These passage, about the power of fiction, comes from Swann's Way, the first volume of French novelist Marcel Proust's epic masterwork, In Search of Lost Time. It is voiced by his narrator, a young Marcel, while sitting in a garden at his parents country estate, outside the small French town of Combray.
This long passage comes in the form of a single paragraph. The punctuation is all Proust's work. He was given to paragraphs that could run up to five pages and sentences,
at times, of up to a thousand words. My husband, Martin, put reading Proust on his must-do list.
"At sixty-one, I've already outlived Proust by ten years so I thought it was time to get started," he explained to me.
Already Martin has move on to his second volume, Within a Budding Grove.
He recommends that you read this passage more than once. "I've read it a half dozen times, and I think I've absorbed Proust's meaning…mostly."
See if you feel the same way.
"Next to this central
belief which, while I was reading, would be constantly reaching out from my
inner self to the outer world, towards the discovery of truth, came the
emotions aroused in me by the action in which I was taking part, for these
afternoons were crammed with more dramatic events than occur, often, in a whole
lifetime. These were the events taking place in the book I was reading. It is
true that the people concerned in them were not what Françoise would have
called 'real people.' But none
of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of
a real person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of
those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his
understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the
complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which
consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of real people would be a
decided improvement. A real person, profoundly as we may sympathize with him,
is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say,
remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the
strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small
section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any
emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of
himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist's happy
discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable
to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is,
which one's soul can assimilate. After which it matters not that the actions,
the feeling of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth,
since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are
happening, that they are holding in thrall, as we feverishly turn over the
pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist
has brought us to this state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every
emotion is multiplied ten fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as
might a dream, but a dream more lucid and more abiding than those which come to
us in sleep, why then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the
joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend
years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which
would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development
prevents us from perceiving them. It is the same in life; the heart changes,
and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our
imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena,
is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of
its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change."
Both of these paintings were created by John Singer Sargent. The first is called Rose-Marie Ormond Reading in a Cashmere Shawl, and the second is, simply, Man Reading.