Lost Time

by Henry Farrell on July 18, 2017

Some months ago, I started listening to audiobooks while walking the dog. By and large, they’ve been serious audiobooks, because these days when I get to read fiction, it’s late at night, and I’m too tired to read anything that’s too demanding. Hence my need to assuage my guilt, and hence the reason I’ve been listening to Marcel Proust.

I started listening to _Swann’s Way_ as a class of eat yer greens, figuring that I was never going to read it otherwise, and that I ought to. I never expected to fall in love with the book. Not _everything_ is wonderful – I’m annoyed by the persistent snobbishness (made worse by the narrator, who juggles a variety of quite unconvincing working class/peasant/lower middle class accents), and not as impressed by Swann’s love for Odette as I think Proust wants me to be. But oh, the lovely, long, languorous cadences of the book, and the sense of things preserved, jellied in thin light just moments before the transformation of the world.

This love, as is often the case, in part involves something familiar seen in a new light. I’ve never read Proust before. But I have read Gene Wolfe. While I’d known from Kim Stanley Robinson that Proust was an enormous influence on Wolfe, I hadn’t realized how much of what I love in Wolfe’s prose was borrowed from Proust. As Robinson suggests, much of the material that Wolfe uses – shape-shifting aliens, strange worlds, curiously human robots – is taken from pulp. But these things, when looked at through Proustian eyes, become altogether different.

Proust too becomes transformed when looked at with science-fictional eyes. Proust’s theme, famously, is time. As far as I have read and likely further (I am only now beginning to venture into the budding grove), he is depicting a France on the cusp of modernity. Swann lives in a world of nobles, generals, haut-bourgeois men and women with a nicely calculated and punctilious understanding of the nuances of their own class and others, as well as servants who can be tyrants in their limited domain but would never dream of venturing beyond it (another fantastical reference: Proust’s world is a Gormenghast to which no Steerpike has ever come). History weighs heavily, while the future is there primarily in the narrator’s regret that everything he describes has gone or been transformed so utterly that it might as well be.

This single-sentence passage is my favourite in the entire book:

All these things and, still more than these, the treasures which had come to the church from personages who to me were almost legendary figures (such as the golden cross wrought, it was said, by Saint Eloi and presented by Dagobert, and the tomb of the sons of Louis the Germanic in porphyry and enamelled copper), because of which I used to go forward into the church when we were making our way to our chairs as into a fairy-haunted valley, where the rustic sees with amazement on a rock, a tree, a marsh, the tangible proofs of the little people’s supernatural passage — all these things made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space—the name of the fourth being Time—which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant, hiding the rugged barbarities of the eleventh century in the thickness of its walls, through which nothing could be seen of the heavy arches, long stopped and blinded with coarse blocks of ashlar, except where, near the porch, a deep groove was furrowed into one wall by the tower-stair; and even there the barbarity was veiled by the graceful gothic arcade which pressed coquettishly upon it, like a row of grown-up sisters who, to hide him from the eyes of strangers, arrange themselves smilingly in front of a countrified, unmannerly and ill-dressed younger brother; rearing into the sky above the Square a tower which had looked down upon Saint Louis, and seemed to behold him still; and thrusting down with its crypt into the blackness of a Merovingian night, through which, guiding us with groping finger-tips beneath the shadowy vault, ribbed strongly as an immense bat’s wing of stone, Théodore or his sister would light up for us with a candle the tomb of Sigebert’s little daughter, in which a deep hole, like the bed of a fossil, had been bored, or so it was said, “by a crystal lamp which, on the night when the Frankish princess was murdered, had left, of its own accord, the golden chains by which it was suspended where the apse is to-day and with neither the crystal broken nor the light extinguished had buried itself in the stone, through which it had gently forced its way.”

This seems science-fictional to my eyes – the church both a ship that sails through the years instead of space, and a process of accretion. A passage from Wolfe’s New Sun books – also my favourite (and Belle’s) from these wonderful books – provides a kind of counterpoint:

The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.

Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.

At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules.

and I contend (although your taste may legitimately differ) that neither Wolfe nor Proust suffers when their prose is compared.

What _is_ different is the sense of time, which is extraordinarily important to both books and both authors. Proust’s world is one where the just-barely-pre-modern is imbued with the deep history of the medieval. Much of the book’s power comes from the knowledge that this world is lost, and has to be reconstructed through the art of memory, building memory palaces from an accumulation of Paris streets; arcades of formal trees; the room in which an elderly relative lived and watched the world from her window while never stirring forth. This is a world in which there is a continuity of accretion, a deep connection through the bonds of deference, custom and kinship, between past and present. The descendants of those Frankish princesses and Merovingian monarchs still exercise real power. It is a present that is now lost utterly, and that Proust looks to recover.

Wolfe’s world, in contrast, is one in which the past is irrecoverable. All that is left are tesserae from a shattered mosaic and a sense that these pieces did once fit together, that there is an order that is nearly discernible, even if it could never be understood.

Both are ways of thinking about modernity. Proust’s pre-modern world would not have that flavor of nostalgia and regret if it were still truly accessible, if the disconnection had not happened. Wolfe’s world is one where only isolated fragments remain of the world we know – two people entrapped in a garden, re-enacting a colonial fantasy from the early twentieth century; a forgotten gallery with a portrait of a lunar astronaut; a marooned sailor, who knows the world that has been lost from books. If Proust’s world is one where the future has not come (although its shadow can begin to be discerned), Wolfe’s is one where that future is now so far past that it has been nearly wholly engulfed.

The title of Proust’s oeuvre, In Search of Lost Time, could nearly be the title of a forgotten pulp science fiction novel from the 1950s or early 1960s. Yet Proust works with the tools of modernism. Wolfe, instead uses the tools of science fiction to transpose Proust’s future and his past. His narrator occasionally looks back at the alienated fragments of the age we live in today and its spiritual successors, from the vantage of a world resembling the one that Proust says has been lost.

“I used to read, aboard ship. Once I read a history. I don’t suppose you know anything about it. So many chiliads have elapsed here. So different from this, but so much like it too. Queer little customs and usages . . . some that weren’t so little. Strange institutions. I asked the ship and she gave me another book.”

He was still perspiring, and I thought his mind was wandering. I used the square of flannel I carried to wipe my sword blade to dry his forehead.

“Hereditary rulers and hereditary subordinates, and all sorts of strange officials. Lancers with long, white mustaches.” For an instant the ghost of his old humorous smile appeared. “The White Knight is sliding down the poker. He balances very badly, as the King’s notebook told him.” … “None of it began so.” There was a sudden intensity in his quavering voice. “Severian, the king was elected at the Marchfield. Counts were appointed by the kings. That was what they called the dark ages. A baron was only a freeman of Lombardy.”

I can’t imagine many aficionados of Proust have read Wolfe. Perhaps more aficionados of Wolfe have read Proust. Reading the two together casts light on the degree to which Wolfe is as radical in his way as Proust was in his. He takes Proust’s alienation and turns it back against itself, not only asking how our present might look from the vantage point of something like Proust’s past, but intimating that it will be more profoundly irrecoverable.



William Timberman 07.18.17 at 2:56 pm

As graceful a defense of genre fiction as I’ve ever read, and despite the fact that it’s a particular case you’re making here, I think it serves equally well as a general defense for those still convinced that one is necessary. It also doesn’t hurt to be reminded that even the 21st century, which takes such pains in its tweeting to deny that it has any antecedents, has them nevertheless. Nicely done.


bob mcmanus 07.18.17 at 3:28 pm

Just excellent. A pleasure. Being almost forty years away from my reading of Proust and Wolfe (within a couple years of each other, and only early Wolfe not read so well as Proust) the OP is in itself an exercise in memory and nostalgia.

Perhaps more aficionados of Wolfe have read Proust.

Paraphrasing Malzberg: Damn SF fans will read anything. Indiscriminates.

Last I knew, the surveys show that a fair percentage of young SF fans do move on to challenging mainstream (funny little allegory by LeGuin on genre floating around this week) literature. This would of course include especially many of the writers as fans, and the list of formally experimental SF works is long. I have thought this confirmed Darko Suvin’s definition with “cognitive estrangement” and have wondered about the pleasures of being confused, puzzled, challenged by the likes of Stevens, Joyce, Delany, Russ.

But this is all still modernist, I think, and net reactionary, even in an awesome diversity.


engels 07.18.17 at 4:42 pm

I started listening to Swann’s Way while I was walking and only realised after a few blocks I had it on speakerphone. Which felt a bit embarassing.


William Timberman 07.18.17 at 5:20 pm

bob mcmanus @ 2

But this is all still modernist, I think, and net reactionary…

With respect, I’m far from convinced of this formulation. Aesthetic Verwirrung seems to me rather to have been one of the first cracks to appear in modernism, if we take modernism to be short for the Apollonian fixations of the Enlightenment that led us, more or less inevitably, to MAD, TINA and all suchlike received principles of what I like to think of as an inappropriately armed rationality.

What have Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson to do with Rimbaud and Van Gogh, except perhaps insofar as they represent the yin-yang, the victors and victims of an Enlightenment which abstracted one overarching principle of cognition over others less easily quantifiable?


tom 07.18.17 at 5:54 pm

May I ask about the technology set-up? The headset jack in my Motorola Android is pretty horrible and that has deterred me from listening to stuff off my phone. Also, is this off Kindle?

Finally, may I ask if you live in a noisy area? Maybe it is because I am not a native speaker, but I usually have to increase the volume of what I am listening to in order to understand it clearly (even with my old iPod), whether I am walking outside or running on the treadmill. But I am not comfortable with the high volume on my ears (unhealthy in the long run etc.) and so I rarely do that. Anyway, thanks in advance.


Joseph Brenner 07.18.17 at 6:43 pm

William Timberman@1:

“As graceful a defense of genre fiction as I’ve ever read, …”

Gene Wolfe’s own defense of genre fiction was to make the point that “Hamlet” is genre fiction: it’s an example of a Revenge Play.

That made some of the pecularities of the plotting in Hamlet a little clearer to me– Hamlet is sent away, and goes off meekly, saved from exile by an accidental shipwreck, at which point he storms in in a murderous mood. That makes some sense as a melodramtic plotting, it seems awfully peculiar as part of Great Literature.


Danielle Morrill 07.18.17 at 7:53 pm

Love this post! You probably will enjoy the cadence of Murakami novels as well (he is heavily influenced by Proust) and I recommend “1Q84” and “Kafka on the Shore”. He is a modern (still living!) Japanese author. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and recommending Wolfe. I will check it out.


bob mcmanus 07.18.17 at 8:52 pm

What have Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson to do with Rimbaud and Van Gogh,

Aesthetic autonomy; the attempted escape from history/representation via instrumental reason along with the return of the repressed. Often a self-aware internal critique of the above. I have spent a lot of time since the 70s trying to connect say Mann, Picasso, and Skylark Three. Well, not enough so that there aren’t a hundred people reading who couldn’t do it better.

(I prefer anymore to drive-by rather than engage; I certainly don’t want to direct a thread this early; anyway Farrell’s piece here has fascinated me and I want to think about it and see what others have to say. Later maybe.)


john mcgowan 07.18.17 at 9:42 pm

Many years ago I saw a poster of the longest sentence in Proust diagrammed. I still kick myself for not buying it.


William Timberman 07.18.17 at 10:12 pm

bob mcmanus @ 8

A drive-by suits my needs perfectly as well. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Food for further thought from you, as always. Thanks….


Adam Roberts 07.19.17 at 6:47 am

I argue for Proust’s big novel as SF in this book.


Doug T 07.19.17 at 11:38 am

This now makes me want to go give Gene Wolfe another chance. Many years ago I tried to read the Book of a New Sun and never made it very far. (I did really enjoy Soldier of Arete, which was an odd little book.) But I love Proust.

I’m glad you’re enjoying it–I’d not have guessed his prose would really work in audiobook–even when reading I’d occasionally have to go back and re-catch the gist of a sentence that I’d lost a hundred words back.

On a side note, I don’t think Proust intended you to be impressed with Swann’s love for Odette. In general his view of love is not as something very admirable or elevating, but rather a kind of blindness, with the focus on jealousy rather than any more elevating feelings. I also think that whole section (Swann in Love) is more a comedy of manners than a drama or romance.


Henry 07.19.17 at 12:12 pm

>I argue for Proust’s big novel as SF in this book.

Fun! Look forward to reading.


bob mcmanus 07.19.17 at 12:20 pm

Jeez, and really, one reason I got quiet yesterday was because I expected somebody to pull Adam Roberts out from behind a poster, with History of Science Fiction in one hand and Fredric Jameson in the other.


Jon Weinberg 07.19.17 at 7:05 pm

@Danielle Morrill: I love Murakami (well, except for IQ84, which I thought was disappointing), but in writing style and cadence he’s anything but Proustian, no?


Austin Hatch 07.19.17 at 8:55 pm

A few things: always glad to read someone else’s reflections on Proust. I’ve found some interesting parallels over time in regards to his cadence. Oddly, I also feel like Murakami has some Proustian moments- notable that I am not saying he is consistently Proustian in his cadence or voice, but he has moments.

Proust is an interesting door to open. Be prepared to find him in places and at moments you wouldn’t expect.


Jim Birch 07.19.17 at 11:19 pm

@Tom, try getting a real set of headphones. The audio quality of larger drivers is way better than earbuds, even expensive ones. Low notes and voices are clear. I use the relatively cheap, small and lightweight Motorola Pulse bluetooth headset when walking and love it. These are not noise-isolating but that’s preferable for my relatively quiet environment. If you need it, get something with more isolation or even active noise cancelling.


Jon Weinberg 07.20.17 at 12:36 pm

@Austin Hatch: Not trying to derail, but could you elaborate? I’ve recently started the project of reading Kafka on the Shore in Japanese (it’ll take me a while, because my Japanese has limitations), and I’m hugely grateful for the author’s simple, sparse style; I could never manage if I had to translate a sentence like the one in the OP. I’m only glancingly familiar with Proust, but I’ve read pretty much all of the Murakami available in English translation, and I would have said that their voices could not be more different (notwithstanding Murakami’s having a character reference Proust in 1Q84). What am I missing?


Adam Roberts 07.20.17 at 1:19 pm

bob’s comment at #14 disconcerts me a tad. I didn’t mean, in commenting, to come over as bumptious or preening (though I can see, now that my comment is up, why people might read it that way). I only meant to second Henry’s original post, which strikes me as perceptive and interesting. Recording my agreement as it were.


bob mcmanus 07.21.17 at 8:53 am

19: It was an attempted expression of admiration and gratitude with added self-deprecating humour to relieve embarrassment. I remain dazzled by some academics and writers. I re-read the middle of your History of SF yesterday and enjoyed it.

Sorry to disconcert.

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