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.

Art Bee

My sister said to me this weekend, “You’re always getting a bee in your bonnet.”

She’s absolutely right, of course.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the bee du jour, my abeille of the day was a family art project.

Almost everybody donned an old, beloved sweatshirt of mine to protect their clothes from paint splatter. That sweatshirt has been one of my prized possessions since middle school!

The adults painted too:

Last, but not least, my dad and mom added the finishing touches to our family masterpiece:

I’m all abuzz! I think it’s beautiful!

I am a monster.

When my son was very little he asked me to pose for a portrait. I have to admit, I was flattered by the request. I sat very still as he labored over his masterpiece. He took the whole enterprise very seriously. For a very long time, he would study my face intently and then return to his drawing to add more details. At last he was satisfied with his work. He put the finishing touches on the portrait and then finally released me from my pose.

“Can I see it?” I asked.

He turned the sketchbook to proudly reveal his portrait to me:



Wow!” I said. I was aghast, but trying to be sensitive to my budding young artist’s feelings, “Is that how I look to you?”

“Uh-huh!” he replied nonchalantly, “Looks just like you!”

I recalled this incident a few months ago in the midst of an extremely complicated day…

My son’s school was out for the day, but his school team’s soccer game was still on. To complicate matters, he had made vague plans to go to a friend’s house for a sleepover after his game. My husband had left town for a conference the evening before, so livery service was all up to me. As I left for work that morning I asked my son to be ready and dressed for soccer, to have his bag packed for the sleepover, and to get his friend’s cell phone number so we could find each other at the designated pick up spot at a high school on the opposite side of town. After dropping him off, his siblings and I were going to meet up with friends all the way back on the other side of town. Is your head spinning? Mine was.

I went home during my lunch break to pick up my son and bring him back to my office. I left work a little early to drop him off at his soccer game on time, and then headed back home to pick up my daughter from the babysitter’s house and to pick up my other son as he got off the bus. Together, the three of us drove back to watch the rest of my son’s soccer game. After the game we drove on to the meeting point where he was going to get picked up.

“So you got your friend’s number?” I asked.

“I tried to ask him for it, but he never sent it to me.”

“Well, did you figure out exactly where at the high school we’re meeting?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere around the football field, probably.”

It was twilight when we arrived at the high school. We drove around the parking lot nearest to the football field, looking for his friend.

“Do you know what kind of car they drive?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“No, but just let me out here, I’ll find them,” he said with his hand already starting to open the car door as we circled the lot.

“Stop! We’ll just drive around until we see them.”

“Just let me out here,” he insisted, growing agitated, “You can go now.”

“I’m not going to leave you here to wander around the school all by yourself at night. Relax!”

“Fine! You can stay here in the car if you want. Let me out and I’ll come back to let you know when I’ve found them.”

“It will be much easier and quicker for me to just drive you around. Why are you acting so squirrelly? Are you embarrassed to be seen with me or something?”

“YEAH!” he said far too readily, and in a matter-of-fact tone that cut like a knife through butter. “There are people here! I don’t want everyone in the world to know my mommy had to drive me here.”

“Uhhhh…you’re 14. Everyone knows your mommy has to drive you everywhere. It’s kind of obvious. How else would you get here?”

By now he was really getting his panties in a twist.

“Just let me handle this! This is so embarrassing!”

I think of myself as a reasonable person. I’m not zen by any means, but I’m not crazy, either. But there comes a moment when one is pushed a little too far.

“You want embarrassing?” I snapped, “Because believe me, I can unleash all kinds of embarrassing, Buster!”

And thus commenced an epic hissy fit…One to go down in the history books. I was a grey-faced, slavering Harpy, winging into Athens with unsheathed talons and a crazed glint in my eye. I was Krakatoa, spewing volcanic ash and incinerating everything within my path. I was Enola Gay releasing the atomic bomb.

I’m not exactly sure what I looked like in that moment of terrifying wrath, but I imagine it was probably something like this:

The National Gallery

On Monday I walked around The National Gallery with my son.

We checked out two of the special exhibits going on there right now:

We lingered in the galleries featuring the works of Dutch masters…

In these galleries I discovered that I am far less sophisticated than my eleven year old…

“Look at the amazing way the artist painted the light and shadows on the columns!” he exclaimed in wonder.

I might have noticed that myself if I hadn’t been so preoccupied with this:

On our way out, we witnessed something really cool. This is someone painstakingly hand carving the names of benefactors into a marble slab:

The IX Art Park

The IX Art Park in Charlottesville, Virginia just had its grand opening on Sunday. The 17 acre park is a vibrant, dynamic, interactive community space dedicated to the arts.

There’s a “Before I Die…” chalkboard wall where people are encouraged to make public their most cherished dreams and aspirations…

It’s filled with inspiring messages of hope, such as:

“Find true peace in my soul”

“Travel the world”

“Build a flourishing practice that helps people love their lives”

I was busily taking photos elsewhere when my daughter came running up to find me with eyes shining. She brought me over to look at what she had written on the wall.

“Guess which one is mine?” she asked.

Gosh, I’m proud…

Simply bursting with pride, really.

The kids and I participated in the Rainbow Rush 5K, which was part of the grand kickoff for the Art Park. Inspired by the Holi festival, the race was designed to be a “color run.” There were stations set up around the route where people would pelt the runners with different powdered colors.

A few more photos back at home:

We had so much fun, my daughter and I went back on Monday to explore some more.

I’m signing off for the rest of the week. Hope your week is wonderful!

The Fragrance of Ink

Many years ago I saw a traveling exhibit of literati paintings of the Choson Dynasty from the Korea University Museum. I was enchanted by the name of the exhibit – “The Fragrance of Ink.” Inspired by that evocative phrase, I wrote this haiku. (Is it cheating that I didn’t make up 1/3 of the poem)?

The fragrance of ink
Is subtle, but insistent
Lingers, and is gone.

This literati painting is my favorite work of art that I own. It was done for my father by his friend, a well-known calligrapher. The words are a description of my father’s character:  “Deep thoughts, Great spirit”:


I love how the vigorous characters boldly wriggle, leap, pirouette and undulate as if they were going to dance right off the paper.

May your weekend be filled with beauty.