Marcel Proust, Physics, and Lost Time

Stanley Deser, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Brandeis University

In 1941, aged ten, I came to the US with my parents as a refugee from France. Eight years later, I entered graduate school in Physics, an extremely arduous vocation to which all else was subordinated. I had neither spoken nor read a word of French since arriving. Nor was I especially inclined to the literary, given the many practical adjustments an immigrant faces. It was these very obstacles that led to my infatuation.

There were few escape valves available, but I stumbled on an unexpected oasis: Lamont, an intimate and charming little library that had recently been inaugurated—of course solely for the pleasure of undergraduates, but they made an exception—it contained only non-useful books and records, along with easy chairs, and wide windows on whose sills were artfully strewn attractive-looking volumes. It was natural to grab one and momentarily forget the horrors of that third semester.

The one I took turned out to be in French, by an unknown author (to me). The book’s beauty is why I grabbed it. I fortunately did not realize it was the first of sixteen (in the infamous NRF edition) artfully bound volumes. My first thought was that À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) would show me if I still remembered any words in French—at least those a nine-year old child would have known.

The fact that the first sentence went on forever did not seem to matter. The next few weekends were devoted to finishing the slim volume, whatever the academic cost. As I recall, it struck me as a charming tale of bourgeois life in the countryside during long vacations, which is as far as that volume went. The narrator was an insufferable, demanding kid, who must have driven everyone crazy. But the details were so vivid that I could visualize them even though I had no experience of that world. Who I was when it all began? Who did I become after seven decades of frequent rereading? More importantly, everyone should give this work a serious try.

In Physics, we call this the S-Matrix evolution of a system. There I was, then an essentially illiterate and all too Physics-preoccupied kid of eighteen armed with a nine-year old’s French vocabulary picking up a random gorgeously bound book as an escape from grad school drudgery. It is a sufficient tribute to its greatness that it immediately captured such a mediocre target. Over the years, the demands of my metier were never less than enormous—creativity is a ruthless, if peerless, master. Yet I found the time and the habit-forming craving of returning to that totally alien universe for more than amusement—it so illuminated the real one—as only a great masterpiece can do.

My concern is with the work’s narrator, as against Proust the author; my position is that only the work matters and one should guard against the temptation to use the life to explicate the work, and vice-versa. The narrator, whom I shall denote by N, says that one falls in love before one can have any idea of the object’s merits or drawbacks, and so it must be with any complicated and deep artwork as well. I had fallen in love before I considered the cost of sixteen volumes, and I had little context for either elevating it or disparaging the books. Yet, as lay readers, that is, non lit-critters, we have our instinctual loves and hatreds, often of universally deemed masterpieces. And we are entitled to them. Yet, I hope to convince you—whatever your language, background, ideologies and other individual characteristics—to plunge into Lost Time, that life-giving river, which will not fail you.

Like all novelists, Proust constructs a universe for our edification, entertainment and shock. His is qualitatively different in its sheer detail, unmatched language (French seems to have more tenses than times!), totally unexpected characters and truly exotic backgrounds— precisely because so concretely localized. This world gradually becomes more real, colorful and, yes, interesting than one’s own, despite ranging from down to (French) earth to totally bizarre, all in one sentence at times. The characters likewise become our inseparable acquaintances despite their alien backgrounds and mores.

This recalls, if I may be permitted the comparison, Henry James, an almost contemporary master of nobility and rentier money (first extensively minted in the UK by Jane Austen), whose universe was spread through many novels, from What Maisie- to What Maggie- Knew. But though they share a compulsive need to micro-detail and describe, James perhaps even more than Proust (“he chewed more than he bit off”), theirs are very different  worlds.  As I re-read his final and considered greatest, The Golden Bowl, that eternal rectangle and realization of Austen’s famous requirement of rich bachelors, there is only the slightest resonance with its French cousin: there is no homo-and precious little explicit hetero-eroticism here. I am reminded of a scene in the old British Major Barbara film, in which, as the lovers finally embrace under a London lamppost, a Bobby urges them to move along: “this isn’t Paris, you know!” But perhaps the biggest difference is James’s (avant la lettre) Fitzgeraldian view that the rich are different from you and me, while Proust is in Hemingway’s camp— that they only have more money. To expand a bit, the Golden Bowl’s rich American protagonist and avid discriminating collector is elevated almost to the level of a creator, certainly Fitzgeraldian.

Proust had a far more exalted view of great artists and never likened even a discerning and rich collector like Swann with an artist like Elstir; au contraire! To put it more plainly, Nabokov in his lectures remarks that Austen is a Philistine; I would put James there as well, were that not sacrilege. Indeed, I found surprising James’s rather too obvious cracked golden bowl symbolism  and the Damascene tiles episode, in a work otherwise so delicate. Then there is the casual British anti-Semitism of the era; James’s two Jews are small-time merchants— not altogether unsympathetic, indeed quite noble in some ways— while N’s Jews have all arrived financially, and are not treated too badly by the narrator, only by some of his subjects. Unlike the (obligatory, I was going to say) bit about Jews, there is no humor—nor is that a criticism: James’s tale needs (and brooks) no comic relief, any more than do so many other masterworks; it is the cowardly I who would like some respite as I face his music. Yet I must admit a letdown as to his characters here: I cannot really care about their future, as they are too simply drawn to have enough individuality—I feel I know enough to read their future and it is dull. I say this to my own surprise upon looking back at their delineations. For example, the Prince seems almost like another art work being bought up by the collector; indeed, he is right out of Central Casting, unlike any of N’s characters, except perhaps the (ad hoc) Balbec hotel manager, a minor role; however empty their lives, they and their fate continue to interest us (me). But I digress.

Yet, Proust’s fictitious universe is still one affected by country, the author’s intimately lived history, geography, economics, archeology, and etymology. Being French, he is also Cartesian in his classifications: the main example is the axis of Habit, the strongest force—to Forgetting, its nemesis. He reminds us that Habit steers us on autopilot, while losing a Habit is only possible by a long stretch of Forgetfulness. I didn’t realize the ubiquity of this force and the duality of forgetting until it was so convincingly explained in the novel.

Each of us will find many examples of this paradigm in their lives. For me, one such example is the habit of adolescent (and pre-) love, one that lingers despite our growing up and finding no response from one’s object. It takes a very long time, and often displacement from the original locale. Another, that I felt on the intellectual level, was one that Chekhov so vividly described as squeezing the Serf from one’s blood drop by drop. In my case, it was the transition from student absorber to researcher-creator. This is probably the most difficult habit for any true scientist to shed. For me it took more than four postdoctoral years to make that transition—then once it came, the floodgates opened. If ever there was an example, one that I immediately realized and internalized, Proust made me a convinced disciple. One cannot underestimate the importance of great art—in this case literature—on a receptive soul.

Thinking about my own evolution in Time as I re-read the work, in moods ranging from idle to literary over seven decades (if greater wisdom did not necessarily ensue), I can only say that once transported to Proust’s world, my changing moods and ages did not seem to alter my reactions so much as did my deeper acquaintance with the personae. Yes, I had lived and experienced a wider world, including the literary one, but I honestly believe that this nonpareil work has no relatives that would enlighten it by comparison (not that there are no other sweeping universes, in many languages.) Likewise, after my first clumsy reading, all subsequent ones, including this latest, seem not to have been by a different me, although they were affected by a different N, as I discovered a few new meanings in a work I thought I knew by heart.

Stanley Deser is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Brandeis University (1958-present). Other institutional affiliations include California Institute of Technology and European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). His research interests include quantum theory of fields, elementary particles, gravitation, supergravity, and strings.