Culture & Society

 My Lockdowns With Marcel Proust: Escaping Covid Anxiety Through Reading 

'I first tried to read Proust because of social pressure, which is the worst reason you could ever have for discovering a writer you never read before. As I progressed through my studies, Marcel became more and more present.'

In memory of Marcel Proust

My relationship with Proust has always been complex. The kind of relationship where you say ‘it’s complicated’, when being asked about it. Marcel and I, we’ve known each other for more than two years now. Yes, I’m on a first-name basis with him, but it’s only because we’ve been through so much. I grew up as a French kid, coming from a literary background, and studying humanities afterward. He represented a challenge to me. It was like crushing on someone unattainable: people talked to me about him, said he was hard to approach, even antipathetic sometimes, but outstanding once you get to know him. So outstanding, that you won’t want to let him go anymore. 

So I tried to get along with Marcel, several times, even though I was a little bit repelled by the whole fame around him. I wanted to make sure he was worth it. I first met his suitors, and I hated them. In France, Marcel Proust morphed into a brand. The kind of brand that comes out at fashionable dinner parties. When talking about their boring summers in Brittany, or on the French Riviera, ignorant socialites would say meaningless trivialities, such as: ‘the sunscreen’s smell is my Proustian moment, it reminds me of my childhood’, or ‘Proust is the best French writer when it comes to love stories’. That’s the thing with Marcel. The French say they have read À la recherche du temps perdu (The search for lost time) but in fact, most of them did not even get through the first volume. And I don’t blame them for that. 

It took me some time to read Proust. When I turned seventeen, my dad got me a beautiful copy of À la recherche du temps perdu. It stayed on my bookshelf for years. The seven volumes were divided into two big and impressive books, which I never opened. 

That is how it began. 

I went to college without reading Marcel Proust, and I did not feel ashamed about it. Yet, the copy my dad had got me was still standing on the bookshelf, threatening, and imposing. Alongside, my other books looked miserable and shabby. 

I first tried to read Proust because of social pressure, which is the worst reason you could ever have for discovering a writer you never read before. As I progressed through my studies, Marcel became more and more present. People talked to me about him, some of my friends praised his literary talents and nonchalantly said ‘La Recherche’ instead of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’. When I asked my grandmother, a retired French literature professor, about that mysterious guy that everyone seemed to frequent without properly knowing him, she simply answered: ‘Proust? Il n’y a rien de plus beau’ (there is nothing more beautiful than Proust). 

So I decided to give it a go. Every six months, I used to open my grandmother’s copy of Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s way), read a hundred pages, and quickly get overcome by boredom. At that time, I enjoyed, and I still do, reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s raw slang, Sartre’s committed plays, and Balzac’s social frescos. I considered Proust as the pioneer of a littérature bourgeoise that I wanted to run away from. To me, he was simply a snob man, reserved for snooty readers. I found his descriptions of 20th-century French society shallow and meaningless. Swann’s way got published in 1913, one year before World War I, and it got me thinking: ‘How can someone write something as superficial as this when Europe is on the verge of chaos?’ I broke all ties with Proust for good. 

At least, that's what I thought. 

Then Covid-19 happened. I joined my boyfriend in his family house in Normandy, and spent 2 months of lockdown there. I was part of the lucky ones. I was stuck in this massive 19th-century house where I studied, watched classics, and read books. Lots of books. The house had a gigantic library, with books from all times and countries. It had red walls, green lamps, and a cozy divan. In other words, it was the perfect place to read. At first, I threw myself into writers I adored: Boris Vian, Annie Ernaux, Claude Simon. But after one month, I had read and re-read all my favorite books. That's how Marcel and I bumped into each other, after I had searched the library for something new. I wanted to be surprised and seduced. The cover of Swann’s way was old and spoiled, and showed the portrait of a little boy, painted by Auguste Renoir. I thought to myself: ‘Well, hello you’, and got attracted by Marcel for the very first time. We were in the middle of a worldwide lockdown, I was escaping the pandemic in a beautiful 19th-century bourgeois house, now was the time. 

So, just like that, I fell in love with Marcel Proust. I finally got to understand that first sentence of À la recherche du temps perdu: ‘Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure’ (For a long time, I went to bed early). Marcel became the companion of my many insomnia, and the watchman to my capricious sleep. I realized he was closer to me than I had imagined: we both loved 4 pm snacks, had bossy grandmothers, read George Sand at an early age, and were afraid of the night. By losing myself in Marcel’s memories, I was remembering my own souvenirs. I wasn’t afraid of his long sentences anymore. I loved his use of punctuation, and I never saw so many dashes and brackets in one sentence. Proust is the kind of writer where  you must read him out loud to hear the musicality of his style. So there I was, with my copy of Swann's way, shouting his sentences in a red-walled library. His family became mine, and I shared his interest in Charles and Odette Swann, main characters of À la recherche du temps perdu. 

And this is where my love/hate relationship with Marcel began. 

For a long time, I pitied Swann, a worldly and cultured bourgeois. He meets Odette in a salon, falls in love with her, and, finally, marries her. But their marriage comes as a scandal in Proust’s elitist and conservative world. Odette is a cocotte, a courtesan, in late 19th-century French. She is astonishingly beautiful, and Swann is terribly jealous. Instead of admiring Odette, an independent woman with a liberated sex life, Proust taught me to hate her. The more Charles tried to imprison his wife by his side, the more I felt compassion for him, and rage for her, which was against my feminist principles. 


After finishing Swann’s way, I distanced myself from Marcel for a while. I needed a break. I needed to find the real world again, far from Combray and its enchanting setting (the family home of the narrator of La Recherche). Lockdown ended, things came back to normal, I left Normandy, and returned to Paris. 

But a few months later, we were, once again, confined to our homes because of the pandemic. At that time, I was in the UK where I was studying, and got, once again, stuck with Marcel Proust. Because I missed Paris, I wanted to read a French book, and the only one I had brought with me was À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (Within a budding grove). Marcel and I were reunited, and lived an enchanted interlude again. The discovery of art, first boy-girl friendships, teenage love affairs: I felt that we had shared the same teenage years, a century apart. 


Time passed, Covid ended. With hindsight, I know Marcel helped me to get through it. Being fascinated by his books and his long sentences has changed my perception of time, and I lost myself as the days went by. My past and present were intertwined as the hours passed, and I did not have time to think about the Covid disaster or the after-pandemic.

Marcel and I ran into each other several times after that. So far, I have read the first four volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu. I do not want another lockdown to happen, but I really miss Marcel. I might go back to him sometimes.