of us, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which, when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source, can make us weep again. Outside us? Within us, rather, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged. It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the person that we were, place ourself in relation to things as he was placed, suffer anew because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what now leaves us indifferent. In the broad daylight of our habitual memory the images of the past turn gradually pale and fade out of sight, nothing remains of them, we shall never recapture it. Or rather we should never recapture it had not a few words . . . been carefully locked away in oblivion, just as an author deposits in the National Library a copy of a book which might otherwise become unattainable.
Funes the Memorious aside, it simply isn't possible to retain everything--much less to retain everything with its full emotional valence. Proust recognized that, and he explained and even dramatized it, along with the concomitant bursts of overwhelming recall that such selective memory enables, better than anyone.

Yet Proust is known as the writer of retention, of holding tight to memory. That's his public, madeleine-soaked image. Mitchelmore is right that such a thumbnail description is a misapprehension or misrepresentation, but I don't think those of us who have read, and loved, Proust have any chance of actually changing that perception now. The madeleine is Proust is the madeleine is Proust. Maybe Mitchelmore would disagree, or say that it's our duty to try nonetheless, but I tend to think, rather, that all we can do is encourage people to actually read Proust, engage with his prose and his mind, and be surprised by what they find.

And that's why I like Goldman's line, wrong as it is: given that we aren't likely to make the public acknowledge a more nuanced Proust, I like imagining a writer whose public persona, wanted or unwanted, is as closely tied to forgetting as Proust's is to remembering. What pleasures such a writer could offer! What nuances of the relationship between remembering and forgetting could he or she explore--informed, we would hope, by Proust's--and what mixed melancholy and joy such a writer could evoke!


  1. Perhaps Beckett? Malloy and Malone Dies seem greatly concerned with forgetting, or with things forgotten. Though those books lack the sweep and beauty of Proust.

  2. Mitchelmore's not much known for nuance. But I agree with you both that Proust is the Proust of forgetting - it's how the narrator describes himself in the (rare) present tense passages. He forgets a woman's name at a party. He ventriloquizes the reader's contempt - how can he set up as a writer if he's forgetting names? And he answers: just you wait, Mr. Reader, till you too live in a zone of forgetfulness, as he does.

    But anyhow, what Goldman (who loves Bolaño) ought to read is Javier Marías.

  3. James A.2:14 PM

    W.G. Sebald could be the author of forgetting, or at least of the author of the vain attempt to resuscitate the past from the tidal wave of new information sweeping the past away from us.