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On Reading Proust

Stephen Breyer, interviewed by Ioanna Kohler

The following interview with Justice Stephen Breyer was conducted in French by Ioanna Kohler and was initially published in La Revue des Deux Mondes in Paris as part of a special issue entitled “Proust vu d’Amérique.” It appears here in translation.

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Adoc-photos/Art Resource
Marcel Proust on vacation with his family, circa 1892

Ioanna Kohler: In the preface to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, Proust talks about the importance of the memories associated with reading, the circumstances and setting in which we read a particular book. When and in what setting did you read À la recherche du temps perdu?

Stephen Breyer: I read the Recherche when I was working as a legal intern at an American law firm in Paris. I was trying to learn French, so I read all seven volumes in French. Every night I drew up vocabulary index cards with lists of the new words that I’d learned from Proust. But luckily I found that the lists became shorter and shorter as I made my way deeper into the book! In any case, it was with Proust’s work that I first began to read authors in the original French. And that was something I continued with other French authors.

IK: By starting with Proust, you certainly didn’t begin with the easiest author!

SB: Perhaps not, but in that period of my life, I had plenty of time and I could afford to devote myself to that challenging text. I had no final exams to study for, no particular pressure at all. And for that matter, once I reached the end of the Recherche, I immediately reread it. Which is something that happens, I believe, to many readers. In Time Regained, it becomes clear that everything you’ve read up to this point constitutes the inner journey of a man who aspires to become a writer and finally finds his subject, his material: himself and the whole of his life, during which he was convinced that he had lost, or wasted, his time. At that point, you feel the urge to reread the book in order to better understand this inner journey.

IK: The Recherche is a work of literature that you particularly cherish. Why? What was it in Proust’s novel that especially touched you?

SB: It’s all there in Proust—all mankind! Not only all the different character types, but also every emotion, every imaginable situation. Proust is a universal author: he can touch anyone, for different reasons; each of us can find some piece of himself in Proust, at different ages. For instance, the narrator of the Recherche is obsessed with the Duchesse de Guermantes. To him, Oriane embodies a slice of the history of France and glows like a stained-glass window, wreathed in the aura of her aristocratic lineage. Now, however different the situations may be, we have all of us—in our childhood, our adolescence, or later in life—admired from afar someone who has dazzled us for this reason or that. And when we read Proust, we get a glimpse of ourselves. In fact, I think that the only human emotion he never explored—because he never experienced it himself—was that of becoming a father.

What is most extraordinary about Proust is his ability to capture the subtlest nuances of human emotions, the slightest variations of the mind and the soul. To me, Proust is the Shakespeare of the inner world.

IK: Is there a scene in the Recherche that made a particular impression on you?

SB: Various passages come to mind. There’s the wonderful “farewell to the hawthorns,” so poetic and full of humor, as the boy takes his leave, before his family returns to Paris, of the small flowering trees near their house. There’s the passage about how the Martinville bell towers, which he sees from a distance while traveling back to Combray, thrill and transport him. And he discovers that he can preserve these impressions by translating his emotions into written words.

And then there is that especially cruel passage where Swann pays what he knows will be one of his last calls on his friend the Duchesse de Guermantes, and she behaves with perfect nonchalance, pretending not to know how sick he is and that his days are numbered. This scene shows how fundamentally self-centered the duchesse really was. The book shows in various scenes the changing attitudes of the upper French classes toward Jews—brought about by the need to show class loyalty by supporting the army’s condemnation of Captain Dreyfus. And the Dreyfus case was no doubt a factor in the duchesse’s cold attitude toward Swann.

IK: Before we began this interview, you made a point of the fact that you are no expert on Proust. But you were being too modest, because you seem to have the Recherche at your fingertips.

SB: I like to dive back into Proust from time to time. In fact, I recently reread Swann’s Way. It’s fascinating: What does Swann see in Odette? What does Odette represent? It’s a mystery! In fact, she’s not a pretty woman: she’s not especially charming or particularly intelligent—to tell the truth, she’s even quite homely! But Odette has managed to turn herself into a work of art. With her allure, her choice of clothing, the flowers that adorn her neckline, the way she holds her parasol as she strolls, she becomes an artwork. And later, in the Albertine cycle, the narrator is obsessed with the Venetian couturier Fortuny. Why? Because Fortuny transformed women into works of art.

IK: This year marks the centennial of the publication of Swann’s Way. In your opinion, what is the novel’s greatest contribution?

SB: What I especially remember is the meditation on the passing of time at the very end of that volume, when the narrator strolls through the Bois de Boulogne just as Odette used to do so many years before. But the forest he walks through is no longer Odette’s forest. Time has passed. Women are no longer dressed the same way, the fashion has changed, automobiles have made their appearance. And as he watches the women promenade down the chestnut-lined allées, the narrator wonders: “Where has Odette’s world gone? Has it vanished forever?” The answer of course will come much later, in Time Regained. This world still exists, but it does so in our memory, in our recollections, and what gives it new life, what rescues it from oblivion, is literary creation. It is the work of art that allows us to rediscover lost time.

IK: Proust pushed the borders of psychological analysis and the understanding of the motives underlying human behavior quite far. He also tried to establish general laws, above and beyond specific situations.

SB: Yes, and for that matter, the only reason characters “survive” is because the narrator has succeeded in deriving a general law that explains their behavior, however nuanced and complex it might be. That’s what safeguards their individuality, that’s what keeps them from being forgotten.

IK: What do you think of Proust’s characters?

SB: I find their complexity fascinating—both the main characters and the secondary ones. I am fascinated, for instance, by Françoise, the housekeeper and cook, first for the narrator’s great aunt at Combray and, after the aunt’s death, for the narrator’s own family in Paris. She embodies at the same time devotion itself and quite an extraordinary cruelty and lack of empathy. You can see it in her treatment of the kitchen maid, the one whom Swann compares to Giotto’s Charity, and whom Françoise orders to peel the asparagus even though the poor girl is allergic to it. Then there’s Dr. Cottard, who stands out for his dullness of wit in the circle of the Verdurins but who proves to be a veritable genius in the field of medicine. Or Bergotte, a great literary mind but a quite unremarkable man in society, a man who is chiefly fond of vicious gossip. It is these contradictory characteristics within a single person that are so interesting.

IK: Proust’s work contains quite a gallery of characters: there are artists among them, certainly, but also doctors, a university professor, and a diplomat. In contrast with Balzac, it seems that men of the law—judges, notaries, lawyers—are absent from this human comedy. How do you interpret this absence?

SB: I’m not sure I have an answer to your question. Could it be because, in contrast with medicine, the law is not necessarily a field that rewards genius? In any case, the Dreyfus case plays an important part in the Recherche. Proust describes quite well the sharp division between the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards, showing that what prevailed at the time in fashionable salons and in society at large was loyalty—not truth.

IK: During a lecture you delivered at New York Law School, a student asked you what major you would recommend he select in order to become a lawyer. Your answer was quite surprising: you suggested that he choose “whatever major you want, as long as it has nothing to do with the law.” You, in fact, studied philosophy at Stanford and Oxford before studying the law at Harvard. How can the humanities or foreign languages be an asset for a jurist?

SB: It’s true, I’ve always thought that it was not particularly useful to study law as an undergrad. We are only allowed to live one life: it’s the human condition, there’s no escaping it. In my view, only by studying the humanities can we hope to escape this fundamental limitation and understand how other people live. Because literature, history, or philosophy all provide extraordinary windows on the world. Foreign languages, too, are fundamental.

The French language gave me an entrée into another culture. It allowed me to discover different means of expression, a different way of life, different values, a different system of thought. Because when you’re a judge and you spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect. People who are not only different from you, but also very different from each other. So, yes, reading is a very good thing for a judge to do. Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures. And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me to a crucial quality in a judge.

IK: Literature has an extraordinary capacity for stimulating the life of the mind, enriching our personal lives, and, as you just said, developing our empathy. Does it have comparable virtues in the field of politics? Can it play a role in enlivening the democratic debate?

SB: Absolutely! Literature is crucial to any democracy. Take the field of women’s rights, for instance. You have to read Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves to realize how narrow a range of opportunities were available even to a highborn young woman in the seventeenth century. They had a choice of either marriage or the convent. It only got worse in the nineteenth century, because along with the pressure of the church, there was the male stranglehold on all property rights. It’s evident in Balzac’s novels, for example. In Balzac, there are mainly two types of women: prostitutes and brebis, or ewes, who are all victims. Eugénie Grandet is a victim. Madame de Mortsauf, in Le Lys dans la vallée (The Lily of the Valley), is one too.

IK: Let’s turn to your professional career. Did Proust and, more generally, literature influence the way you write, your style?

SB: I believe so—though I’m no Proust, let that be clear! In fact, I think that literature has a positive influence on the way we write, whatever the discipline in question—the law, of course, but in any other professional field. Personally, I get a great deal of pleasure from writing. I take great satisfaction in drawing out the substance of matters that are separate and unrelated and giving them form on paper, through writing: that too is a creative process.

IK: In France and in the United States, Proust is frequently viewed by those who have not read him as a difficult, elitist author—moreover, this preconception is all the stronger because snobbery plays such an important role in his work. What are your thoughts about this? Are great works and great authors, in your opinion, only for the “happy few”?

SB: Ah, you’re referring to Stendhal, another French writer that I love! No, I don’t think that Proust is only for intellectuals. Certainly, his style isn’t necessarily easy, but some of Joyce, say Ulysses, strikes me as harder to read, for instance. And as I was saying before, Proust is capable of touching us all because he describes universal sentiments.

On the other hand, he may have suffered in the past from an English translation that gave his prose a somewhat dated flavor, a sense of contrivance. If you read a passage about a dinner with the Guermantes written in an excessively florid style and dotted with certain British expressions that don’t necessarily work in American English, this will only reinforce any preconceptions you may already have about Proust’s snobbishness. But he was no snob. And it seems to me that the recently revised translations have eliminated these defects from the English version.

IK: In France, there is a very special prestige that attaches to being a president who is a “man of letters” or a “friend of the arts.” In the United States, the label of “man of letters” seems to be much less valued in the realm of politics. A presidential candidate or a sitting president is unlikely to express his or her literary tastes publicly, much less claim to be “cultivated.” How would you explain this difference between the two cultures?

SB: I think that Tocqueville can help us to understand that difference. He very rightly pointed out that there is a mistrust of elites in the United States. Why this mistrust? For a number of historical reasons: George Washington—who adored France, by the way—wanted to create a society stripped of European elitism. Now, in France, art and power have always been bound up together, whether under the monarchy or in a republic. You will not find the same proximity between the spheres of power and culture in the United States.

Let me tell you a story about the Supreme Court, which I heard from Professor Paul Freund when I was a law student. At the turn of the last century, the Court was called upon to decide a case on prices for theater tickets—could they be considered basic necessities, and could they be regulated as such? The majority thought the theater was not a necessity. The great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. replied in his dissent: “We have not that respect for art that is one of the glories of France. But to many people, the superfluous is the necessary.”

IK: You were recently elected as a foreign member of the Institut de France, specifically the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques. Was this because of your interest in French literature?

SB: No. Not at all. I suspect my election was connected with my efforts over the years to explain to French audiences our American legal system, the importance of a rule of law, and the high value both our societies place upon protecting basic human rights.

IK: The Recherche is a total work, which contains within it all the clues necessary to its understanding. At the same time, no other twentieth-century book, except, perhaps, for Joyce’s Ulysses, has prompted so many critical readings and literary analyses. Could we perhaps draw a parallel with the US Constitution, which is subject to such constant interpretation? Why are certain texts capable of making us think so deeply?

SB: It’s hard to compare a literary text with a political text like the US Constitution: their aims are so radically different. The criteria by which we judge a work of art are aesthetic in nature, while we use more practical criteria in the realm of the law—for instance: “Will this interpretation of the law allow society to work better?”

On the other hand, it’s true that the US Constitution, much like any literary text, should not be interpreted rigidly. It’s a living text, open to interpretation. It should be placed in the context of its time. The Founding Fathers of American democracy wanted to draft a document that would become the foundation of an enduring society, a document that would survive the centuries. The Constitution is a very brief text (it covers only a few pages), but it embodies certain values—the values of the Enlightenment.

The problem is this: How shall we interpret these values, which have remained unchanged since the eighteenth century, and apply them to a constantly changing world? George Washington couldn’t have guessed at the enormous changes that would come about in society, whether in transportation, industrialization, or communications. Nor could he have suspected that the United States would swell from a population of four million to more than three hundred million people, of all origins and every religion. All the same, the Constitution must allow all these individuals to live together and settle their differences under the rule of law. It is this practical application of the Constitution that makes its interpretation such an exciting thing.

IK: You often emphasize the beneficial role of artistic creation for all of us.

SB: To me, the distinguishing characteristic of human beings is the desire to create order out of chaos, to give form to the universe. We are surrounded by colors, shapes, and sounds. We can arrange all these things in an attractive and constructive manner, as in a painting or a symphony. And that is what Proust did with his writing. Of course, he was supremely talented—but I firmly believe that every one of us can, to some extent, try to establish order amid chaos.

—Translated from the French by Antony Shugaar

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