The Discovery of Oneself: An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn

In Time Regained, Proust writes, “In reality every reader is, when he reads, the reader of his own self. The work of the writer is just a kind of optical instrument that is offered to the reader to permit him to discern that which, without the book in question, he could not have seen within himself.” You read Proust for the first time when you were a Classics student at the University of Virginia. What did you feel then?

Discovering Proust was a real shock—the shock of recognition. I was twenty, and my encounter with this novel gave me a shock that, I believe, is felt by every gay person reading Proust for the first time. It was remarkable to understand that the unsatisfied desires and the erotic frustrations I harbored had not only been felt by someone else—much bigger news in 1980 than today, it’s worth remembering—but, even more extraordinarily, had been made the subject of a great book. And yet, interestingly, when I read Swann’s Way, it wasn’t any specific description of homosexual desire that touched me—that theme is treated much more fully in a later volume, as we know—but something much more general, the novel’s description of unreciprocated desire and, above all, the astounding revelation, or perhaps confirmation, for me, that desire can’t endure its own satisfaction. We see that exemplified in Swann in Love. When Swann succeeds in physically possessing Odette, when she ceases to escape him, his desire for her vanishes. For me, yes, that was a revelation as well as a recognition of something I was feeling in my own early erotic encounters.And then I had another kind of shock. Thanks to Proust, I found a certain consolation in thinking that all artistic creation is a substitute for erotic frustration and disappointment. That art feeds on our failures. Back then, I remember thinking to myself, I can’t get what I want anyway—by which, at the time, I meant that it didn’t seem possible to have a fulfilled “romantic” life—so I may as well become a writer.

Some readers feel the need to dive straight back into In Search of Lost Timeas soon as they’ve finished reading the seven volumes of the book. Was that the case for you?

No. On the contrary, when I read it that first time, and in fact every time I’ve read it since, I need time to absorb it, to let it resonate, or perhaps percolate. After a sentence, a moment, as magnificent as the ones that end Time Regained¹, I find it difficult to return to any reading at all. You feel everything has been said. On the other hand, I’ve reread In Search of Lost Time about every ten years since I was twenty. I’m a little over fifty now, and so I suppose it’s high time I start my fourth reading.

Have these successive readings brought you closer to Proust’s work?

No, I don’t think it’s a question of proximity to the text. Rather, I think that something different can be found in the text each time. To use the Proustian metaphor that you evoked, each reading of Proust is a bit like a visit to the optician—depending on which pair of lenses you’re given to try, you’re either capable or incapable of distinguishing a pattern or a letter projected onto a screen in the dark. Successive readings of Proust are like those different sets of lenses—with each one, you see something different. For instance, when I was twenty, so much of French culture escaped me. I was inexperienced, I had never left the U.S. The whole Proustian world of Faubourg Saint-Germain and of Combray went straight over my head. I was incapable, for example, of understanding the type of person that Françoise represented in French heritage—the earthy peasant type that comes with the social territory, so to speak. Today, I’m not the same person I was when I was twenty. I have all the experience of a life. I’m also well traveled and I know France well, I have many friends living there, and so I understand French culture much better than I did thirty years ago and can appreciate aspects of Proust’s novel I couldn’t before. On the other hand, it must be said that I will never again feel the amazement I felt on my first reading of In Search of Lost Time. It’s an aesthetic experience that you only have once in your life.

The richness of the book is such that it seems impossible to be aware, in just a single reading, of the layers of meaning, the themes that unfold—

There’s a parallel with The Odyssey, about which I’m writing a book at the moment. Like The OdysseyIn Search of Lost Time is a complete work, a text that doesn’t reveal its full meaning in a single reading. To my mind, that is the definition of a true work of art. If you manage to get everything out of a book in a single go, the author can’t have said that much. But Homer, like Proust, is an author who can accompany us through the entire length of a life. Everything is in Homer. Everything is in Proust.

Is there a particular character that stands out for you?

Odette de Crécy, without question. Not because she would be my “favorite,” and certainly not because she’s the most interesting or admirable or complex, but because she represents, to me, a completely realized character. It’s as though Odette emerges from the text in a three-dimensional form. I can imagine her existence beyond the context of In Search of Lost Time. She is a whole entity, she functions so remarkably, which is something that can’t be said for all Proustian characters. Take Oriane de Guermantes, for example—I can’t imagine her outside the book. In my opinion, she doesn’t represent much more than an assemblage of traits that characterize the aristocracy. I feel the same about Albertine, whose relationship to the Narrator, with its obsessisive possessiveness and deep frustrations, is clearly meant to reflect the relationship between Swann and Odette. To me, Albertine is an abstraction, a “notion,” her sole purpose is to crystallize the obsessive thoughts of the narrator. She is a coat hook on which Proust has hung his ideas, next to the young lady’s Fortuny tea gowns. Even much earlier than The Prisoner, for instance in the second volume when Albertine appears in the midst of the little gang of girls at Balbec, I don’t find her credible. (But then, very little of the Narrator’s alleged passion for girls is persuasive.) By contrast, Odette feels real to me. I understand Swann’s feelings for Odette, I feel his desire and his frustration. You know, it’s so difficult for a writer to create a “living” character. And with the “lady in pink,” who appears in the first novel and has such immense consequences for the whole work, although she herself is “minor” in a way, Proust has created a complete character, a truly marvelous creation.

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Daniel Mendelsohn, an American memoirist, essayist, critic, columnist, and translator, is the Editor at Large of the New York Review of Books. 

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