For me, Marcel Proust’s prose often outshined the objects they depicted. In Swann’s Way, a book I picked up shortly after graduating from college, flowers are likened time and again to stars. Chrysanthemums for instance, “kindle their cold fires in the murky atmosphere of winter afternoons.” The transmutation of ordinary landscapes into scenes of celestial wonder—this was one of Proust’s specialties.
It was partly his marvelous command of language and partly something else, a sensitivity that I couldn’t help but admire. This half-Jewish, highly asthmatic Frenchman was attuned to transcendence in a way few people are. He lusted after the beauty he saw in everything, and ultimately found salvation in its embrace. Proust’s descriptions don’t outshine beautiful things so much as they communicate their true worth, at least for us Romantics.
At regular intervals, amid the inimitable ornamentation of their leaves, which can be mistaken for those of no other fruit-tree, the apple-trees opened their broad petals of white satin, or dangled the shy bunches of their blushing buds. It was on the Méséglise way that I first noticed the circular shadow which apple-trees cast upon the sunlit ground, and also those impalpable threads of golden silk which the setting sun weaves slantingly downwards from beneath their leaves, and which I used to see my father slash through with his stick without ever making them deviate.
His sensitivity, his vital, ecstatic appreciation of everything from hawthorns to stained-glass windows, is something I admire, now more than ever, because I can feel it slipping away. When I was in school, when I was more or less paid to cultivate myself, this kind of sensitivity was not hard to come by. Everywhere professors pointed to this or that beauty; a vital, ecstatic engagement with life was inevitable. But when I left, when this ritual of appreciation was lost to me, it was only through Proust that I found it again. In a word, I admire Proust for his ability to, as another Romantic once put it, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
– D. Schwartz