The Invention of the Novel


The inventor of the novel, according to Proust, made the discovery that we can experience life as profoundly in reading, and usually more so, as with interacting with “real people.” Having a “real” person in front of you is actually a distraction.

These were the events taking place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Françoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a real person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of real people would be a decided improvement. A real person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. (I,116-117)

And the unfolding of “real” life takes place over time, which can dull our imagination because it cannot take in such an extended impression.

And once the novelist has brought us to this state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid and more abiding than those which come to us in sleep, why then, for space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development prevents us from perceiving them. (I,117)

When we are young the time spent lost in reading is perhaps our most intense, unforgettable experience.

Sweet Sunday afternoons beneath the chestnut-tree in the garden at Combray, carefully purged by me of every commonplace incident of my personal existence, which I had replaced with a life of strange adventures and aspirations in a land watered with living streams, you still recall that life to me when I think of you, and you embody it in effect by virtue of having gradually encircled and enclosed it–while I went on with my reading and the heat of the day declined–in the crystalline succession, slowly changing and dappled with foliage, of your silent, sonorous, fragrant limpid hours. (I,121) 

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