Tuesday July 31, 2012
N'allez pas trop vite avec Marcel Proust
“Mais precisez, mon cher monsieur, n'allez pas trop vite.”
--Marcel Proust, in 1919, when asking diplomat Harold Nicholson to explain his work. Proust wouldn't be put off by a general description; he wanted all the details: the sham cordiality; the handshakes; the maps; the rustle of the papers; the macaroons.
The quote is taken from the third chapter of Alain de Botton's “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” which is the book's most meaningful chapter to me. People complained about the 3,000-page length of “Remembrance of Things Past” even when it was published 100 years ago. “I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns before falling asleep,” wrote Albert Humblot, head of Ollendorf, a publishing house. Jacques Madeleine, a reader for another publishing house, Fasquelle, 700 pages in, complained, “...one doesn't have a single, but not a single clue of what this is about. What is the point of all this? What does it mean?” An American reader, 27, who spent years with the book, wrote Proust himself. “Just tell me in two lines,” she suggested, “what you really wanted to say.”
This is a battle, on a much smaller level, of course, that I've been fighting most of my writing life. Editors generally want shorter and shorter pieces—from 1,000 words, to 750, to 350, to 140 characters—for what they feel are shorter and shorter attention spans. The Internet, with its unlimited space, hasn't helped. The opposite. The pace of life speeds up, and it seems normal for every generation until it doesn't, until it speeds past them, and that becomes the norm for the next generation. That's partly why I write here, for nothing, rather than elsewhere, for something. Elsewhere, they're not interested in 3,500-word reviews of “Moneyball.” They want trash. And in such small portions, too.
De Botton juxtaposes the above complaints against Proust with Proust's own complaints about the newspapers of his day:
That abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper, thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don't even care, into a morning treat, bleinding in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of cafe au lait.
But he kept reading the newspaper. He even turned one news-in-brief account of a young man killing his mother, and then, bumblingly, himself, into a five-page article with overtones of the Greek classics.
It's this kind of detail and precision, De Botton argues, which leads to understanding, and sympathy, and empathy, while abbreviation, which is what we mostly get, leads to the opposite. Generally the deeper you go into someone's story, the more you care. The more you skim, the more you tweet, the less you care. Speed things up enough and eventually you wind up with societies like ours.