Loving Your Work: Hilary Reyl on Loving Proust

This month, Ideasmyth’s Ideablog is exploring all angles of the theme “loving your work”–a topic that comes up very often with our clients. Especially as in: “How the hell can I start loving my work?!”

Loving Proust


I took an empty Perrier bottle down to the stream and held it with the opening against the faint current so that it filled with water. The water flowed past my bottle but the very same water was also trapped inside. Time and events went on regardless of the glass. And yet the glass was stopping time. Constantly.

I thought I was appropriating Proust’s crystalline image of young Marcel holding a glass jar in a stream.

In dipping myself briefly into a stream of Parisian lives, had I changed anything? Had I mattered in this monumental world I had hoped to enter into? Perhaps, but Paris would be standing just fine without me, thank you very much, and its cast of characters would be in a virtually identical mess. I was barely more than an eavesdropper, an observer who would fade as I had appeared. What did I myself contain that year and what flowed inevitably by?

Little Miss Sunshine
One of my favorite movie characters is Frank, the Proust scholar from Little Miss Sunshine. The moment when he discovers, in a gas station mini-mart, that the rival Proust scholar who stole his lover has made the cover of Proust magazine, is quintessential in its irony, because while Proust is obviously obscure, to those of us who are immersed in his world, he is perversely universal. We’re all trying to translate him.

I was describing to a writer friend an idea I have for a young adult novel from the point of view of a teenage boy whose mother takes him to the French countryside for the summer while she directs a movie based on a lush French Nineteenth Century novel with a gorgeous cast.

“It’s a paranormal romance,” I said. “The boy falls in love, among the nettles, with the ghost of Gilberte Swann.”

“You had me up until Gilberte Swann,” he laughed. “No one knows who that is.”

“But it’s Swann and Odette’s daughter,” I cried, “From Du Cote de chez Swann.” But as I spoke I realized he was right, there is no popular conception of Gilberte Swann. She is so vivid to me, and the aura of obsession around her is so strong, that I think I can transpose her into a very compelling character. Then again, maybe I’m deluded.

Here is Frank, the Proust scholar, talking to Dwayne, the miserable teenager:

Frank: Do you know who Marcel Proust is?
Dwayne: He’s the guy you teach.
Frank: Yeah. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he’s also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he uh… he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, Those were the best years of his life, ’cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn’t learn a thing.

Lately, I have been reading someone else who loves Proust, but with an energy much more boundless than mine, Norwegian literary sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard whose six volume My Struggle, the story of his life, is appearing in English. The third is about to come out, we are told. Knausgaard is not nearly as sensual as Proust. He doesn’t like food, and is not particularly interested in style. But he has a Proustian fascination, not only with nostalgia but with the way perception shifts through time. And to me, as a mother of three children, what is fascinating is the fact that Knausgaard spends a significant amount of his day raising his small children while delving in his work into his own past. His awareness of the differences in perception between children and adults is painfully acute. And his treatment of our traversal of boredom is incredible.

There is something uncanny in Proust’s speaking to all of us, but he’s a bit like the sun. Depending on our positions, we all feel his kinship quite differently.

~~~Hilary Reyl has a PhD in French Literature from NYU with a focus on the 19th Century, and has spent several years working and studying in France. She lives in New York City with her family. Lessons in French is her first published novel. She is currently working on a novel called Borrasca, a father-daughter caper set in Southern California in the 1970′s, as well as a young adult novel with a magical Proustian theme. Learn more about Hilary at www.hilaryreyl.com.

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