Proust and Science Fiction

Some months ago, I started listening to audiobooks while walking the dog. By and large, they’ve been serious audiobooks, because these days when I get to read fiction, it’s late at night, and I’m too tired to read anything that’s too demanding. Hence my need to assuage my guilt, and hence the reason I’ve been listening to Marcel Proust.

I started listening to Swann’s Way
as a class of eat yer greens, figuring that I was never going to read it otherwise, and that I ought to. I never expected to fall in love with the book. Not everything
is wonderful – I’m annoyed by the persistent snobbishness (made worse by the narrator, who juggles a variety of quite unconvincing working class/peasant/lower middle class accents), and not as impressed by Swann’s love for Odette as I think Proust wants me to be. But oh, the lovely, long, languorous cadences of the book, and the sense of things preserved, jellied in thin light just moments before the transformation of the world.

This love, as is often the case, in part involves something familiar seen in a new light. I’ve never read Proust before. But I have read Gene Wolfe. While I’d known from Kim Stanley Robinson
that Proust was an enormous influence on Wolfe, I hadn’t realized how much of what I love in Wolfe’s prose was borrowed from Proust. As Robinson suggests, much of the material that Wolfe uses – shape-shifting aliens, strange worlds, curiously human robots – is taken from pulp. But these things, when looked at through Proustian eyes, become altogether different.

Proust too becomes transformed when looked at with science-fictional eyes. Proust’s theme, famously, is time. As far as I have read and likely further (I am only now beginning to venture into the budding grove), he is depicting a France on the cusp of modernity. Swann lives in a world of nobles, generals, haut-bourgeois
men and women with a nicely calculated and punctilious understanding of the nuances of their own class and others, as well as servants who can be tyrants in their limited domain but would never dream of venturing beyond it (another fantastical reference: Proust’s world is a Gormenghast to which no Steerpike has ever come). History weighs heavily, while the future is there primarily in the narrator’s regret that everything he describes has gone or been transformed so utterly that it might as well be.

This single-sentence passage is my favourite in the entire book:

All these things and, still more than these, the treasures which had come to the church from personages who to me were almost legendary figures (such as the golden cross wrought, it was said, by Saint Eloi and presented by Dagobert, and the tomb of the sons of Louis the Germanic in porphyry and enamelled copper), because of which I used to go forward into the church when we were making our way to our chairs as into a fairy-haunted valley, where the rustic sees with amazement on a rock, a tree, a marsh, the tangible proofs of the little people’s supernatural passage — all these things made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space—the name of the fourth being Time—which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant, hiding the rugged barbarities of the eleventh century in the thickness of its walls, through which nothing could be seen of the heavy arches, long stopped and blinded with coarse blocks of ashlar, except where, near the porch, a deep groove was furrowed into one wall by the tower-stair; and even there the barbarity was veiled by the graceful gothic arcade which pressed coquettishly upon it, like a row of grown-up sisters who, to hide him from the eyes of strangers, arrange themselves smilingly in front of a countrified, unmannerly and ill-dressed younger brother; rearing into the sky above the Square a tower which had looked down upon Saint Louis, and seemed to behold him still; and thrusting down with its crypt into the blackness of a Merovingian night, through which, guiding us with groping finger-tips beneath the shadowy vault, ribbed strongly as an immense bat’s wing of stone, Théodore or his sister would light up for us with a candle the tomb of Sigebert’s little daughter, in which a deep hole, like the bed of a fossil, had been bored, or so it was said, “by a crystal lamp which, on the night when the Frankish princess was murdered, had left, of its own accord, the golden chains by which it was suspended where the apse is to-day and with neither the crystal broken nor the light extinguished had buried itself in the stone, through which it had gently forced its way.”

This seems science-fictional to my eyes – the church both a ship that sails through the years instead of space, and a process of accretion. A passage from Wolfe’s New Sun books – also my favourite (and Belle’s) from these wonderful books – provides a kind of counterpoint:

The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.

Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.

At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules.

and I contend (although your taste may legitimately differ) that neither Wolfe nor Proust suffers when their prose is compared.

What is
different is the sense of time, which is extraordinarily important to both books and both authors. Proust’s world is one where the just-barely-pre-modern is imbued with the deep history of the medieval. Much of the book’s power comes from the knowledge that this world is lost, and has to be reconstructed through the art of memory, building memory palaces from an accumulation of Paris streets; arcades of formal trees; the room in which an elderly relative lived and watched the world from her window while never stirring forth. This is a world in which there is a continuity of accretion, a deep connection through the bonds of deference, custom and kinship, between past and present. The descendants of those Frankish princesses and Merovingian monarchs still exercise real power. It is a present that is now lost utterly, and that Proust looks to recover.

Wolfe’s world, in contrast, is one in which the past is irrecoverable. All that is left are tesserae from a shattered mosaic and a sense that these pieces did once fit together, that there is an order that is nearly discernible, even if it could never be understood.

Both are ways of thinking about modernity. Proust’s pre-modern world would not have that flavor of nostalgia and regret if it were still truly accessible, if the disconnection had not happened. Wolfe’s world is one where only isolated fragments remain of the world we know – two people entrapped in a garden, re-enacting a colonial fantasy from the early twentieth century; a forgotten gallery with a portrait of a lunar astronaut; a marooned sailor, who knows the world that has been lost from books. If Proust’s world is one where the future has not come (although its shadow can begin to be discerned), Wolfe’s is one where that future is now so far past that it has been nearly wholly engulfed.

The title of Proust’s oeuvre, In Search of Lost Time
, could nearly be the title of a forgotten pulp science fiction novel from the 1950s or early 1960s. Yet Proust works with the tools of modernism. Wolfe, instead uses the tools of science fiction to transpose Proust’s future and his past. His narrator occasionally looks back at the alienated fragments of the age we live in today and its spiritual successors, from the vantage of a world resembling the one that Proust says has been lost.

“I used to read, aboard ship. Once I read a history. I don’t suppose you know anything about it. So many chiliads have elapsed here. So different from this, but so much like it too. Queer little customs and usages . . . some that weren’t so little. Strange institutions. I asked the ship and she gave me another book.”

He was still perspiring, and I thought his mind was wandering. I used the square of flannel I carried to wipe my sword blade to dry his forehead.

“Hereditary rulers and hereditary subordinates, and all sorts of strange officials. Lancers with long, white mustaches.” For an instant the ghost of his old humorous smile appeared. “The White Knight is sliding down the poker. He balances very badly, as the King’s notebook told him.” … “None of it began so.” There was a sudden intensity in his quavering voice. “Severian, the king was elected at the Marchfield. Counts were appointed by the kings. That was what they called the dark ages. A baron was only a freeman of Lombardy.”

I can’t imagine many aficionados of Proust have read Wolfe. Perhaps more aficionados of Wolfe have read Proust. Reading the two together casts light on the degree to which Wolfe is as radical in his way as Proust was in his. He takes Proust’s alienation and turns it back against itself, not only asking how our present might look from the vantage point of something like Proust’s past, but intimating that it will be more profoundly irrecoverable.

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