Virginia Woolf on Marcel Proust
Symptom no. 2:
That we are unable to write after reading a good book
This may seem a narrowly professional consideration, but it has wider relevance if one imagines that a good book might also stop us from thinking ourselves, because it would strike us as so perfect, as so inherently superior to anything our own minds could come up with. In short, a good book might silence us.
Reading Proust nearly silenced Virginia Woolf. She loved his novel, but loved it rather too much. There wasn't enough wrong with it—a crushing recognition when one considers Walter Benjamin's assessment of why people become writers: because they are unable to find a book already written that they are completely happy with. And the difficulty for Virginia was that, for a time at least, she thought she had found one.
Marcel and Virginia
A short story
Virginia Woolf first mentioned Proust in a letter she wrote to Roger Fry in the autumn of 1919. He was in France, she was in Richmond, where the weather was foggy and the garden in bad shape, and she casually asked him whether he might bring her back a copy of Swann's Way on his return.
It was 1922 before she next mentioned Proust. She had turned forty and, despite the entreaty to Fry, still hadn't read anything of Proust's work, though in a letter to E. M. Forster, she revealed that others in the vicinity "were being more diligent. "Everyone is reading Proust. I sit silent and hear their reports. It seems to be a tremendous experience," she explained, though appeared to be procrastinating out of a fear of being overwhelmed by something in the novel, an object she referred to more as if it were a swamp than hundreds of bits of paper stuck together -with thread and glue: "I'm shivering on the brink, and waiting to be submerged with a horrid sort of notion that I shall go down and down and down and perhaps never come up again."
She took the plunge nevertheless, and the problems started. As she told Roger Fry: "Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures—there's something sexual in it—that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can't write like that."
In what sounded like a celebration of In Search of Lost Time, but was in fact a far darker verdict on her future as a writer, she told Fry: "My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that? . . . How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp."
In spite of the gasping, Woolf realized that Mrs. Dalloway still remained to be written, after which she allowed herself a brief burst of elation at the thought that she might have produced some-thing decent. "I wonder if this time I have achieved something?" she asked herself in her diary, but the pleasure was short-lived: "Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust, in whom I am embedded now. The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly's bloom. And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own."
However, any bad mood she was in was liable to take a dramatic plunge for the worse after the briefest contact with the Frenchman. The diary entry continued: "Take up Proust after dinner and put him down. This is the worst time of all. It makes me suicidal. Nothing seems left to do. All seems insipid and worthless."
Nevertheless, she didn't yet commit suicide, though did take the wise step of ceasing to read Proust, and was therefore able to write a few more books whose sentences were neither insipid nor worthless. Then, in 1934, when she was working on The Years, there was a sign that she had at last freed herself from Proust's shadow. She told Ethel Smyth that she had picked up In Search of Lost Time again, "which is of course so magnificent that I can't write myself within its arc. For years I've put off finishing it; but now, thinking I may die one of these years, I've returned, and let my own scribble do what it likes. Lord what a hopeless bad book mine will be!"
The tone suggests that Woolf had at last made her peace with Proust. He could have his terrain, she had hers to scribble in. The path from depression and self-loathing to cheerful defiance suggested a gradual recognition that one person's achievements did not have to invalidate another's, that there would always be something left to do even if it momentarily appeared otherwise. Proust might have expressed many things well, but independent thought and the history of the novel had not come to a halt with him. His book did not have to be followed by silence; there was still space for the scribbling of others, for Mrs. Dalloway, The Common Reader, A Room of One's Own, and in particular, there was space for what these books symbolized in this context—perceptions of one's own.
How Proust Can Change Your Life Alain de Botton 1997 Pantheon