Marcel Proust was unusual in this as well: he turned every moment, from the most rarefied to the most ordinary, into an occasion for boundless introspection. He took the private temperament and mental habits of someone accustomed to prolonged solitude and applied them to the world around him, giving, as would become his signature, an internal mold to anything external. Everything, he discovered, from tea biscuits to stewed chicken to asparagus when they were in season, or from the very first stirrings of jealousy when a lover isn’t even aware he’s being cheated on down to the early morning streets with their telltale sounds that it rained all night—everything cried out to be looked at from the inside.
Proust not only made introspection and its attendant solitude the cornerstone of a new aesthetic; he built an epic around them. After he sought out the very rich and was coddled by them, or after he found love—which rarely happened—Proust, like the narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu, returned to his solitude, to his private world, as to a coming home. At the end of the novel, when Marcel finally has his artistic vocation revealed to him in three successive flashes, he discovers that the very solitude he had sought out and lived with all of his life, and which followed him like a shadow, was perhaps the most authentic and enduring thing about him.
And yet, quite apart from writing and reading, that solitude, voluntary as it was, must also have weighed on Marcel Proust—for he was very often alone. From the opening pages of his epic, Proust gives us several instances where, lying in the dark, having put away his book, Marcel is prey to terrible anxieties. The man who from his early twenties became an accomplished social creature and seemed to need no courage to brave the snubs that might come from climbing too fast from one exclusive salon to the next1 couldn’t stand being left alone in a hotel room. At the end of a difficult night in their adjacent bedrooms, what the adolescent Marcel needed most was to hear his grandmother tap three times on her side of the partition wall to tell him that he wasn’t alone, that someone would always “come to look after him,” that the ordeal was over. Her knock meant: “Don’t get agitated; I’ve heard you; I shall be with you in a minute. I could hear [you] just now, trying to make up [your] mind, and rustling the bedclothes, and going through all [your] tricks.”
What could be more intimate and more precious and less solitary in Proust’s universe than such intimacy between two beings? She knows he knows she knows that he’s reluctant to wake her up, but that the thing he needs most now is to hear her three little good-morning taps. What could be worse than to wake up somewhere strange and know that these three taps won’t come to relieve the dead silence…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.