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…


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