A passing editor of mine used to mumble “Read Proust” in my direction on a regular basis—as regular as his intake of Negronis, I unkindly surmise—in the same way one might say “Wear pants” to a colleague one suspects might show up pantless on any given day. I believe he (the editor, who was one part gin, one part semisweet vermouth, and one part bitters, traditionally Campari) thought that Marcel Proust (French pronunciation: [maʁsɛl pʁust]; 10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922) was a necessary counterbalance to my series of articles on disco and the paranormal and area dairy farmers. Point finally taken, my first (and only) venture was In Search of Lost Time. Enough. Loved it, but enough.
I got it. We all got it. And none of us thereafter could lie in our beds and stare at the ceiling in the same nonchalant way that we may have done so prior to the reading.
Yet Proust could fall prey to his own criticism (and which of us couldn’t?):
Like many intellectuals, he was incapable of saying a simple thing in a simple way.
If you Google “Proust,” it’s not difficult to find a certain longing for simplicity in his wake (“Why do people gush over Proust? I’d rather visit a demented relative“). And then you stumble on this wondrous observation:
It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.
I dare you to simplify that.
And it may have been my same sloshed editor who sometimes said, “Read Robbe-Grillet,” perhaps whenever he suspected that the Proust suggestion was winging by unheeded, as in the manner of pearls before swine.
Once again, I was unable to ignore this thing forever. So I waded through miles of tedious descriptions whose excerpt below offers just the barest hint:
From the bottom to the upper edge of the highest sectors, on the hillside facing the one the house is built on, it is relatively easy to count the trees; particularly opposite the house, thanks to the recent plantings of the patches located in this area.
The valley has been cleared over the greater part of its width here: there remains, at present, nothing but a border of brush (some thirty yards across at the top of the plateau) which joins the valley by a knoll with neither crest nor rocky fall.
The line of separation between the uncultivated zone and the banana plantation is not entirely straight. It is a zigzag line, with alternately protruding and receding angles, each belonging to a different patch of different age, but of a generally identical orientation.
Ad infinitum. Until the reader enters a hypnotic state. Where the truth is revealed that there is no truth and Robbe-Grillet’s words are true and untrue, as real and unreal as the chair that I’m sitting on.
He is responsible, fortunately, for shorter excerpts:
The true writer has nothing to say. What counts is the way he says it.
With Proust and Robbe-Grillet in the back of my mind, I think, I wrote this passage in a short story:
Wearing only a T-shirt he rushed out onto the porch and leaned over the railing, looking for [the dogs]—for something, for someone—in both directions. Snow blew sparsely through the diminishing bright arches of street lights, the rutted path of the street framed by high houses and hedges with Christmas lights. Thick tree trunks held up the night like bony hind legs. No one was outside.
It was cold in Philadelphia that winter. I was wearing pants.