We know that the earliest readers of Remembrance of Things Past objected to the length of its incipit narration of its hero’s noddings-off and nocturnal (and diurnal) reveries. A gentleman who spends forty pages explaining how he tosses and turns in bed and rumples his sheets is surely enough likely to rumple the patience of his readers.
If patience is a bedsheet, which virtue is a pillow?
Let us leave this enigma aside and return to the Proustian text whose standing has been polished by that great falsifier, convention. What modern reader does not thrill at the delicately Oedipal considerations of the mother’s kiss at Combray? We clamor for more! And the critics and publishers are, alas, only too obliging!
I have long suspected that the public, exoteric text of Remembrance of Things Past is a fake. A skillful fake, but a fake nonetheless. I suspect it was the object of censorship: censorship in which Marcel himself was, perhaps, complicit . . . in order to see his work published, to win the Goncourt, to make peace . . . and censorship that is enthusiastically perpetuated, to this day, by Proustians and pastry chefs alike.
This censorship will, naturally, have disfigured the text. Some will compare it to the veil punctured by the psychoanalyst who recognizes the unconscious desires beneath the dispersed, mutilated figures of the dream; others will find in it that which analytic interpretation deploys in its Oedipal conquest of the flux of the machine désirante.
I have already proposed, in a novel called The Decomposition, a strategy for reversing the censorship, for opening the potentiality of the Proustian text. (You didn’t know Proust was an Oulipian author? You think that, like a Mormon, I’m posthumously baptizing and dunking into the waters of Potentiality everything that crosses my path?) Now I envision an additional strategy, and I hold that the only accurate reading of the oneiric prelude of Remembrance of Things Past can be obtained by a schizoid oneiric scheme.
Take the sentences of the first volume of Remembrance: Swann’s Way. The first, in C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation, goes thus: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” Now that I have reminded you of it, I will spell it out:
F O R A L O N G T I M E I U S E D T O G O T O B E D E A R L Y
Evidently authentic, this sentence. The proof? Everyone remembers it.
But the second sentence is dubious. Why? Not only because nobody (besides bedding salesmen) remembers it, but also because this second sentence doesn’t begin with an O.
Here let us cite the narrator of Cities of the Plain:
Everything that hitherto had seemed to my mind incoherent, became intelligible, brought itself into evidence, just as a sentence which presents no meaning so long as it remains broken up in letters scattered at random upon a table, expresses, if these letters be rearranged in the proper order, a thought which one can never afterwards forget.
The touchstone of Proustian decryption is its mnemonic power. And an acrostic is a kind of encryption, one that generally responds in silence, along one side of a poem, to the mnemonic operator on the other side: rhyme.
Dispersed, disordered, and buried within the narration and dialogue of the publicly available novel is the decomposed Proustian text. To reconstitute (and decode) it, it will do to vertically inscribe the formula, the sesame of the opening line, whose letter-chain will form an acrostic of the authentic Proustian sequence.
Authentic? Unconscious or potential, as you wish. I leave aside the question—a delicate one, at that—of the difference between Unconscious and Potentiality, for fear of rumpling your patience with further pillow talk. I will only note, in passing, certain elements of contrast:
—The Oulipo is not a couch.
—Jacques Lacan is not a pseudonym of Raymond Queneau
—Oulipo readings are free of charge.
Remembrance of Things Past is a cryptogram with an acrostic solution. Thus we can be certain that if the first sentence is real, the second will start with an O, the third with an R, the fourth with an A, and so on. And that the text recomposed accordingly will give us the primitive version of Combray—the one Proust could not bring himself to write out unambiguously, for evident reasons of security.
So, based on this insomniacal illumination, I have cut up and classified all of the sentences from Swann’s Way in alphabetical order, and refabricated the only intelligible sequence. And here it is.
For a long time I used to go to bed early.
Once in my room I had to stop every loophole, to close the shutters, to dig my own grave as I turned down the bedclothes, to wrap myself in the shroud of my nightshirt.
Rare as they became, those moments did not occur in vain.
And then my thoughts, did not they form a similar sort of hiding-hole, in the depths of which I felt that I could bury myself and remain invisible even when I was looking at what went on outside?
Later on I discovered that, whenever I had read for too long and was in a mood for conversation, the friend to whom I would be burning to say something would at that moment have finished indulging himself in the delights of conversation, and wanted nothing now but to be left to read undisturbed.
Once we believe that a fellow-creature has a share in some unknown existence to which that creature’s love for ourselves can win us admission, that is, of all the preliminary conditions which Love exacts, the one to which he attaches most importance, the one which makes him generous or indifferent as to the rest.
Next to this central belief, which, while I was reading, would be constantly a motion from my inner self to the outer world, toward the discovery of Truth, came the emotions aroused in me by the action in which I would be taking part, for these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic and sensational events than occur, often, in a whole lifetime.
Going to the Champs-Elysées I found unendurable.
The anesthetic effect of custom being destroyed, I would begin to think and to feel very melancholy things.
I longed for nothing more than to behold a storm at sea, less as a mighty spectacle than as a momentary revelation of the true life of nature; or rather there were for me no mighty spectacles save those which I knew to be not artificially composed for my entertainment, but necessary and unalterable—the beauty of landscapes or of great works of art.
Moreover, without my paying any heed to the contradiction that there was in my wishing to look at and to touch with my organs of sense what had been elaborated by the spell of my dreams and not perceived by my senses at all—though all the more tempting to them, in consequence, more different from anything that they knew—it was that which recalled to me the reality of these visions, which inflamed my desire all the more by seeming to hint a promise that my desire should be satisfied.
Even the simple act which we describe as “seeing someone we know” is, to some extent, an intellectual process.
I am too old now—but I was not intended for a world in which women shackle themselves in garments that are not even made of cloth.
Upon ourselves they react but indirectly, through our imagination, which substitutes for our actual, primary motives other, secondary motives, less stark and therefore more decent.
Seriously, I’m not annoying you, am I?
Everyone has his own way of looking at things, and what may be horrible to you is, perhaps, just what I like best.
Dear, dear, it’s just as they used to say in my poor mother’s country:
The lady has become a gentleman.
Other people are, as a rule, so immaterial to us that, when we have entrusted to any one of them the power to cause so much suffering or happiness to ourselves, that person seems at once to belong to a different universe, is surrounded with poetry, makes of our lives a vast expanse, quick with sensation, on which that person and ourselves are ever more or less in contact.
Good heavens, I’m making a noise again; they’ll be telling you to have me “chucked out.”
Oh, yes: What virtues, Lord, Thou makest us abhor!
To such an extent does passion manifest itself in us as a temporary and distinct character, which not only takes the place of our normal character but actually obliterates the signs by which that character has hitherto been discernible.
Obscurely awaited, immanent and concealed, it rouses to such a paroxysm, at the moment when at last it makes itself felt, those other pleasures which we find in the tender glance, in the kiss of her who is by our side, that it seems to us, more than anything else, a sort of transport of gratitude for the kindness of heart of our companion and for her touching predilection of ourselves, which we measure by the benefits, by the happiness that she showers upon us.
Bodily passion, which has been so unjustly decried, compels its victims to display every vestige that is in them of unselfishness and generosity, and so effectively that they shine resplendent in the eyes of all beholders.
Even those women who pretend that they judge a man by his exterior only, see in that exterior an emanation from some special way of life.
Don’t make any mistake.
Every kiss provokes another.
As the different changes and chances that bring us into the company of certain other people in this life do not coincide with the periods in which we are in love with those people, but, overlapping them, may occur before love has begun, and may be repeated after love is ended, the earliest appearances, in our life, of a creature who is destined to afford us pleasure later on, assume retrospectively in our eyes a certain value as an indication, a warning, a presage.
Reality must, therefore, be something which bears no relation to possibilities, any more than the stab of a knife in one’s body bears to the gradual movement of the clouds overhead, since those words “two or three times” carved, as it were, a cross upon the living tissues of his heart.
Look here, Doctor, I call you as a witness; did I utter a word?
You know how vain I am!
You may begin cutting your Vintage paperback into small strips. Then go buy new bedsheets.
Evidently, the process of uncovering the unambiguous Proust must follow the principle modeled here: the second sentence, in its correct place per the above text, provides the acrostic key to the thirty-second sentence and so on from there—and so on until the text’s alphabetical and acrostic inventory is exhausted.
Certain letters will, of course, run out before others, leaving the acrostic with holes. Yet another indication of the ravages of censorship.
“To sleep, perchance to dream,” published on Oulipo.net. Translation © 2013 by Daniel Levin Becker. All rights reserved.