Thursday, July 13, 2006

Proust and Asthma

I read a bit of Edmund White's short biography of Proust last night and came upon this passage:
Asthma was one of the great decisive factors in Proust's development. Because of it he was constantly treated as an invalid (and regarded himself as permanently sickly). Because of it he missed many months of school, was afraid to travel, and constantly had to cancel plans to see friends. Because of it he spent many days in a row, even weeks, lying perfectly still, struggling to breather. And because of it, at least indirectly, he died an early death at fifty-one. [...]Because of it he was forced to spend much of his life in bed. [...] Because of it he was forced to embrace solitude, but it also provided him with a ready excuse for keeping people at bay when he wanted to work. Because of it his family and friends and servants were tyrannized by his needs, sometimes even his whims.
I don't want to imply that illness makes writers great, because I don't think that is necessarily true, but because of his asthma he was able to write in the beginning of Swann's Way (Davis, pg 4 hardcover) about the invalid waking in a strange hotel in the middle of the night, seeing the light under the door and thinking it is almost morning. Proust writes "he will be able to ring, someone will come help him. The hope of being relieved gives him the courage too suffer." But the hope doesn't last long when the invalid realizes the lights are being turned off and the servants are going to bed and "he will have to suffer the whole night through without remedy."

For some reason I find this passage of less than a paragraph beautiful and sad and touching. It stirs up compassion and understanding and pity in me. The images shimmer up to my consciousness from time to time during my day and make me stop and think about being unwell and alone in a strange room. I think it is the line "The hope of being relieved gives him the courage to suffer" is what gets me most. That is a line that could not be written by someone who never experienced a major of chronic illness.


Blogger LK said...

The beauty of Proust. This has been my experience, over many other authors, that his words submerge in my subconscious and re-emerge.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

How interesting -- I don't know much about Proust, so I'm grateful for biographical details and their significance. I can see exactly how having asthma would shape so many things in Proust's life -- especially the solitude and time available to him. It's terrible to suffer from illness, but we can be grateful for the ways his illness fostered his writing.

4:05 PM  
Blogger teabird17 said...

Louise DeSalvo has written about how reading Proust helped her understand her own asthma - she sees the rhythms of the asthmatic's breathing in the rhythms of his prose.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Thanks for that tip teabird, a fascinating thing to investigate!

8:17 PM  

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