What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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of Things Past

by Marcel Proust

Field-Tested by Jonathan Eig

in Lower Manhattan, New York City, New York

In 2002, I spent the month of August living in a colorless corporate apartment across the street from the giant hole in the earth known as Ground Zero, the spot where, less than one year earlier, the twin towers of the World Trade Center had fallen and so many had died. I couldn’t see the hole from my apartment window, but I heard the forklifts and cranes groaning, and I saw the dust floating into my window, imagined it nestling in the fibers of my apartment’s dull green carpet, smelled it, or thought I did, puffing from my pillow, and tasted it, or thought I did, deep in my throat when I jogged in Battery Park.

That was my summer of coughing and wheezing and reading what may be the world’s greatest novel: Remembrance of Things Past. It wasn’t easy. Some of Marcel Proust’s sentences are so long and contorted, interrupted by parentheses of equally impressive length and contortion, that they require bathroom breaks. At one point, Proust, as obsessive-compulsive as they come, goes on for 30 pages describing a man trying to fall asleep; that passage took me four days.

I must admit that I didn’t finish the book, which stretches over three volumes and 3,365 pages. But that’s fine; I wasn’t in it for the plot. I was in it for the company of this extraordinary writer, this strange and brilliant worrier who spent the last 14 years of his life in a cork-lined room and yet never ceased to marvel at the world outside. “Happiness is beneficial for the body,” he wrote, “but it is grief that develops the mind.”

Proust didn’t distract me from the sadness of Lower Manhattan, where MISSING posters still clung to lampposts and tourists piled in and out of buses to pay respects. He made me wallow in it. He made me neurotic. He made me see everything that summer, even the air, in heightened detail. One of these days, I’ll have another try. I’ll pull the big book off the shelf, crack the spine, and breathe deep the dust again.

Jonathan Eig is the author of two bestselling books: Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season. He can be found at his website.

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