The Paris Review: Proust x Daniel Mendelsohn

As a classicist, you often contextualize contemporary literature by going back to antiquity. In your opinion, what sort of new territory did Proust chart in literature?

I think Proust, along with Joyce, represents the limits of the novel. Those two authors signed off on the end of the novel in its existing form. With them, we see the completion of a genre born at the end of the seventeenth century, which, during its development, established itself very deeply in the inner conscience of the individual. After them, there was nothing left to explore.

But if I adopt the view of a professor rather than a critic, I think that Proust also marks a beginning. He opened the door to our interior world. Proust must be read, Proust must be taught, because Proust is good for the soul. He teaches us to read life as though it were a novel. It’s exactly that quote you mentioned—“Every reader is … a reader of himself.” In this sense, Proust, like Freud, has shaped our way of thinking. Thanks to him, we have become the critics of our own psyche.

After having read In Search of Lost Time, we realize that our existence has a common thread, recurrent themes, recurring characters—things that can be analyzed precisely the way they are analyzed in a text, by applying aesthetic and literary criteria to our every day lives. “What is the lesson you draw from your own existence?” This is the philosophy that Proust teaches us.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply