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Marcel Proust, My Personal Trainer

For the last two years, I have been lifting weights. Not as consistently as I would like to, but regularly enough to make that boast mostly true. Prior to that, my interest in iron could be more properly called a dalliance, dating back to my college days, when I befriended a couple of gym rats who dragged me along for a few of their marathon sessions. They didn’t help my enthusiasm, but they taught me proper form, and opened my eyes to the benefits. Unfortunately, spending 90 minutes in the gym four times a week did not appeal to me. So I let it go.

Today I am into circuit training. This approach to weightlifting only takes 30 minutes three times a week, and is not nearly as tedious as the old school. I do 10 exercises for 1 minute apiece with 2 minute rest in between, and in a half hour I’m done. Then I finish with few minutes on the treadmill. The shorter schedule has helped my consistency, and the nascent threat of middle age weight gain has also served as incentive. But the real difference has been my new personal trainer, the French novelist Marcel Proust.

I picked up a copy of Swann’s Way a little over two years ago, about the same time I started lifting in earnest. For the uninitiated, Swann’s Way is the first installment of the seven-volume, 3600 page monument called Remembrance of Things Past, or The Search for Lost Time, depending on which translator you prefer. Besides sheer volume, The Search for Lost Time is known for many of the most famous excesses in literature. The fourth book of the series includes a sentence that is 958 words long, and 500 word sentences are not rare. The book, despite its length, has only the sketch of a plot, and no protagonist in the traditional sense. Proust’s lush, winding narration lingers endlessly on detail — a description of sunlight cast through a stained glass window can last five pages, an evening walk dozens. One of Proust’s most famous passages, his description of the experience of biting into a madeleine, lumbers over 1,500 words in translation. In Proust, time does not pass so much as it hangs in the air, and memories loop back onto memories in endless somersaults.

My first dig into Swann’s Way was a struggle. The first section, which mostly consists of the recollection of a single night of Proust’s childhood when his mother forgot to give him a goodnight kiss, runs the better part of 100 pages.  One hundred pages obsessing over a maternal kiss! Either an insane writer, or the most beloved mother ever. (When you finish those pages, you conclude it is the latter.) Nothing comes easy for Proust’s readers. Each paragraph is an extraordinary thicket of tortured syntax and psychological rambling: Not a single sentence can be breezed through.

The main theme is memory, the process of brining the past into the present through recollection. For Proust, what really happened in the past is not as important as the effect recall has on our present thinking. One might think of him as the literary world’s Monet (though this is not fair in every respect) — it is the impression of image, the way the mind processes the raw material of the past, that is his deepest interest.

So I didn’t read it, put off reading it, for the longest time. Yet over and over I felt the rumblings of a small but worshiping literary community. Proust, so many said, was the first truly modern writer. He remains, they insist, the master of the psychological novel. And this, over and over: No one can write a modern novel without having read Proust. I doubted this was so, but as someone who fancies writing a novel some day, guilt persuaded me to try him.

You don’t just read Proust, you overcome him. Or perhaps it is better to say he overcomes you. After 20 pages or so I began to realize that this was not a plot-driven novel, that there were no developments to follow, virtually no time line. Time barely passes in Proust. C.S. Lewis’s once said that the present moment is our best understanding of eternity, and Proust is the vivid proof of that statement. Proust lives in the present, wallowing in it until time’s passage seems irrelevant. Now is eternity. Proust makes it so, by barely allowing it to progress in his pages.

Marcel Proust has one of the most uncomplicated bibliographies of the literary greats. The Search for Lost Time is almost the only thing he published in his lifetime. (His other writings were collections of essays and two translations of Ruskin. He also had two unfinished works published long after his death.) His own bibliography is in a way a reflection of the sentiment in his own book — Proust wanted to erect one monument, and one only; to be monodimensional, as if he knew the existence of a single great work would call attention to the sense of eternity that is the theme of the book. For Proust, everything is now.

More than any writer I have ever known, Proust uncompromisingly demands that we read him his way. Swann’s Way might as well be called “My Way or the Highway,” because the novel would be unbearable to anyone who tried to read it without submitting to its demands. As I plowed through it, my plowshare quickly wore away and I found myself dragging a stick through the sand. But that is precisely the point: Proust demands patience, complete patience, or put him away. He cannot be condensed, skimmed, or speed read.

Once I understood that reading and rereading paragraphs and slowly shaking the meaning out of each word was exactly what Proust expected of me, Proust and I were copacetic. Proust is like a twenty course, 8 hour gourmet meal. There is no point in rushing anything, and once you accept that, Swann’s Way opens up like a day lily.

So, I’m sure at this point you are wondering what this has to do with my biceps. My relationship with weights throughout my life has been similar to my attitude towards Proust. I’d heard it was a good thing, but for the longest time couldn’t bring myself to attack the matter with sufficient energy. Weightlifting seemed too demanding, and I didn’t have time for it. Anyway, cardio is better for longevity. Then, after Proust got under my skin, I began lifting, slowly, with the same attitude I learned to read Swann’s Way. I told myself I had all my life to do it. There was no reason to worry about fast results. I decided I was simply in, and I would lift with Proustian patience.

Lifting can be, in a sense, like reading Proust. When you are trying to complete 10 reps on a weight bench, that weight, that particular moment, is all the world. When you are under the bar, you think about nothing but the weight. The moment is an eternity. Being present for the lift is what lifting is about.

That and patience. In Search of Lost Time is a monument, and for most of the few who finish it, it is a multi-year commitment. Proust is something you get lost in. The book is so long there is no point in worrying about little things like progress or finishing. You just read it. Eventually, it may end, but that is not important. In the same way, I set aside all goals in my exercise. No weight targets or schedules. I simply did it, three times a week, and did not worry about where I was going with it or what the benefits would be.

It works for me. The Proust Weightlifting Method turns exercise into something cerebral, an exercise (no pun intended) in patience and purpose rather than in raw energy and frenetics. I am at the age now where exercise is more about keeping what I have rather than setting personal bests, and this goes along with Proust as well.

As I age, exercise will be about maintaing the image of what I was in the past, rather than about reshaping myself. It is, in a sense, about memory, about bringing the body image of what I was into the present, the eternal present. At my stage in life, “live in the present” beats the hell out of “no pain, no gain” any day.

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Reader Comments (1)

Wow - To get to be able to lose oneself in a book again - that is truly heaven. Brings back remembrances of long summer days spent with a book under a tree as a child. For me, as I get older, I seem to just get more impatient. Time is too short to wait for anything anymore. Maybe I need to read some Proust. And get to the gym.

Thanks for a great post.
February 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTBTAM

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