An Introvert as Social Observer (II)
Again we look at how an introvert can give us a dead-on portrait of the dynamics of an upper-class social circle – this time in reference to Marcel Proust and his 1.2-million-word masterpiece.
Previously I discussed how author and introvert Edith Wharton expertly chronicled and criticized high-society New York although she was not a party animal. Let’s look now at the case of Marcel Proust, also an introvert, who described the foibles of French aristocrats and elites in his monumental novel, In Search of Lost Time (also known as Remembrance of Things Past).
According to critic Edmund White, In Search of Lost Time ranks as the twentieth-century novel with the very highest international reputation. It probes the nature of memory and introspective truths while spinning elongated story lines about decadent dukes, barons, princesses and acclaimed artists of various sorts. Proust’s sentences famously wind along almost endlessly, adding nuance after delicate nuance to each observation and emotional state. “Thirty pages on how he tosses and turns in his bed before falling asleep!” scoffed one editorial director who declined to publish the book’s first volume.
About Introvert Marcel Proust
Unlike Wharton, Proust (1871-1922) didn’t come from an upper-crust family. His father rose from humble beginnings to renown as a prominent public-health physician, while his mother belonged to a wealthy family based far from Paris. Afflicted with serious asthma from the age of nine, Proust spent much of his childhood struggling to breathe and communing with books more than with playmates.
As an adult, he described reading as “the reverse of conversation, consisting as it does for each one of us in receiving the communication of another’s thought while still being on our own, that is, continuing to enjoy the intellectual sway which we have in solitude and which conversation dispels instantly, and continuing to be open to inspiration, with our minds still at work hard and fruitfully on themselves.” Clearly that indicates someone who cherishes the inner life.
Yet after an elite education, Marcel schemed to gain entrée to the most glamorous salons of Paris. They regarded him – tolerantly – as a dilettante and social climber. He curried favor by tipping extravagantly on nights out at the Ritz, flattering shamelessly and sending expensive gifts to hostesses and acquaintances.
At some point, his pursuit of high standing shifted to a kind of fascinated research. Not only did he take in vastly more details than the average person about the behavior and surroundings of the aristocrats, he deliberately pumped people on the outskirts of the beau monde for play-by-play insights. He pursued deep understanding of the social world not to participate better but in order to integrate perceptions with imagination.
The butler of a count, for example, said that every time the household held a ball, Proust would come by the next day and ask who was there, what they said, who was related to whom and so on. Likewise, Proust would lure the maitre d’ of the Ritz away from his duties to gossip for hours at a time. My favorite instance of this information gathering of minutiae comes from English diplomat Harold Nicolson, who recorded in his diary an encounter with Proust at a party in 1919:
“[Proust] asks me questions. Will I please tell him how the [peace conference] Committees work? I say, ‘Well, we generally meet at 10.00, there are secretaries behind…’ ‘Mais non, mais non, vouz allez trop vite. Recommencez. Vous prenez la voiture de la Délégation. Vous descendez au Quai d’Orsay. Vous montez l’escalier. Vous entrez dans la Salle. Et alors? Précisez, mon cher, précisez.’ So I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all: the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons. He listens enthralled, interrupting from time to time — ‘Mais précisez, mon cher monsieur, n’allez pas trop vite.’”
[‘But no, but no, you are going too fast. Start again. You take the car of the Delegation. You go down to the Quai d’Orsay. You go up the steps. You enter into the hall. And then? Be precise, my dear, be precise…. But be precise, my dear sir, don’t go too fast.’]
Some of Proust’s eccentric habits can be laid at the door of his chronic asthma and others attributed to his exquisite sensory sensitivity. Because he often felt cold, he sometimes sat down to society dinners bundled up in multiple overcoats. Because he hated noise, he had his bedroom, where he wrote propped up on pillows, lined with cork. Because dust in the streets bothered his lungs, he slept during the day and went out at night, when the air was fresher. Driven to complete In Search of Lost Time, he went out less and less in the last years of his life, relying on his extraordinary ability to tease the hidden philosophical and psychological implications from his experiences and information gathering.
Who Loves and Hates Proust, and Why
People who feel the meaning of life lies in our actions find Proust – both the man and his writing – exasperating. But those who find significance in thoughts, perceptions, motives and yearnings are more likely to understand and value what he was up to.