Whenever I think of Proust I am reminded of the Monty Python All-England Summarise Proust Contest:
I also think of the time he met James Joyce. It was in a railway carriage and it did not go well. Proust sits in a corner, muffled up to the eyeballs, his lungs so delicate that the lightest breeze would carry him off. In comes Joyce, ebullient and heedless, throws up the window, flings himself into the seat opposite and lights a cigar. Proust, horrified, retreats into this clothing and not a word is spoken.
Mind you, these encounters rarely come off the way you think they will. Ego gets in the way, and whenever I remember this story I want to give Joyce a good hard slap. One imagines that had they talked these great writers would have had incredible things to say to each other – but perhaps they wouldn’t. Perhaps they would have found nothing to say at all.
We make heroes out of great men and imagine they stride like colossi around the world. But no man is a hero to his wife – or to put it another way, behind every great man stands a woman rolling her eyes.
But here’s the difference: Proust understood that he must write in time: Joyce did not. That is why – given time – Proust is readable (and even summarisable) but to read Joyce you must step outside time and understand everything at once.
It’s a good job time exists otherwise we’d have to do everything at once.