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10/09/2013 04:03 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Remembering Marcel Proust: A Conversation With Chicago's Aleksandar Hemon

Dip a madeleine in tea.

Yes, because 2013 is the centennial of the original French publication of Marcel Proust's Du côté de chez Swann, or Swann's Way, the first volume of the massively delightful À la recherche du temps perdu, now translated as In Search of Lost Time.

To celebrate, Chicago -- yes, the city of Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Ben Hecht, and Gwendolyn Brooks -- is staging a three-part celebration "Remembering Marcel Proust" in partnership with Lake Forest College, the Consulate General of France in Chicago, the Alliance Française de Chicago, the University of Chicago Graham School, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

MacArthur fellow and finalist for National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award Aleksandar Hemon, author most recently of The Book of My Lives, a memoir of his time in both Sarajevo and Chicago, will speak with me and David Ellison (author of A Reader's Guide to Proust's 'In Search of Lost Time'), on October 16th at Lake Forest College.

He was kind enough to discuss Proust and his own work, in advance, below.

Davis: Trace your interest in Proust. When did his work appear in your life, and what do you recall of your reading? Please, dip a book in tea if you must to trigger the memory...

Aleksandar: My mother was the reader and book buyer in the family, so we had loaded shelves, including a collection of The Ten Great French Novels (or something like that) that included Balzac, Flaubert, Gide, Malraux etc. And "Combray"--the very beginning of Swann's Way and A la recherche du temps perdu. It was the thinnest book in the collection, and the hardest one for me as a teenager. I must've started reading it 15 times, but my teenage brain couldn't focus long enough to get through the long sentences.

But then in college, I had a course in the "Modern Novel" and read a lot of early twentieth-century stuff... and this after a few years of getting through the history of literature, starting with Gilgamesh and Homer and then by way of Dante and Rabelais to the 19th and 20th century. The point is: by the time I got to Proust again -- on the "Modern Novel" reading list -- I was trained to remain patient, and I read Swann's Way and loved it.

Davis: I take your point. One might need a certain type of age-acquired patience to appreciate Proust. It has been the same for me. So, what remains for you from your repeated reading? What are the pleasures of Proust, for you, in 2013?

Aleksandar: Proust gets better with time. A couple of summers ago, I was teaching in the NYU summer program in Paris. One of the courses was for undergrads, many of whom thought that wine and cheese were the real entrée into the intricacies of French culture--heavy reading was not something they were hoping for in Paris. But I made them read Swann's Way in a week and we discussed it. Before the first class, one of my students (Brendan was his name) said: "I really have to ask you: Do you really like this?" And I said yes, I liked this and I wouldn't apologize or try to justify assigning a book that cut into their wine-and-cheese time. By the time we were done, Brendan was converted.

Part of the reason for the fact that I turned some of my students to Proust, was that we were on his home turf: I encouraged them to roam around the 16th arrondissement and check out the street where Odette received her lovers etc. But, perhaps more importantly, I insisted that they drop their customary demands for instant rewards from their reading, to shed the habit of blaming the writer for their lack of response -- in short, to have patience and faith in the experience of reading. Proust is great because he builds his case over a long time, it takes him pages to develop his ideas and follow the slow path of his understanding.

Part of the project of regaining time requires coming in and out of it, so to speak. Or, if you wish, it takes time to regain time. A la recherche de temps perdu teaches the reader how to read it: to slow down, to abandon simple causality and abandon reductive character psychology. The reader will resist those requests, relying on the default modes of reading and/or perceiving narration (the template for which, alas, comes from entertainment), but it is precisely this breaking down of the readerly resistance that ends up being rewarding -- that is the eye-opening moment, the revelatory experience, the undoing of culturally acquired laziness. As you keep rereading Proust, you come to this moment each time from a different angle, getting surprised by that which you expect, and the intricate layers and perfect structure and the richness of his thought come through even more luminously.

Davis: For Proust's readers, such as they were in the early days, this culturally acquired laziness that had yet to assume the shape and reality-show form of today. Even so, do you not think that the contemporary novel has already done much of the work of abandoning, as you note, simple causality and reductive character psychology? I don't mean in the airport pulp novel or in the most hackneyed literary thrillers. Yet, in literature written in the last half of the twentieth century into the Twitter age, I'd like to think audiences have adapted to some of the techniques that Proust used so effectively. I find Proust's most interesting aspect to be collage -- except what is collaged together is not a few seconds of videotape, but 80 pages about going to a party that would take less time to actually attend than read about.

Aleksandar: There are a few contemporary novels that are not all that married to societally established character psychology (feelings, all that). But most of the English language literature cannot see beyond the simple notions of psychological realism, which for one thing, confines it to being merely descriptive--and therefore [to being] lesser art. Proust thinks in language, and the thoughts flow this way and that way, there are rivers and estuaries and an occasional swamp, but you are present at the creation of his thought system, his sensibility. That is why his sentences are long and winding and you never know where they going.

I've never thought of that as collage, but there is certainly unexpected juxtaposition all over the place. Now, next time I read Proust, I will test it against the notion of collage. Again, what is great about Proust is that his work allows approaches from many positions and sensibilities and vantage points, while those are in no way mutually exclusive. Proust, if you wish, demands creative exegesis.

Davis: Direct remembrances are not the sort Proust is chasing. Can we ever recapture memory, especially involuntary memory, through writing or other art? Does the artifice of the text ever approach anything not made to be artifice?

Aleksandar: The quest is for time, not memory. Memories disconnected from time are not enough to prevent the loss. Isolated, involuntary memories signify that time has passed beyond our reach or control. To regain the past is to string the confusing memories in a narrative, creating thereby an artifice that can contain it. To regain time is to tell a story about its passing.

Davis: Yes, the quest is indeed for time, although I feel memory to be not merely a function of time in Proust, but its primary constituent element. This is why Proust's subject must at once be the novel we are reading, and his narrator must be on some level be himself. Proust, for some, and in part for me, is autobiography, or fictive-biography of the most interesting sort. The name "Marcel" appears only twice for the otherwise unnamed narrator, and Proust's characters appear as both sentient and created. Do you find Proust to be fiction, memoir, collage (as I do), and/or a mix?

Aleksandar: I find it to be literature -- which includes all of the above. There is really no reason to choose. The form of A recherche du temps perdu did not precede it and to apply any of those labels retroactively and exclusively might help us place the book into the context of what we know. But the book knows more than we do, so that it can always accommodate another way to understand it. And, indeed, memory is the smallest discrete particle of Proust's metaphysics -- its existence points at a universe, but the universe cannot be extrapolated from it.

Davis: I like to think that the book knows less than we do, on some level, precisely because its form is undetermined throughout the process of its composition, and is therefore populated by "holes" acquired through its publication history. I prefer that there are some inconsistencies in the long text, and that a long novella such as "Swann in Love" is dropped, wholesale, into the middle of Swann's Way. These narrative strategies, or non-strategies, are delightful to me because they resist easy understanding. In this way, the text is more like Naked Lunch than The Magic Mountain. How might you compare his narrative strategies, such as they are, to your own auto/biographical writing? I think of "you" in your excellent recent memoir The Book of My Lives, and Brik in The Lazarus Project.

Aleksandar: When I say that the book knows more than we do, what I mean is that its world is completely imagined -- it knows more about its world than we do, even if there are holes. The beautiful thing is that we strive to cover the holes or reconstitute the book so as to ignore them. I think that is how reading operates.

Proust is hugely influential for me directly and indirectly. Directly: if you are in any way dealing with memory in you work, his shadow is largely looming. There was a time after my arrival in the U.S., when I, overwhelmed with loss, experienced intense involuntary memories, whereby the taste of cottage cheese and green onions, for example, conjured summer afternoons in Sarajevo. I could identify and think through such an experience because I had read Proust -- I had an interpretative framework.

Indirectly, by way of my (other) favorite writers: there is a moment in Lolita when Humbert Humbert imitates Proust -- partly to show off his sophistication, but also because he's operating in the domain of temps perdu. The opening chapter of Danilo Kiš's Garden, Ashes is an homage to Proust and little Marcel not being able to fall asleep. Much of Sebald would have been impossible without Proust. There are many examples. Proust essentially invented a way -- the way -- to deal with time in language. His project was not merely literary -- in many ways, it was experimental philosophy.

Davis: Sebald's The Emigrants strikes me as a particularly sonorous example of Proustian echo. This makes me think even more strongly of Proust as an exile of sorts, from the social world he at first desired so desperately to be a part of and then later came to reject. There is also, of course, the fact of his half-Jewishness, his homosexuality. He wrote in his famous cork-lined room as a way to make sense of a past that cannot be made "sense" of in a conventional manner. He was an exile from sound, if from nothing else. I am reminded still of Brik in The Lazarus Project, also, in this. Is the writer -- or a writer like Proust -- always by necessity an exile from his own experience and from the lives of his characters?

Aleksandar: I find the notion of exile a bit too romantic and falsely ennobling. I know a large number of refugees to whom being away from their (previous) life is not inspiring at all. To my mind, being an exile, let alone a refugee, implies reduced or absent agency -- you find yourself where you didn't want to be, you had no choice. There is a difference between exile and solitude. Proust was so monkishly dedicated to his art that he secluded himself to free his mind. That's not exile. That's solitude.

But that's all right -- exiles are not necessarily more noble than anyone else. (I don't consider myself an exile, by the way. I made and have choices.) To quote Rilke, another connoisseur of solitude: "A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity."

To my mind what great writers were/are able to be, is in several times and places simultaneously, to be themselves and their characters and their readers, all at the same time. I don't feel farther from the world when I write, I feel closer. As for Brik, he's not quite reached the world; he's not close enough to it to be a writer. The Lazarus Project is about his journey to the world.

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Remembering Marcel Proust is three events, Lake Forest College (October 16); The University of Chicago (October 17), and the Alliance Française de Chicago (November 14).

Yes, there will be madeleines... and Proust manuscripts and rare books!

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