Why Proust?

I have been asked the question in the title twice recently, only to find myself seemingly incapable of explaining my reasons without stating the obvious. It was not the first time that words did not come to me as I really want,1 and I am sure it will not be last. In order to avoid being cornered by “why Proust?” inquiries again, I decided to put my answer into writing.

Marcel Proust’s name entered my life around my last days of high school. Back then I just had the luxury of an online forum’s community to escape my small, rural town and access a broader range of cultural items. The forum had a section where topics about books showed up every now and then. Truth be told, we were more into films and music, but luckily I wasn’t alone in my passion for literature. I was, and to a certain degree still am, a novice in this regard, so I used to take every recommendation as a chance to widen my limited horizon.

When a member opened a topic about Proust, though, I was scared. I had already read some classics, I knew my way around some English and French literature, but the guy did not care to mention, among other things, that À la recherche du temps perdu was over 4000 pages, nor that it’s nearly impossible to understand without taking into consideration its author’s life. Plus, I didn’t have a teacher as good as the one who made me fall in love with I Promessi Sposi next to me.2 I could only think of one thing: let’s bookmark Marcel Proust in my mind and get back to him when I feel ready. Slightly embarrassingly, I felt ready almost twenty years later. Put otherwise, it was never the right time to pick up Proust.

We could argue about the notion of right time for ages, I suppose. To me, the right time to do something is when it feels natural to do it, to the point that I start doing it without really thinking about what took me there instead of somewhere else. The right time is also a wonderful and mysterious feeling, especially with books. I remember fondly the right time for Roberto Bolaño and David Foster Wallace because an ever-changing stream of emotions bathed me while reading their works. And even more incredibly inexplicable was the right time for Baruch Spinoza, with the implications of his philosophy destroying most of my thoughts about the world around me. These authors happened to be what I needed in a particular moment in my life, and the fact that they have stayed with me since then adds depth to my idea of “right time”.

When was the right time for Marcel Proust and À la recherche du temps perdu? I cannot pinpoint a day, but last year both the writer and the book found their ways back to me. It had mainly to do with university, I suppose. My partner took a class with a professor who teaches Proust, albeit not in that specific course. Proust was named, though. As it is my custom, I started endless talks on my desire to know more about him, subtly convincing my partner to shut me up by joining me in the hunt for the Italian edition of La Recherche.3

While devoted to its pages, two things happened. First, during a course on Gilles Deleuze we spent quite some time on his Proust and Signs, working on the relevance of Henri Bergson’s concept of virtual memory on both Deleuze and Proust. My enthusiasm was so manifest that on the day of the exam I ended up talking about Proust even if I wasn’t explicitly asked about him.4 Second, rather impulsively, I enrolled on the course of the aforementioned professor to enjoy a theoretical study of La Recherche with some help from Mikhail Bakhtin, György Lukács, Thomas G. Pavel, and Franco Moretti.

The more I learn about La Recherche, the more I want to know about Marcel Proust. His first writings, his early poetry, his essays, George D. Painter’s classic biography, I just cannot stop reading, and I am now seriously considering learning French to dig deeper.5 Just as it happened with Bolaño, Wallace, and Spinoza, Proust’s words speak to sides of me that I wasn’t even aware of having. They seem to understand me better than anyone else, not solely because they shine a light on my inner self, but because they confront me with possibilities yet to come and paths I’d better not take. This is why Proust.

  1. See: Giacomo Leopardi was a loser

  2. See: The best books of 2021

  3. There are different editions and formats of Proust’s masterpiece available in Italy. I wanted the seven volumes translated by Giovanni Raboni, which are starting to be replaced by a new one volume edition, large and heavy enough to make holding it with your hands an endless struggle. 

  4. The professor appreciated it anyway. 

  5. The entirety of Proust’s correspondence is not available in Italian.