Posted by: Sally Ingraham | November 22, 2010

Why I’m Reading Proust

the little phraseThe only real journey, the only Fountain of Youth, would be to travel not toward new landscapes, but with new eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them can see, or can be; and we can do that with the help of an Elstir, a Vinteuil; with them and their like we can truly fly from star to star.‘ – from p.237 of The Prisoner by Marcel Proust – translated by Carol Clark

Seeing Proust’s hundreds of universes is always a remarkable thing.

I picked up The Prisoner once again today, having started it back in August and plugged away at it for a few weeks here and there since then. I’d really like to finish it before this month is over, then knock out The Fugitive in December and finish the last volume in January, bringing this journey to a close exactly two years after I began it.

As always, once I get the hang of reading Proust’s prose again, I am swept up in his rhythm and passions. I especially enjoyed the section I read today, which found Marcel caught up in a performance of a previously unheard piece by the composer Vinteuil. I always love when Proust writes about music, and the following passage struck me particularly, especially given the fact that this morning when I was listening to Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides) during my morning commute the narrator was bemoaning the lack of words available to properly express human emotions:

And just as certain creatures are the last example of a form of life which nature has abandoned, I wondered whether music were not the sole example of the form which might have served – had language, the forms of words, the possibility of analyzing ideas, never been invented – for the communication of souls. Music is like a possibility which has never been developed, humanity having taken different paths, those of language, spoken and written.’ p. 237

I am on the brink of spending some time actively looking into the development of language, something I am very interested in, but it is always amazing to me to experience how hugely effected I can be by what is said and heard through music.

Speaking of music – Vinteuil’s Sonata to be exact – I found this article on the theories about what real-life musician and specific piece of music inspired Proust’s character and fictional sonata. I had wondered when reading the passages about Swann and ‘the little phrase’ if the music Proust described was a real piece. I guess not. When I get home from work I have every intention of listening to the samples of Proust’s possible musical inspirations offered in the article.

For now I’ve got to get back to my reading though. As long as no one comes into the shop looking for a cappuccino, I’m free to get lost in Proust’s hundreds of universes.

The image above was painted by David Richardson for a book not yet published called The Bedside Proust. The painting is titled Odette Plays Vinteuil. I’ll be curious to see this book when it comes out, as it is an abridged version of Proust’s mamoth novel, written in the form of 140 character Tweets! Should be interesting. 🙂


  1. Ah. I always presumed that the musical phrase was non-specific, but never checked. Proust exercises the freedom of fiction. In one of my favorite scenes in the whole series – Bergotte in front of the Vermeer – there is a patch of yellow paint that Proust simply daubed onto a real painting, sending who knows how many readers, magnifying glasses in hand, out on a goose chase.

    • I’m really eager to take a look at the book “Paintings in Proust”, or “from Proust” or whatever it’s called, but for some reason I am staunchly holding off from doing so until I finish the entire piece. I had some reasoning behind this… I intend to read it all again someday, actively looking up who is who and who and what is real or fictional. I suppose there’s an annotated Proust out there that would save me the trouble? It might be fun to do it on my own though.

  2. I’m using that Paintings in Proust book to plan David and my trip to the Louvre when we’re in Paris! It’s so huge that we needed some plan of attack, so we’re doing a Proust-themed art tour. (I am very excited about this.) 🙂 It’s super useful in terms of isolating the MANY passages in which he mentions specific or general works of art.

    Thanks for the links on possible models for the “little phrase” and sonata. I was a bit crushed to discover Vinteuil wasn’t a historical musician, although I understand why Elstir/Bergotte/Vinteuil gave Proust more freedom than historical artists would have done.

    • That’s an AWESOME idea Emily!! I’m jealous. I’m definitely getting the book for my Proust collection, which I will start building after I finish ISOLT – something to look forward to. Not as exciting as a trip to Paris, of course! 🙂

  3. Paintings in Proust is a favorite of mine. What a wonderful plan Emily has for that book too.

    Also love Proust’s descriptions of music as his language has a music of his own adding layers to those sections. You have me craving Proust!

    • Whereabouts are you in the book? I think I fell rather behind if you finished this volume in August – but I never noticed a post from you about it?

  4. I used to be such a huge fan of Proust and bought quite some books about him too. I still got one that I wanted to read that is called “Proust et le monde sensible” by Jean-Pierre Richard. I am afraid it has not been translated but then again, who knows. It is a fantastic book as it is dedicated to the analysis of references to the senses in his work. Smell, touch, taste… Prousts writing is so famous because of this sensory dimension. I will have a closer look and report what I find on paintings and music.

    • That sounds like a great book – Proust is surely interested in the senses, and going back through his work with a focus on that aspect would be very interesting. Guess I’ll have to work on my French in addition to my Spanish in order to read it though…! I’m quite eager to expand my reading experience of Proust by exploring what others have to say about him – good incentive to finish his own words first.

  5. “once I get the hang of reading Proust’s prose again…” Yes. I know exactly what you mean. There were mornings when my eyes grated across the page as though the words were sharp-edged holes on a metal surface. But once the rhythm takes hold, it’s a whole different experience. Cheers, K

    • Yikes, that’s an apt description! I’ve definitely been there. It’s gratifying in a way to know that it can be so difficult, and yet you get so much pleasure out of it once you get in the Proust groove.

  6. […] always, the moments of incredible insight into the workings of the mind, memory, and music, among other things, continue to make […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: