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The Irish novelist was James Joyce, and disgusted of the septième was Paul Claudel.Even geniuses can misunderstand one another: when Proust met Joyce, his most radical successor, the two men barely spoke except to compare ailments.We see this in part one of “Combray”, the first volume of Swann’s Way, in the narrator’s famous tea-and-cake epiphany: “But, when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, on the ruin of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.” One of its first reviewers called Swann’s Way a “treasure-trove of documents about our modern hypersensitivity”, and the novelist Charles Dantzig described Proust as the “radiologist of a dying world”.Henry James described reading the book as “inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine” – a coupling James himself knew all about.Proust won the Prix Goncourt in 1919, and from then the novel became what we now think it to be: a book so famous that we don’t need to have read it to talk about it. Is that how we measure their path-breaking greatness?Ten years after Swann’s Way, Gallimard received a long Irish novel which one of their most distinguished writers dismissed as “obscene” and “blighted by a diabolical lack of talent”.We can play with these tenses, splice and subdivide them, insert them into each other to make subtler points about how they nestle together when we look backwards or forwards: “I will have done”, “I was later to know”, “I would, by then, have discovered”…Like paints or cooking ingredients, it is a matter of mixing and combining, of learning to use what we’ve got in order to communicate the inside of our lives, which are often richer and more complicated than we can express.

But it doesn’t work; the law of diminishing returns shows us that real memory is involuntary memory, that to regain time you must wait for time to regain you. It is also a tragedy: how much of our inner lives lie dormant, untriggered, unprovoked?Even his narrator, a dilettante in search of a vocation, writes the book we are reading in order to find out whether he can write the book we are reading.No other novel includes and enacts so much, and yet, for all its profligate length, we feel as we read that we are dealing in essence and distillation.After a first novel, Jean Santeuil (unpublished until 1952), in which we find many of the themes and characters that emerge in A la recherche, and a poorly received book of poetic prose and sketches, Les Plaisirs et les jours (1896), Proust set to work on the novel that would take him 20 years and which he completed hours before his death.Proust wrote obsessively, turning all he had internalised in culture, social observation and vicarious living – through art, music, books – into a moving architecture of words.If we really want to understand how art works, how books and paintings and symphonies and buildings get made, survive and become part of our lives, we need to understand the role misunderstanding plays in culture.

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