In search of Proustian little moments that make life worthwhile

As Proust noted, our incremental memories of the world are the foundation of our lives – but where have they gone?
Illustrated edition of In Search of Lost Time, 1913-1927, by Georges de Feure (1868-1928). In Paris, Bibliothèque Des Arts Decoratifs. Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images
Illustrated edition of In Search of Lost Time, 1913-1927, by Georges de Feure (1868-1928). In Paris, Bibliothèque Des Arts Decoratifs. Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images
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‘None of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone… our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people,’ Marcel Proust says in the opening stages of his novel cycle In Search of Lost Time. On encountering a friend or someone we happen to know we instruct ourselves in an ‘intellectual process,’ Proust writes. ‘We pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him.’ The person Proust has in mind in this passage is Swann, the protagonist of the latter half of the first volume of the series. He invokes ‘the physical outline,’ the evening garden parties hosted at Combray, the narrator’s childhood home, and ‘a lingering residuum’ of companionable country life.

The reader is introduced to an ‘early Swann’, not yet burdened with an unfortunate marriage. It is described in essence as a form of class treachery, seeking out a woman in a lower ‘caste’ and in association with less agreeable social circles. Unlike the Swann we encounter in the later stages of the novel series, this Swann is, according to the narrator, ‘like the other people I knew at that time, as though one’s life were a picture gallery in which all the portraits of any one period had a marked family likeness… fragrant with the scent of the great chestnut-tree, of baskets of raspberries and of a sprig of tarragon.’

One of the most beautiful – although least acknowledged in popular caricature – aspects of Proust’s writing is the way he renders the interpenetration of ‘things, places, [and] years,’ in the prosody of the everyday. His image of early Swann is inflected as much by the rhythms of family life as it is by the scent of chestnut-trees and tarragon. He describes ‘idle hours spent together after our weekly dinners, round the card-table or in the garden’ and the narrator’s great aunt’s appetite for tittle-tattle: ‘I must say you really are a regular character, M. Swann!’

The lockdowns of 2020 and early 2021 have certainly had a curious effect on our perception of social personality. Last year, when I interviewed Robert Dingwall, a leading sociologist, he struck a pessimistic note on the effects of WFH (Work From Home) culture and the mass closures of businesses. ‘We are burning through a legacy of social capital which we are not renewing,’ he said. 

If Proust was correct that our perception of others is a product of habit, of patterns, our little comings and goings, the odd pub rendezvous (in England at least) and even dinner table ephemera, then the last year has been a pretty bleak year for experience. ‘You’ll remember the little moments,’ Tony Soprano tells his family over dinner in series 3 of The Sopranos. Incidentally, that’s a programme rich in ‘Proustian’ moments. Tony is often overcome with a tide of memory on sniffing meat.

During the pandemic we have become accustomed to seeing people as if they are on the other side of an invisible borderline. Recently I bought myself a sandwich from a local shop. I found out that my order was mixed up with someone else’s. We looked at each other, rather plaintively, each of us thrumming through thousands of mental calculations – how has he long been holding it? What if he has the virus? Given that we’re outside, does that mean there’s less chance he can infect me? A little moment transformed into a big moment.

In parallel, my memories of particular times and particular places have strengthened over the past year. By the end of last summer, I felt like I knew every detail of my local patch down to its most miniscule features. The rose bush outside the front door, every curve of the treelines in the local park, and the patterns of dirt and soot on brickwork accumulated from decades.

It is true too that the family likeness of my mental imagery of the past year is far stronger than any since my time at university furnished by a vivid coming-of-age aura. My social circle has narrowed and is sustained by rather frenetic meet-ups when the rules have allowed it. It is an intensity borne of a particular moment, the desperate need for contact after long periods of enforced separation.

Proust writes, in the closing lines of Swann’s Way, that ‘the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment.’ I would trade this curious over-saturation of experience for all the tittle-tattle in the world, for that companionable life built of little moments, idle dinners and evenings round the card-table.   

Alastair Benn

Alastair Benn is deputy editor of Reaction, a London-based site dedicated to commentary on politics, economics and the arts. He is a member of the Engelsberg Ideas editorial team.

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