Dear Marcel Proust,
Here we are, at the end of 4,200 pages of your writing. Over the past year and a half, I’ve read your words book by book, month by month, and met with my reading group to discuss you, to bemoan your obsessions with sex, to marvel at your descriptions of grieving, to remind each other of how each character fits within the larger work, how your own life overlapped with the lives in your novels. For 18 months, I have read very little fiction except your own, have allowed myself to become enveloped by your life and your writing and your ideas about the world.
And so I want to write to say that you’ve changed my life. I know that sounds silly. I know that my friends would say my life actually looks pretty much the same as it did 18 months ago. But you, of all people, understand the inner changes that can happen to a person without anyone on the outside noticing, how the life of the mind can shift dramatically, how suddenly, a person can understand light in new ways, understand politics and social movements in new ways, understand family dynamics and love affairs and creativity, all in new ways, without anyone on the outside noticing a difference at all.
So I want to be clear about the ways you’ve shifted my thinking. You’ve helped me to understand what it means to create art, whether that art is fiction or music or painting or poetry. How a lived life nourishes art, but how the artist must also hermit herself away from all that life in order to get her work accomplished. How we shouldn’t feel bad about that, even as social invitations call and family obligations tug. That art can be bigger and more important than life, but cannot exist without it.
You’ve taught me about neuroscience and memory, how the brain can log memory without us noticing so that one smell, one taste from a moment years in the past can rocket back to us without our calling. How that memory can then change our life. You’ve taught me about technology, how strange it really is to talk about taking a train at 1:18pm. What it means to have concepts like “1:18pm.” How cars change everything. How war changes everything. How a pair of perfectly constructed red shoes changes everything.
You’ve taught me about love. How loving another person is really projecting our own ideas about love onto that person. How love can rise and fall just like life, and that, in life, what can seem intolerable one day can be forgotten entirely the next. To hold on, basically, and see where life takes you. To rise when life is rising, and fall when it’s falling, and be comfortable in each. Be comfortable in Time, in Time’s passing.
And you’ve taught me most of all to pay attention. To look around, eavesdrop, smell hawthorns, admire paintings, really listen to music, really listen when artists speak, ask questions. Be present in the world. Be present in this short life.
You write in this last book, In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself. So most of all, I want to thank you for holding up that optical instrument, for helping me, through your writing, to better see myself, better understand my own inner workings. I can’t wait to begin your work, our work, again.
Andrea Scarpino is soon-to-be the Michigan correspondent and Bureau Chief of POTB. You can visit her at: