I Can’t Remember To Forget You: Proust and the Mother of All Descriptive Novels


Description. It doesn’t come easily to me. Other writers have spoken about this–there seems to be a definite divide among writers: some agonize over dialogue, while others have trouble with description. As a reader, I have to admit, I don’t like to read long passages of description. Okay, I admit it: sometimes I just skip pages and pages of the damn descriptive stuff. Does this make me a bad person? I only hope God doesn’t throw those skipped pages in my face at the final reckoning.

Since the novel I’m writing could benefit from better description, I figured that a good way to learn how to do it would be to read the great novelists who are best at it. So after a lot of temporizing, I made the plunge and picked up the first volume of the Mother of All Descriptive Novels, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. When I say picked up, I should point out that at over a million words and seven volumes, the novel is difficult to pick up at all without straining yourself. But anyway, I’ve started reading the first volume, Swann’s Way, and well, how can I put it delicately? It’s freakin’ torture! It is requiring a real act of will to continue reading. Someone I know, a Proust fan, says blithely, “Oh, yes, the first volume is like that. It only starts getting good halfway into the second volume.” Oh, joy.

Yet it is oddly compelling in its own molasses-like way. Right now, I’ve made it to page 100, and here’s one example of what I’ve run across so far:

All these things and, still more than these, the treasures which had come to the church from personages who to me were almost legendary figures (such as the golden cross wrought, it was said, by Saint Eloi and presented by Dagobert, and the tomb of the sons of Louis the Germanic in porphyry and enamelled copper), because of which I used to go forward into the church when we were making our way to our chairs as into a fairy-haunted valley, where the rustic sees with amazement on a rock, a tree, a marsh, the tangible proofs of the little people’s supernatural passage–all these things made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space–the name of the fourth being Time–which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant, hiding the rugged barbarities of the eleventh century in the thickness of its walls, through which nothing could be seen of the heavy arches, long stopped and blinded with coarse blocks of ashlar, except where, near the porch, a deep groove was furrowed into one wall by the tower-stair; and even there the barbarity was veiled by the graceful gothic arcade which pressed coquettishly upon it, like a row of grown-up sisters who, to hide him from the eyes of strangers, arrange themselves smilingly in front of a countrified, unmannerly and ill-dressed younger brother; rearing into the sky above the Square a tower which had looked down upon Saint Louis, and seemed to behold him still; and thrusting down with its crypt into the blackness of a Merovingian night, through which, guiding us with groping finger-tips beneath the shadowy vault, ribbed strongly as an immense bat’s wing of stone, Théodore or his sister would light up for us with a candle the tomb of Sigebert’s little daughter, in which a deep hole, like the bed of a fossil, had been bored, or so it was said, “by a crystal lamp which, on the night when the Frankish princess was murdered, had left, of its own accord, the golden chains by which it was suspended where the apse is to-day and with neither the crystal broken nor the light extinguished had buried itself in the stone, through which it had gently forced its way.”

You may have noticed that that was one sentence. There evidently was a period shortage in France at the time. But there is still something fascinating about it.

As I was reading it, I was trying to recall of whom Proust reminded me, and then it hit me: Samuel Beckett. Now this may seem an odd choice. Beckett is so stripped down, while for Proust everything is decoration, and yet what struck me were two things: first, the total obsession of the two authors in detailing the inner mental processes of their protagonists, and second, the absolute commitment by each author to put down the entire mental process on paper, no matter how tedious, incoherent, or repetitious. Now it may sound like I am criticizing them, but I’m not. It takes a kind of ferocious courage to be so committed. As a reader, I am thinking, oh, are they really going to do this, is Beckett really going to describe how his protagonist moves stones from one pocket to the other and then to his mouth for page after page after page? Is Proust really going to go on and on and on with his description of what every nook and cranny of the town’s church meant to his protagonist? And after a while, the answer becomes apparent: yes they really are. And for me, my numbness turns into a kind of wonder at their bull-headedness. I remember once when I was eight years old I had decided to write down a million circles. I don’t remember how far I got, but if I had finished it, it would have been really cool. That’s how I’m feeling about Proust right now.

It’s interesting to think about how at the turn of the twentieth century, the cultural air of Europe was filled with the explication of mental process. Freud and the flowering of psychoanalysis; Stanislavsky on the inner motivation of the actor; Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen writing plays where the true realism resided in the innermost recesses of the characters’ psyches; expressionist painters who depicted the inner states of their subjects in outward form. And, of course, Proust. The drive was always to make the inner explicitly outer, open to be read and seen.  And equally important, to reveal the connection between inner and outer, and to show how the inner was the prime motor of the outer.

I’m not sure what I can learn from Proust explicitly about writing description, but I have a feeling that if I can make my way through the novel–or at least this first volume (my years on the planet are limited like all of us, after all)–then I might gain some descriptive power by a kind of osmosis. By bathing in it, I hope to benefit from the residue.

That’s the theory, anyway. If it doesn’t work out, at least I can say to God that I feel the Proust pages I did read should offset all those pages of description that I skipped over through the years. If She’s got any sense of fair play at all, I figure She’s got to give me a break on that. And there better be plenty of madelines up there.