Reading Notes: Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp

These short lectures on Proust were given by Jozef Czapski, a Polish artist and soldier, who was captured by the Soviets during WWII. The lectures were given to his fellow officers inside the prison. He describes them hunched, squatting on the floor after a long day of picking potatoes in freezing temperatures, listening to these by candlelight under large portraits of Marx & Lenin.

Czapski didn't have reference to the text, nor any notes, references, etc. This turned out to be a really nice constraint; it forces him to reconstruct the book from memory as best he can and focus on what’s interesting about it to him (since that is what is available to his memory), so the result is not dry.

I was wondering whether I would be able to give a series of lectures on anything that would hold up the way these have, in the absence of references. It turns out that you can recall more than you can think. Apparently, Czapski "found that a prisoner's constant state of vigilance was surprisingly conducive to the reclamation of memories":

"After a certain length of time, facts and details emerge on the surface of our consciousness which we had not the slightest idea were filed away somewhere in our brains...These memories rising from the subsconsious are fuller, more intimately, more personally tied to one another... Far away from anything that could recall Proust's world, my memories of him, at the beginning so tenuous, started growing stronger and then suddenly with even more power and clarity, completely independent of my will."

There are some moving parts about how, trapped in these inhumane circumstances, the thing that made them feel the most human was precisely these lectures on subjects that were "useless" to their survival (Proust, mountain-climbing, etc.) but which were the most precious things for these captive soldiers. 

Czapski has a good knowledge of Proust's life, and he argues that one of Proust's superpowers is having an insane attention to, and memory for, detail. He recounts a story where Proust goes to the opera, sits in corner, facing away from stage & talks the entire time, but can recount pretty much everything that happened. (pp24)

" the final years of his life, the Duchess de Clermont-Tonnerre secured a box at the Opera for a large charity event with the idea of allowing Proust to observe once again...Proust arrived late, seated himself in a corner of the box, turned his back to the stage, and never stopped talking. The next day the duchess remarked to him that it had hardly been worth the bother of taking a box to help him venture out if he had had no intention of paying attention to what was going on. With a sly smile, Proust proceeded to recount, with meticulous precision, everything that had occurred in the theater and on the stage, piling up a wealth of details that no one had noticed, and then added: 'Don't worry, when it comes to my work, I'm as busy as a bee.'"

This reminds me of those YouTube clips of LeBron or other basketball players who can recall the exact sequences of moves from games from years ago. Same with Magnus Carlsen on chess. [1]

By this measure, Czapski really lived and breathed Proust. He read him during a bout of typhoid fever, for weeks he had nothing to do but read Proust, & it seems like the only way anybody reads Proust is during a period of extended recovery from illness. (Which is the only way Proust was able to write his book, by the way, more on that later...)

Just as Czapski can remember large swathes of Proust in prison, isolated from the rest of the world, Proust used isolation and solitude -- caused a delibitating illness -- to build this huge castle of detail in his memory/imagination. 

It is not actually known what illness Proust had. There's a moving story of how once he missed seeing apple blossoms so had someone drive him and had to look at them through the windows (later in life, he couldn't take smell -- someone would come in to visit him wearing a scented handkerchief & he'd order them to take it off / leave. ).

"One spring day, the author of memorable passages on apple trees in bloom wanted to see an orchard once more. He decided to make a trip outside Paris in a closed car, and only by keeping the windows shut was he able to admire his beloved trees in bloom."

(You take in more than you know, and you need isolation and a steady, persistent nurturing of your imagination to bring it out.)

Like everyone else, Czapski mentions the cork-lined room:

"Buried in his work, he found the slightest noise untenable. Proust spent his final years of labor in a cork-lined room, stretched out on a bed beside a piano, the piano piled high with a mountain of books. Medicine bottles littered his night table along with sheets of paper covered in his nervous handwriting.

Proust went completely against the fashion of his day with his long sentences, obsession with the aristocracy, etc; the fashion of the time was "telegraph prose", i.e. terse and to the point, + naturalism (Zola et al). The antithesis of this was the impressionists. Proust synthesizes these two, with his combo of interiority and precision of detail. As usual, it’s notable how many of the most popular writers of the day aren’t read so much anymore. 

"[For his contemporaries] Proust was off-putting, strange, and absolutely unacceptable".

For Proust a single thing could bloom into a giant web of associations that could go on for pages and pages. Interconnections. Thus Proust's style is not "microscopic naturalism", it's more like what are his thoughts upon running into a fact, what comes to his mind, and tracing out that web.

Before A La Recherche Proust was, basically, a failure; his life looks like a whole lot of nothing -- and then, suddenly, this masterpiece.

In fact, Proust's epiphany on becoming a writer comes right after he has given up completely. He decides to devote himself to socializing and enjoying time with friends, since he lacks talent. He goes out to a social function, trips on two uneven cobblestones, is immediately transported back several years to a time when he did exactly this in Venice, St Mark's Square... the whole thing is worth quoting in full:

This is all recounted in the final volume of A La Recherche, which Czapski says was written before the others.

Meta note on notetaking

A meta note, inspired both by Proust and by this book about Proust: after reading a book, when you're making notes, don't refer to the book; just write down the most interesting things that come to mind. This is a better way of digging out what actually struck you about the book; as soon as you have the book to reference, you will start looking up the bits you "should" write about, and end up aiming at comprehensiveness rather than interestingness. Your actual criterion should be whatever interested you. Later, you can fill in quotations & references.

Another thing about note-taking that the Zettelkasten guy says is that you have to write your notes in prose, as though you are writing an essay, and spend the extra effort to cite things correctly. This ensures that your notes become a growing organism and don't decay over time. (As a bonus, this makes writing easy: simply compile your notes, edit them lightly, and publish.)


[1]: I read somewhere that Elon Musk only asks one interview question, which is: what is the hardest problem you have solved, and how exactly did you solve it? The idea is that if you have really solved the problem, you should be able to go down to arbitrary levels of detail; the experiences you've "lived" are the ones that hit you the deepest.