A Retiree Reads Proust and Montaigne

by Michael Cohen

We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.

—Montaigne, “Of Solitude”

My friend Hughie Lawson, having retired from teaching history at the college where I also taught, decided the first thing he wanted to do when his time was wholly his own was to read Proust. And read him he has, twice traversing A la recherche du temps perdu with a good French dictionary and only the occasional help of a crib—the excellent translation begun by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and carried on by Terence Kilmartin and Andreas Mayor. Now Hughie, still as fervent as any late convert, is listening to tapes of the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann, and he has made another convert in me.

At Hughie’s urging, I determined to read Remembrance of Things Past once I had joined him in the leisure of retirement. Swann’s Way had been assigned in my sophomore humanities course, but all I could remember of it forty years later was the pet name Odette and Swann used for their love­making, “doing a cattleya” (because their dalliance began when he was adjusting a cattleya orchid on her breast one evening). I had never even looked into the other six parts making up the three-thousand-page novel.

As I began rereading Swann’s Way, a couple of thoughts struck me. I wondered what in the world I had made of this book when I read it at twenty. And I became captured by the bizarre, hypersensitive consciousness of the narrator (“neurasthenic” is the word he uses for his condition). I was entranced at the narrator’s deliberate and precise anatomization of his own mental and emotional life. He records his aesthetic development as well: the writer Bergotte instructs him in reading literature, the dilettante Swann gives him confidence in every social milieu, and the painter Elstir shows him how to see the world. The narrator describes a rich and large cast of characters—the old family servant, the self-important diplomat, the pedant, the doctor, the duchess, the musician, the soldier, the tailor—and distinguishes each of their voices. In my experience, only Jane Austen is as accurate a mimic in producing dialogue in which I can instantly recognize the speaker.

I was also reading Montaigne at the time. My writing projects changed from academic articles and books to personal essays when I retired, so it was natural for me to become absorbed in reading the man who invented the personal essay. Where Proust was a novelty, Montaigne was an old friend who gave me the pleasures of familiarity.

Montaigne does not enforce a linear approach; I can pick him up at the beginning of any of the more than a hundred essays. With him I can fall into my habit with any collection: I read the shortest piece first, then the next shortest, and so on. Or, if I have the inclination, I can begin with a longer essay. “If you will not give a man a single hour,” writes Montaigne, “you will not give him anything.” And what he gives in return is always worth the effort. On one spread of two pages he takes me from Sejanus to King Clovis of France to Mohammed II to Antigonus the Macedonian and on to the Russian Jaropelc and the king of Poland. But he is never far from his main subject, which is Montaigne himself.

Montaigne is an expert on retirement. He knows that in the absence of pressing public matters, important duties and tasks, the small domestic ones assume undeserved importance. And he knows the vital importance of holding back a part of oneself. “We have lived long enough for others; let us live at least this remaining bit of life for ourselves.” Let us keep, he urges, “a back shop [une arrière-boutique] all our own, entirely free.”

Both these writers provided me with what I was after: some self-indulgence and a good dose of the subjective. Proust’s almost incredibly self-indulgent narrator was a profound liberating influence on me, stuck as I had been for years in academic writing where the “I” was an irrelevance. I had written about English literature and English painting, about Shakespeare, about reading poetry, and about mystery fiction, but outside of prefaces I never got to write about how or why these things moved me personally. I wanted to write about myself for a change. Proust implies that no other subject exists. Montaigne’s concentration on himself is less airlessly solipsistic, but even more encouraging for a writer in ways it took me some time to appreciate.

Proust and Montaigne, two French writers working three and a half centuries apart, both assembling one major work by accretion, then tweaking, adjusting, adding, and modifying, both have themselves as subject and time as theme. Each convinces me that he has all the leisure he needs to spin out what he takes up, to see where it goes. (Proust creates this impression even as he is racing against death to finish his book, and losing the race.) Each often reminds me of a naturalist who sets out on a day of bird-watching, but spends most of the morning examining with a magnifying glass a potato beetle that happened to catch his attention. Each writer seems to move away from his main structure and back to it, without apology and without regret, assuming I will follow. They have also in common an attention to the process of writing.

All three of us, Proust, Montaigne, and I, have retirement in common. “Let’s face it,” a blunt friend of mine said, rather unkindly I thought, “the narrative of your life is over. Now you’re trying to make sense of it.” Montaigne retired to his country estate to write and revise essays. Proust retired to a cork-lined, windowless bedroom to write and revise his huge novel. They’re both experts at “making sense of it” by writing.


Two writers of the same language could hardly appear as stylistically different. A purist might even argue that the early-twentieth-century modern Parisian French of Proust and the late-sixteenth-century Gascon-sprinkled French of Montaigne are not even the same language. The most striking feature of Proust’s style is the sentence structure, with many long relative clauses and parentheticals.

My friend Hughie says the clauses “seem like one of those puzzle boxes one inside the other,” but he is convinced this complexity has to do with Proust’s theme: “One of my wacko theories,” he writes, “is that since he was writing about memory he built this into the grammatical structure by writing such long sentences that you have to work to remember in the middle of one how it started out.” But, my friend adds, “Proust is always fair with you, and his sentences are always grammatically proper, so that in principle each could be outlined, the way Mrs. Sheram taught us in high school, but the average one would require the whole chalkboard!”

I know that Hughie is right about this because I have worked through those sentences until I saw the link between every modifier and its antecedent, and yet, I also find an apprehension mounting to a small panic when, having read along for a hundred words or so, I glance down the page and then on to the facing page and find no paragraph break, no full stop even, and my suspicion becomes more certain that Proust is going to keep pursuing the point that he began with and has since narrowed to a still finer notion, revolving it in the light, identifying its colors and then counting the nuances of each shade.

Montaigne, by contrast, moves along quite rapidly, and his style is relatively spare and concise. He tells us that one of his models was Tacitus, whose Histories of Rome Montaigne read in one sitting—very unusual for a man who tells us he rarely spent more than an hour at a time reading. Montaigne avoids the extreme conciseness and the sometimes-monotonous oppositions of Tacitus because he worried about being “too compact, disorderly, abrupt, individual.” He even makes fun of these aspects of the Roman historian’s style by parodying them: “The unrolling of public events depends more on the guiding hand of Fortune: that of private ones, on our own. Tacitus’ work is more a judgment on historical events than a narration of them. There are more precepts than accounts. It is not a book to be read but one to be studied and learnt.”

Plutarch and Seneca were also favorites. From these writers he learned to seek clarity and straightforwardness; he quotes Seneca’s rejection of stylistic elegance as “unmanly,” a revealing word. Two hundred years before Buffon’s observation that “Le style est l’homme même,” Montaigne argued the connection between how one writes and how one lives one’s life. To write well and simply is an ethical, specifically a Socratic, imperative. Lack of ornament is one reason that rarely does a Montaigne sentence stretch past forty words.

Of course, he digresses. Reading Montaigne, I sometimes have a diluted version of the same panic Proust inspires, that the writer could pursue this particular line of elaboration or these parallel examples from Roman history for much longer than can reasonably be imagined or forborne. But then I relax, remember that I have retired, and smile slyly to myself.

Montaigne, also a retiree, away from public duties at his estate, can pursue his thoughts at leisure. I have the leisure to pursue him as he pursues them. When Montaigne really strays from the mark (he reminds me that sometimes when I think he is digressing I have merely failed to see what his point really is), it is not necessarily in one of the longer essays. The essays in the third book almost never strike me as distractingly digressive, while some of the earlier, shorter essays can do so; in these I often think Montaigne is ranging afield to avoid talking about himself. In the later essays he relaxes into more extensive self-revelation, and the pertinence of the examples becomes clearer as the real subject stands away from the background.

I am captivated by the humor of these two writers and by the disarming self-deprecation with which Proust’s narrator and Montaigne’s “I” present themselves. Montaigne is short, he tells us, “an ugly defect” that embarrasses him when strangers look over his head, mistaking him for a servant and looking around for his master. He prefers riding to walking because “in our streets small men are subject to being jostled and elbowed, for want of presence.” Proust’s narrator is clumsy and gets caught in revolving doors. He is frequently off-balance in some social way: foiled in trying to get an introduction to the Duchess and later to the Prince de Guermantes, not quite sure his invitation to the Princess de Guermantes’ reception isn’t a hoax, vainly and comically trying to meet the supposedly sexy maid of the Baroness Putbus, on the wrong side of the woman he’s supposed to take in to dinner so that she has to pirouette to his right side to hide his gaffe. Montaigne accuses himself of clumsiness, as well as having a bad memory and being a poor storyteller. “Not so,” is my response, nor can I go along with him when he calls his essays “some excrements of an aged mind.”

Along with self-deprecation, Proust and Montaigne share a satiric view of the inability of those around them to look at themselves and the world with a long view. Thus fashion, for example, attracts their scorn. Montaigne is as devastating on codpieces as Proust on monocles—in more than one place Proust compares men wearing monocles to fish carrying around a little piece of the aquarium. Montaigne has little patience with religious fanaticism and writes that “it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.” He makes fun of world travelers who come home having learned only “the measurements of the Santa Rotunda, or of the richness of Signora Livia’s drawers.” Proust anatomizes the cynicism that could be completely aware of Dreyfus’s innocence yet keep him jailed for years.

Both can be satiric about doctors and medicine, and both suggest that the attendance of doctors seems to prolong naturally short illnesses. Montaigne says that doctors get to bury their mistakes, while their successes walk around as advertisements; that they get the credit for cures effected by nature or anything else; and that those under a doctor’s care seem to be constantly sick. In Proust, doctors are likely to appear ignorant, obsessive, and unable to put themselves in another’s place. But Proust’s narrator also warns us that dismissing doctors and medicine would be a mistake: “to believe in medicine would be the height of folly, if not to believe in it were not a greater folly still.” This caveat comes from one of the deepest convictions that the narrator’s poor health has instilled in him: the body will not be ignored.

The ineluctable body is a major theme for both Proust and Montaigne, and neither has worked out the puzzle of the relation of body and mind. On the one hand, the body’s demand for attention in sickness (and age) affirms the dualism of the self: my thoughts can be healthy while my body is sick. “It is in sickness,” writes Proust’s narrator, “that we are compelled to realize that we do not live alone but are chained to a being from a different realm, from whom we are worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.” On the other hand, a condition of health is the integration of mind and body. “The body has a great part in our being,” writes Montaigne, “those who want to split up our two principal parts and sequester them from each other are wrong.”


At first I found the hourly experience of reading Remembrance of Things Past much like lived life in its pace and seeming formlessness, but as I spent weeks and months with the book I began to see Proust’s careful attention to form and cohesive structure.

To pick one example, the old music master and composer named Vin­teuil is used to link the three great passions of the book. Charles Swann hears a phrase from a Vinteuil composition for the first time when he meets the courtesan Odette de Crecy, who will be the love of his life. The musical phrase becomes the theme for Swann’s infatuation. In the middle of the book, the narrator’s chance mention of Vinteuil’s name leads Albertine, the woman he is about to dump, to reveal her lesbian passion for Vinteuil’s daughter. This revelation, because of the economics of love in the novel (the unavailable is precisely the longed-for) cancels the narrator’s decision to break with her and puts him in the same position Swann was in when besotted with love for Odette. Near the end of the novel, an entire Vinteuil septet (which contains the phrase that so enchanted Swann) becomes, in turn, the theme for the homosexual passion of the Baron de Charlus for a young musician.

And so it went as I proceeded through my seven-months’ reading of Remembrance of Things Past, whose accumulated and connected or parallel episodes became my memories, reawakened by later happenings, just as they are for the narrator.

To build this structure Proust wrote three versions of Remembrance of Things Past. When he was in his twenties he wrote an early outline of the novel as a third-person narrative. This manuscript was published after his death and given the title of its main character, Jean Santeuil. It does not take the protagonist very far in his progress toward becoming a writer. Ten years into the new century Proust completely rewrote the novel, enlarging it into three volumes. The first was published as Swann’s Way in 1913, and presumably the other two volumes would have followed over the next two years, but the war intervened, and during the war years Proust began to expand the three volumes into what would eventually span seven.

The second volume, Within a Budding Grove (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur—sometimes Scott Moncrieff’s English translations of the titles differ from Proust’s titles) won the highest French literary honor, the Goncourt Prize, when it was published in 1919. The Guermantes Way came out in two parts in 1920 and 1921; Cities of the Plain (Sodome et Gomorrhe) was also published in two parts in 1921 and 1922. After Proust died late in 1922, two more volumes that he had completed were published, The Captive in 1923 and The Sweet Cheat Gone (Albertine disparue) in 1925. The last volume, Time Regained, was clearly not ready for publication when Proust died, for it contains many inconsistencies, but the bulk of it was complete and it was published in 1927. The edition I read, based on the Pléiade edition of 1954, is the work of editors who collated the many changes—chiefly additions—that Proust made to the whole text right up to the night of his death.

Montaigne’s Essays also result from a three-stage process, which may be thought of most conveniently in terms of its three books or volumes, but which editorially is much more complex. Where Proust’s stages are metamorphic, Montaigne’s are accretive. Montaigne began writing essays after retiring to his estate in the Bordeaux region in 1571. He published two books of these—fifty-seven and thirty-seven essays respectively—together in 1580. Subsequent editions of the first two books, with many changes and added passages, came out in 1582 and 1587. Montaigne added a third book of thirteen essays in 1588, and until his death in 1592 he continued to revise and add hundreds of passages in a 1588 copy of the Essays. He says himself of the growth of the text, “I do not correct my first imaginings by my second—well, yes, perhaps a word or two, but only to vary, not to delete.” In all, the 107 essays are only about a third as long as Remembrance of Things Past, but still hefty at around a thousand pages. Several essays are less than two pages, while the longest, “An Apology for Raymond Sebond,” is over 150 pages.

Many of the first series of Montaigne’s essays are tentative and diffident, stingy in their self-revelation. Frequently, the first-person pronoun will appear only once or twice. Anecdotes from classical sources and from European history make up the bulk of these essays. Gradually the pattern changes. In the second and third series, the essays begin to lengthen. “Because such frequent breaks into chapters as I used at the beginning seemed to me to disrupt and dissolve attention,” Montaigne writes, “I have begun making them longer, requiring fixed purpose and assigned leisure.” It’s as if, in mentioning these two requirements, he were writing directly to me, and I begin to discover more and more about Montaigne’s early education, about his father, about his friend La Boetie’s last days, about the onset of Montaigne’s kidney stones, about his habits in travel, eating, sleeping. The allusions to history and contemporary events become fewer and serve other purposes. Instead of parallel instances (both Proust and Montaigne operate by juxtaposing examples and parallels) bolstering Montaigne’s opinion, or even hiding it, the examples begin to demonstrate that the world is a larger place than the reader imagines, with more diversity of customs and ways of looking at experience.

China, Montaigne writes, is a kingdom “whose history teaches me how much ampler and more varied the world is than either the ancients or we ourselves understand.” The later examples strike me as smaller instances of the way the whole essay “Of Cannibals” works. In that famous essay Montaigne starts with an anecdote—really three parallel anecdotes—of Greeks who, though taught to consider Romans barbarians, when they actually encountered Romans observed that their behavior was far from barbaric. The moral is that we should judge from observation and reason rather than vulgar report, and the method is anecdotal and empirical.

The essay as a tentative form must find its own structure, constructing unity and connections; here the Greek looking at the Roman parallels the Frenchman looking at the Brazilian native. And the ending shows the search for form as well: where the storyteller has an active resolution to end his narrative and the treatise writer exhausts analysis of the subject, the essay writer must decide where to stop and convince the reader that it is an ending. Montaigne ends “Of Cannibals” by saying he had a long conversation with one of the Brazilians who had been brought to Europe, but the incompetent interpreter did not understand Montaigne’s questions. “But what’s the use?” he concludes, “They don’t wear breeches.” The ending comes back around to the essay’s assertion “that each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice” and suggests the difficulties of any encounter with otherness.

When Montaigne describes the natives’ custom of dispatching and eating their prisoners, he does not excuse them but says seeing their faults should make us see our own. In Montaigne’s hands, the essay form seems eminently suited for this kind of reflexivity: when it seems to range farthest afield, it comes back to an examination of himself or his culture.

Because I write, I find Proust and Montaigne especially interesting when they reveal how their works came to be written, that is, what both enabled and forced them to write and why the writing took the form it did. In Proust, I found three passages very revelatory in this respect, one at the beginning, one in the novel’s middle, and one near the end. The whole of the book traces the progress of a young man toward the realization of his vocation as writer.

The first of these passages, in the section titled “Combray,” is the most famous piece of writing in the novel, where the taste of a little cake called a madeleine dipped in tea calls up for the narrator a complete memory, replete with smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and textures, of a Sunday morning from his boyhood, and in so doing fills him with a feeling not merely of joy, but of a mysterious freedom from contingency and mortality. I found the scene so carefully realized in its sensory detail that I did not realize what significance it was going to have until later in the book. Here, long before he intimates what the role of art might be in his life, or the role of memory in art, the narrator makes an important point about how memory constitutes the self.

The second passage, at the beginning of Cities of the Plain, and often referred to as “La Race maudite,” was a revelation for me rather than for the narrator. Here I suddenly realized why Proust prefers the term “inversion” to “homosexuality.” The narrator, who is a young heterosexual male, happens to see a scene in which the Baron de Charlus and a shopkeeper recognize their homosexual attraction for one another. In describing the Baron de Charlus, Proust looks at his own experience of homosexuality from the outside, from the straight point of view. The narrator details the maneuvers, the reversals, the switches, the transpositions and inversions that the Baron and those like him are obliged to perform “to make a secret of their lives” and how they must “change the gender of many of the adjectives in their vocabulary.”

I imagined myself inside Proust’s mind, looking at homosexual experience from the straight point of view and seeing how he could write about it by transposing it to look like heterosexual experience, separating experience from language. Proust gambles that the depiction of the lover’s projection of his image of love onto the beloved, the growth of love, and the jealousy of the betrayed lover will all resonate with the gay or straight reader alike. The transposition works as a metaphor for all the transformations the writer must make in separating language from experience. The author’s experience is viewed from the outside and transformed to become the narrator’s experience, so that Proust may say truthfully, if somewhat coyly, as he does late in the novel, that “there is not a single incident” in the book “which is not fictitious, not a single character who is a real person in disguise.”

Homosexuality as a perspective not only connects sex and art in Remembrance of Things Past, it links its whole cast of characters, from the Faubourg Saint-Germain (the old aristocratic quarter of Paris and Proust’s blanket term for high society) to the lowest climbers on the rungs of society’s jungle gym. One of Proust’s topics is the way society changed during his lifetime, leveling the aristocracy, mixing the classes, and allowing the influx of hoi polloi into previously aristocratic playgrounds and watering places like his invented Balbec. Proust was able to see these changes from the top, though himself a bourgeois, because he was a regular guest at parties of the noble and the near-royal. No doubt it was easier for him to transcend class limitations in part because he was a member of that club (or “freemasonry,” as the narrator puts it) where the barons and the bourgeoisie associate in “perilous intimacy.”

The last key passage comes near the end, when Proust’s narrator steps on uneven paving stones that recall Venice for him in the complete sensory way that the madeleine recalls Combray early in the book. He suddenly realizes that he is a writer, after doubting it for many years. There is some mystification in the narrator’s account of the creative process here, but it is clear that he decides the role of the writer is to conquer time by somehow allowing art and memory to make connections that are made only by physical experience in the ordinary world.

The genesis of Montaigne’s essays, if we believe the author, was much simpler. He talks about it in the early essay “Of Solitude,” in the late essay “Of Vanity,” and in other essays briefly. He began to write essays because he recognized, having retired to his country estate, that his talent was neither for household management nor for bookish study. As Virginia Woolf says, he needed to write, because writing for him was health, truth, and happiness. Writing was pleasure-giving but also necessary. “This bundle of so many disparate pieces,” he says, “I set my hand to … only when pressed by too unnerving idleness.”

That his essays took the form they did was largely a matter of finding or inventing a form. Montaigne tells us that his correspondents thought him quite a good letter writer, and that if, at the time he came to write the Essays, his friend Etienne de la Boetie had still been alive, we would have the Essays in epistolary form. Beyond these comments Montaigne does not go much farther. His comment about “unnerving idleness” suggests that writing was a hygienic activity for him. Writing never assumes for him the obsessiveness it has for Proust at the end of the latter’s life. Yet he writes the essays and rewrites them, for the last twenty-odd years of his life.

Proust and Montaigne appeal to me because they are such conscious writers—writers’ writers—and part of this is their demonstration of the ways in which they come to writing. But each is also concerned with writerly matters such as the relation (and proportion) of narrative to reflection, the mode of address to the reader, the degree of authorly intrusion, and the mechanics of getting on with it. “Let us here steal room for a story,” Montaigne writes disingenuously (where was he taking me at such a determined gallop that this momentary drawing in of the reins will be such a shock to me?). He thus draws attention to the way of proceeding and the enterprise from which room must be “stolen” to tell a story. Proust’s narrator would be as disingenuous were he to write, “let me steal room from my story to tell you what I thought about it at the time and what I think about it now.” Proust’s “story” is as much commentary as Montaigne’s commentary is story. I especially appreciated an “interruption” in the middle of Remembrance of Things Past where the author has a conversation with a nettled reader, who complains about digressions, questions whether the narrator is in fact the author, asks what happened next, and is rebuked (“be quiet and let me go on with my story”). Such give and take is not unusual in either writer, and I find Montaigne chivying the reader as well: “It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I,” he says of the implied criticism that he doesn’t stay on the topic.


For both Proust and Montaigne, the important life, the one that is most real, is the internal. For both, writing the internal life functions as a way of keeping them human and saving them from the eccentric or the monstrous. In writing, they construct themselves: each describes the development of a self, an identity. Proust does it in narrative that takes his character from early boyhood to adulthood and then to the threshold of a career as a writer. Montaigne does it in the way his prose gradually drops away the classical props and the authoritative quotes; he grows into the assurance that he is the only authority on his subject.

The subject in each case is the writer, or rather the character who speaks to me in first person as if he were identical with the writer. I am often wary of taking the one for the other in my reading, but, oddly, with these two writers it does not seem to matter. Whether or not the author has constructed a persona for himself in the character who calls himself “I,” the profound exploration of subjectivity goes on.

Of course, I tend to read the Essays as something much closer to autobiography than I would ever consider Remembrance of Things Past. And Proust lets me know that I need a more subtle approach than reading the novel as a key to events or people in his life. His narrator’s coyness about his name (“If we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, [it] would be … Marcel”) and his denial, late in the book, of any one-for-one correspondence between characters in the book and real persons—these underline for me what I knew already: that the narrator is not Marcel Proust in any circumstantial way but is in every important one.

Montaigne, on the other hand, signals in every way that he is indeed writing about himself circumstantially. He uses his name, which is also the name of his estate and of his father. He refers to events in France and in his region, always with the assurance that I will accept their truth. “You remember those terrible days of the religious wars,” he seems to say, “or, if you do not, you could look them up.”

So with each the content is the sum total of things that happened to their subjects. Proust’s subject is in love early and often, but finds himself alone at the book’s end. Montaigne’s character was licentious in his youth, he tells us, and although he marries and has a daughter whom he loves, he also writes as if he were alone in the later essays. Each man lives through a turbulent time in France. Proust’s narrator is clearly a Dreyfusard in the early period when such a position was unpopular, but he lives to see Dreyfus’s innocence largely accepted among all classes of French society. Later, he spends the war years in a sanatorium. Montaigne lives through a time of religious and civil unrest when his own moderate position is a problem: “to the Ghibelline I was a Guelph,” he writes, alluding to the disputes in Florence during Dante’s time, “to the Guelph a Ghibelline.”

I enjoy being in the company of these two writers, because they provide pleasure and because I find a special message in them for me in my present stage of life. They have other shared qualities besides their humor and self-deprecation to make their company enjoyable: both believe in the Socratic approach to gaining knowledge, both are moralists first and always, both are tolerant, both believe in the self as an accumulation of memories and habits. Neither shrinks from the dark side: Proust painfully anatomizes jealousy; both writers talk about the indifference with which we can watch the sufferings of other—in fact both quote the same Lucretius poem beginning “suave mari magno” about such indifference. Both are very concerned with the craft of writing, attentive to the relation between reader and writer, not above chiding the reader for lapses of attention or failures of confidence in the writer; each is committed to a huge project he sees formally as a single entity and determined to put everything he knows into it, dying in the attempt.

Stuart Hampshire, who introduces Donald Frame’s translation of Montaigne, spends a couple of paragraphs on the contrast between Montaigne and Proust. He makes much of differences he thinks essential: Proust has a “message” about art and imagination; Montaigne is “interested only in his own subjectivity.” Proust is a pessimist where Montaigne is not. In my view, Proust’s “message” is as much about morality as about art, and Montaigne’s subjectivity is always the moral self examining itself. Whether it makes sense to talk about pessimism or optimism I am not sure: Montaigne speaks of his cheerfulness, it is true, and Proust does not seem to hold out happy prospects for human love. But in the larger sense they ring the same tune, and it is the experienced observer’s judgment: sumus quid sumus, we are what we are.

No novel writer can ignore Proust. He represents an ultimate fulfillment of the Richardsonian tradition of the novel, where emotional nuance always trumps cruder forms of action and the limiting case is a complete transcription of the narrator’s mental processes, so detailed that reading time exceeds the lived time being described. Proust approaches that limit so closely that he scares away timid writers working in the tradition. Even Virginia Woolf writes to Roger Fry, “Oh, if I could write like that! I cry,” and confides to her diary about Mrs. Dalloway “I wonder if I have achieved something? Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust … and he will, I suppose, both influence me & make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.”

But I am not a novelist, and Proust doesn’t scare me. For me, reading Proust is proof of my real liberty to choose where I spend my time. Seven months I spent in his company, and the enjoyment was partly in the choosing: shall I stop after Swann’s Way? After two parts? Halfway through? I enjoyed the reading as I enjoy any novel, but there is an additional pleasure for a writer—any writer—in Proust’s tour de force performance.

Reading Montaigne, in addition to its obvious pleasures, has on me as a writer an effect nearly opposite that of the usual anxiety of influence: he makes me feel I can do it. Lewis Thomas also thinks we generally come away from Montaigne with encouragement: “He is, as he says everywhere, an ordinary man,” he writes, but “if Montaigne is an ordinary man, then what an encouragement, what a piece of work is, after all, an ordinary man!” Not only does Montaigne avoid prescribing form—that is, he works in a form that he describes in tentative terms as an “essay,” or merely a trial or attempt—but he also avoids dramatizing himself as Author. The self with Montaigne is not an idea, as it is with Whitman, for example, but an unabstract thing, a real and vulnerable thing that pisses black when he has the stone. He disintegrates the authority of the self by writing about the disintegration of the body. He validates the attempt, the trial, the effort. From the four-hundred-year-old Frenchman to the grey-headed retired English teacher comes a benediction: retirement is that back shop, that arrière-boutique we reserve to ourselves, “in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.”

NOTE: C. K. Scott Moncrieff translated the first seven parts of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu as the book came out. The last part was translated by Andreas Mayor. When the Pléiade edition of Proust, with new manuscript material, was put together in 1954 by Pierre Clarac and André Ferré and published by Gallimard, Terence Kilmartin revised the Scott Moncrieff translation and the whole was published by Random House in 1981. Two new translations, with the less poetic but more accurate title of In Search of Lost Time, were published in the nineties and two thousands. Virginia Woolf’s comments on Proust may be found in her letters and diaries, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The Donald Frame translation of all of Montaigne’s essays, journals, and letters was published by Knopf in 1957. Lewis Thomas’s essay on Montaigne may be found in The Medusa and the Snail (Viking, 1979).

Published on July 29, 2021

First published in Harvard Review 34.