Keeping Up With Marcel Proust

In which I reveal my deepest, darkest secrets…

My three teenagers once caught me in flagrante delicto. The day their sweet innocence was cruelly snatched from them was the day they discovered me…watching an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Now that they knew the sordid, long-buried secret of their mother’s appalling vice, there was nothing left to do but try to contain the shameful truth within the four walls of our house. 

“You must never, ever speak of this to anyone,” I implored my children in solemn, measured tones that I hoped would impress upon them the gravity of the situation.

My plea was met with a withering look of disbelief. 

“Do you actually think we would want anyone to know that our mother watches Keeping Up With the Kardashians?” my daughter asked. 

In another lifetime, long before I spawned a passel of scornful children, I got a Ph.D. in Russian literature at Columbia University. Before that, I studied French literature in college, where I read many of the great works of that tradition in the original language. Back in my salad days, when I was just beginning my graduate studies in New York City, everything seemed possible. It seemed crazy not to take advantage of the fact that Antoine Compagnon, perhaps the world’s leading scholar on Marcel Proust, was teaching a course on his roman-fleuve: A la recherche du temps perdu. I decided to audit the course, and for the next semester I tried to keep up with the reading as best I could, along with the coursework that was actually required for my degree. Proust’s brother once famously remarked that it was a pity that only people who were sick or had a broken leg had the time to read the lengthy novel. I was neither sick, nor did I have a broken leg…I had to abandon the Proust. 

Decades after I first bought the eight paperback volumes that make up A la recherche in a surge of naive optimism, they were quietly gathering dust on the bookshelves lining the walls of the genteelly dilapidated farmhouse I now live in. They had made the move with me to three different apartments in New York, a brief stint in Northern Virginia, and three different houses in Charlottesville. They had a spot on my bookshelves in every place I called home during those years of academic and professional striving, and the intense hustle of child-rearing, but never once did I consider cracking them open again to read them. 

With my children now mostly grown and not needing my attention at every moment, and with the pandemic keeping everyone at home, I suddenly found myself with time on my hands. I pulled every unread book from my shelves, stacked them into two towering piles, and read through every single one over the course of a little over a year. The immense satisfaction I felt when I finally finished the last book was marred only by the needling thought that I had not included the Proust books in my inventory of unread books. I eyed them warily for about a week. They seemed to be reproaching me for all those years of neglect. 

I considered all the many rational reasons not to start reading them. I hadn’t read a book in French in decades…Starting projects I can’t finish inevitably sends me into a downward spiral of despair and self-loathing…And then there is my terrible tendency to become obsessive about reading to the point of abandoning all the trappings of civilized life, such as sleeping, showering, or spending any time whatsoever with other human beings for as long as it takes to finish the book, or in this case: eight books. Did I really want to put myself and my family through this? Had I not earned the right in my dotage, after a recent bout of cancer, during a global pandemic for God’s sake, to surrender to the placid torpor of mindless entertainment? 

But what about us? was the insistent refrain that seemed to come from those eight volumes of Proust. 

I am now 51, the same age as Proust was when he died. I have long outgrown the unwarranted confidence of childhood when I was convinced that if I just practiced hard enough, if I flapped my arms just so, one day I would surely be able to fly. I no longer assume I could pick up a new language if I put my mind to it, learn how to play a new instrument, or reinvent myself with a new career. I am at the age for my first colonoscopy. I am at the age where I sometimes hold my mother’s hand so she won’t fall. I am at the age where my Google search history reveals that I have recently been on the hunt for “pretty headstones.” I am at the age where the phrase now or never has never been more meaningful. I roused myself and embarked upon the project of reading every single word of all eight volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu, translated into English as: In Search of Lost Time.

Lost time indeed. Upon opening the first book, I experienced that quintessential Proustian moment of being swept back in time on a tidal wave of involuntary memory, triggered by the sensation of an uneven cobblestone underfoot, or the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea. With my fingertip, I traced my name, which I had penciled on the inside cover of each volume so long ago. In one of the books, I had added the year 1993 under my name. It was my first spring in New York City as a graduate student. I was a jeune fille en fleurs, fending off the unwanted attention of men who, in those days, swarmed around like bees. I was eating honey-roasted nuts from a warm waxed bag I had just bought on the street corner, helplessly handing over dollar bills as if in a trance, powerless to resist the intoxicating aroma wafting down Broadway. I was walking to class in a gentle shower of cherry blossoms falling from the trees lining College Walk…

With each volume, my underlining and notes in the margins become sparser. I could see that by the third volume, I had all but given up on the project. The swiftly disappearing marginalia began to evoke other memories…I was nervously pressing my ear to the door, late for class, but waiting for the booming voice of the predatory porter in my building to trail away so I could safely escape my apartment unmolested. I was an impoverished graduate student subsisting on a steady diet of canned tomato soup for lunch and dinner. I was desperately trying to keep up with a heavy reading load, and it felt like doggy-paddling in choppy waters with anchors attached to each flailing limb. 

I have absolved myself for not finishing the reading back then. No one would ever describe A la recherche as a page turner. Interspersed with electrifying passages that bring you to your knees, wrench tears from your eyes, or make you scream with laughter, are hundreds and hundreds of pages devoted to meandering discussions on architecture, or tedious descriptions of church tapestries. A shocking number of pages are dedicated to recording the idle chitter chatter of a single evening spent in a salon. The narrator’s lengthy bouts of fervent navel-gazing take up the majority of the novel. He luxuriates in the endless dissection of his own neuroses like a cat lolling in a warm patch of sunlight. In its entirety, the novel is an exceptionally detailed record of the narrator’s life from childhood to adulthood: documenting not just the big moments, but even the most seemingly trivial ones.

The Proust Pandemic Project dragged on for months. I read until my eyeballs throbbed in their sockets. “Still at the Proust?” my husband would casually ask me from time to time. If he only knew the murderous rage that roiled inside me every time he tossed those thoughtless, hateful words my way like poison-tipped daggers! I would nod grimly, but inside I would scream: “Oh my God, yes. YES! Eight volumes. In French! Literally, the longest novel in the world. Are you freaking kidding me?! YES! Of course I’m still reading Proust!” I thought it quite possible that even if he were spared death at my hands, I myself might die of bitter frustration or old age before accomplishing the task I had set for myself. But the day finally came when I read the last word of the last page of the last volume.

When I closed that final book, I was mortally exhausted. To my surprise I found that I also felt bereft. I moped for a few days, feeling rudderless and unsettled. I was craving my next fix, but my overtaxed, aging brain needed a rest. It was time…to get caught up with the Kardashians. I furtively watched all eight episodes of the latest season in just a few days, ready to slam my laptop shut at any moment in case my judgmental children happened to appear on the horizon. But having now binged through both novel and reality show, I am prepared to make the bold claim that there are valid comparisons to be made between Keeping Up With the Kardashians and In Search of Lost Time

My professor advised that in the absence of a driving plot, the best way to read In Search of Lost Time is to simply dip into the novel and let the prose wash over you. This, of course, is the only way to watch the Kardashians. Mostly nothing happens in either ISOLT or KUWTK. In Proust’s universe, the Kardashian family would find their match in the aristocratic Guermantes: clannish, wealthy socialites with little to do but entertain and make public appearances. The Guermantes encamp to Balbec to vacation; the Kardashians escape to Palm Springs. They eat at restaurants, throw glittering parties, gossip about others, start their own side hustle/vanity projects: (a bordello, a blog…). They argue over things like clothing and shoes. One of the most dramatic moments of this season of KUWTK is the vicious fight between Kendall and Kylie over an outfit they both want to wear to an event. In Le Côté de Guermantes 2, the Duc de Guermantes snaps at his wife and forces her to change her shoes because he deems black shoes entirely inappropriate to wear with a red dress. (Perhaps unsurprisingly: in the final volume, she is suing for divorce). Kanye West is also known to dictate his wife Kim Kardashian’s every fashion move. (Spoiler alert: divorce impending)! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Proust, like his narrator, came from a bourgeois background, but was fascinated by the aristocracy and managed to maneuver his way into the fringes of high society. He lovingly documents the clothing, home décor, hairstyles, and makeup of the aristocracy, as breathlessly as might a dazzled tourist, or a writer for People magazine. I bet he would have loved watching the Kardashians. 

The slow rhythm of prosaic events and observations that make up the bulk of both the novel and show can lull the viewer/reader into a trance-like state. Sometimes, so little happens, that the protagonists are compelled to manufacture entertainment for themselves. Swann, (in many ways the alter-ego of Proust’s narrator), amuses himself by “collecting” people and putting them together socially in incongruous pairings to see what will transpire. In the same idle vein, in the absence of any real drama in their own lives, the Kardashians love to pull elaborate pranks on each other. But every now and then, unsuspecting viewers/readers are jolted out of their drowsy stupor by shocking scenes. 

Scandal is the very foundation stone of the Kardashian empire, with Kim Kardashian’s leaked sex tape the start of it all. Scandals strategically punctuate the reality show’s otherwise routinely banal content. The Kardashians’ scandals pale in comparison to the ones in ISOLT. Proust’s narrator habitually eavesdrops on private conversations and is an inveterate voyeur. The novel’s most graphic scenes are presented through his eyes, as he watches sexual encounters from various hiding places. He crouches behind a bush to spy on the sadistic Mlle Vinteuil and her lover through an open window. He creeps up a ladder to peer through a transom window at M. de Charlus and Jupien having sex. He wanders into a brothel and uses a peep hole to watch a BDSM encounter. The narrator’s gaze becomes the reader’s; we are hiding with him in the bushes, lurking with him on the ladder, and at his elbow as he peers through the peephole. It is precisely these voyeuristic glimpses at what should be private that make reality shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or the Harry and Meghan “bombshell” interview with Oprah so compulsively watchable.

Midway through the last season of the reality show, the film crew abandons their post to join the rest of the world in lockdown. Undaunted, the Kardashians continue to film every aspect of their lives on their own iPhones. When Khloe Kardashian contracts COVID, she locks herself into her bedroom to quarantine. Her phone camera continues to roll as she lies in bed in silk pajamas, feverishly coughing. These scenes call to mind the image of Proust himself, recumbent in his cork-lined bedroom, laboring to complete his magnum opus despite his fragile health. In the end, his life’s work is a grand homage to his own life: a faithful record of almost every single aspect of his existence, including his illnesses. Even as she languishes with COVID, Khloe doggedly continues to create her chef d’œuvre: the monument to her own life that is Keeping Up With the Kardashians. It is disturbing and somewhat baffling to see her, gravely ill, yet perfectly coiffed and fully made up, whispering wistfully into the camera of her boredom and loneliness in isolation. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. 

In Le Temps Retrouvé, (Time Regained), the final volume of the novel, the narrator reenters society, after having spent years in sanatoriums trying to recover from poor health. At a soirée at the home of the Prince de Guermantes, he sees the friends of his youth transformed by cruel time into stooped, wrinkled figures. So disconcerting are the changes wrought by time, that he at first imagines that his friends are wearing white wigs and elaborate disguises. Even more shocking is the realization that if his contemporaries have aged, then so has he. 

The narrator looks back on a lifetime frittered away on trivial pursuits. Sensing that death is fast approaching, he is spurred into a race against time to be the writer he has always dreamed of being. His grand revelation is that every moment of his life, from the childhood trauma of anxiously awaiting his mother’s goodnight kiss to evenings spent in a salon, is all the material he needs for his masterpiece. As I read Le Temps Retrouvé, I had my own realization. I was reading Proust’s novel at exactly the right time in my life. For I too am no longer young. I look in the mirror and am shocked by the ravages of time. Like the narrator, I sometimes feel as if I have wasted a lifetime. I’ve written in fits and starts and have been distracted and led away from writing by diversions such as binge-watching fluffy reality shows. So here I am, dear reader, wanly lying in bed, typing away at my laptop, baring my soul and mining even the most tawdry and trivial moments of my own existence to write my life story for your consumption.

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