Tutors Talk Books: Rebecca Goldner on Marcel Proust
September 29, 2020 | By Les Poling
Rebecca Goldner (AGI02) has been a tutor at St. John’s since 2014, but her history with the college dates back much further. Her father was a St. John’s alum, and she attended the Graduate Institute during the summer in the early 2000s. Later, while studying at Villanova, she strayed from the philosophy department and ended up in a core humanities program—eventually realizing that’s what she wanted to teach. We sat down with her remotely to discuss subjectivity, authorship, memory, and the enduring power of Proust. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Is there a particular book that you’ve been reading or revisiting recently?
I’ve been reading Proust every year for at least a decade. I’m looking at my son right now because I know he was about four years old when I started, and he’s almost 15 now. So yeah, in different iterations I’ve been reading Proust and thinking about Proust for about 10 years. When or if I ever get a sabbatical, I hope to work on a book project on Proust.
What do you think the book project would look like?
I guess it would be an exploration of the questions that I’m always asking myself when I read Proust. The specific questions change, but the one that I’m most interested in is the question of authorship and artistry. I’ve found myself interested, especially since I started teaching through the Program, in works where the author appears in some hidden or disguised way in the text. This is certainly true in Proust, but it actually happens in a number of books that we read in the Program. I just taught Fear and Trembling as a Graduate Institute preceptorial, and Kierkegaard does this famously—he hides behind pseudonyms, and even within the work, when he uses the “I,” you have no idea who he’s talking about.
I think Proust does too. He’s up to something where you frequently find that you have to think about the subject of the book—who’s “speaking” in the first person—but then also the narrator [of the book], who’s also in the first person. And then behind both the subject and the narrator in the text, there’s an author. In more and less explicit ways, Proust is comingling those three voices so that at times you think they’re the same, and at times you realize they’re not the same, or that he’s hiding himself through one of those voices. So that’s a big part of the project that I want to chase.
Has your thinking about those comingling voices changed at all throughout the years that you’ve been returning to Proust?
Definitely. I think when you start reading Proust, you’re drawn to the big, flashy ideas that everybody associates with him: time and memory, and especially involuntary memory, which is present in the very famous madeleine scene. Those ideas are related to the thing that I’m ultimately interested in, but they’re jumping off points. There are many ways in which Proust is thinking about what constitutes the self. And increasingly, I think that the whole of In Search of Lost Time is an exploration of self, and that the three voices that I laid out are being developed in each moment of the book—especially in the early moments, even from the first 40 pages of Swann’s Way. This is what’s amazing to me: every time you go back and start Proust again, you see even more in every moment, in every scene.
He describes the madeline, when he tastes it and it floods him with memory, as a kind of origami where this flower opens up in water. I feel like the book is actually meant to model that: it opens up and unfolds itself, but not in a linear way. It’s actually a sort of cycle; you circle back and more comes out, and then you come back again and even more comes out. Every time I read it, I realize that you could revisit those same passages in the beginning of the book indefinitely and find that he’s planted seeds there that just continue to grow.
Time and memory, for me at least, have started to feel very strange in the months since COVID-19. Did that affect the way that you’re thinking about Proust at all?
The last time I read the first volume of In Search of Lost Time was for a preceptorial last fall, but I invited the students who had been in that preceptorial to read the second volume this summer, and we’ve been meeting once a week over Zoom to read the second volume. It’s definitely been a really strange experience, because in the second volume he travels a lot. It’s actually, in terms of physical description, the brightest volume—he’s at the seashore, in this seaside town, and there’s sand and water and beaches and flowers. I suggested that we read it together because it might be the only summer vacation many of us got this year, and in some ways that’s been true for me—I haven’t seen a beach this summer. So I’m reading about him and experiencing his summer vicariously, although there are many ways in which I would not want my life to be his.
But the thing that has struck me recently is that Proust was sickly (or thought he was) his whole life and spent much of his own time indoors, in bed, kind of a prisoner in his own room. I’ve been thinking about that; the idea that we’re all having a Proustian experience of being trapped in our own homes because of this pandemic, and what it means to have unlimited time—in the sense that your days feel sort of endless—but limited space and places in which to spend it.
So much of the work that students and tutors do in the Program has to do with putting all these ideas and authors and texts in dialogue with one another. I’m wondering if any element of that changes when you’re not reading within the context of the academic year, or if you’re still constantly putting these different ideas in conversation.
I don’t really draw those distinctions. The pace at which we sometimes read during the academic year doesn’t allow for a ton of post-seminar reflection, because you’re often on to the next book, but during the summer it sometimes feels like you can do a little bit more of that. If I could really see this potential book project through to the end, I think it would probably either be a larger project that involved other authors—so there would be separate books in the same vein of thought—or one larger book that isn’t just about Proust. The two other authors I’d love to think about would be Cervantes, whom I’ve only read as part of the Program, and Elena Ferrante, who hasn’t been taught on the Program (yet) but I did read in a summer reading group with other tutors. So a lot of my reading, even when it’s outside the Program, is running right alongside the Program—or the reason I’m drawn to certain texts is because of what I’ve been reading on the Program.
It’s clear that you’re constantly interacting with the Program and the classroom, but you’re also engaging with ideas that have everything to do with everyday existence. Can you tell me more about that?
It’s funny because I think that once you are reading Proust year-round, in one form or another, for 10 years, it’s hard not to see him in everything. To me one of the funniest things is the way that Proust has become this cultural reference point for completely erudite, out-of-touch academia; something only academics would read. But this summer we watched this Spanish television series on Netflix called Money Heist. It’s super violent, very fast paced, totally action-based, but first of all, they referenced Don Quixote in a clever way—you have to know a little bit about Don Quixote to catch the reference. And then in one of the later seasons, they reference Proust! Not in any serious way, but they actually talk about Marcel Proust.
There’s nothing particularly intellectual about that. But for me, when I’m reading Proust, it doesn’t feel like this highly academic or intellectual activity. It actually feels like self-reflection, especially the beginning parts of Swann’s Way. I don’t know anybody who could read those sections and not think about their own experiences, or their child’s experiences, of having bedtime rituals and wanting your parents to come back in the room. That doesn’t feel out of touch. Proust writes with the most beautiful language and style—so even if it takes some time and commitment, it is well worth it.
You said you read the second volume of In Search of Lost Time with a group over Zoom. Was that an easy transition, or was it strange to meet online?
In our case, we couldn’t have kept reading together physically—everybody was in different places anyway, because it was the summer. It was with one student who graduated three years ago, one student who graduated this year, and a rising senior.
I have only ever read this book with groups of people. Which is sort of interesting, because when I say I want to write on it, that’s one of my worries: What am I going to do alone with this book? So much of my thinking has been formed and helped by conversations with others. I started reading Proust through the summer classics program, before I was even hired as a tutor. My mother wanted to do summer classics, so we signed up together to do it with [tutors] Peter Pesic and Victoria Mora. They were reading Swann’s Way the first summer and then they said, “Well, we think we want to keep going summer by summer.” So over six summers, that group stayed together. It was a wonderful group to read with: all different ages, experiences, and relations among the group. I was so lucky to share this with my mother, too, and the book has become a fundamental shared interest for us—even if she still favors Joyce (I try not to hold this against her). And Ms. Mora and Mr. Pesic shepherded us all through with such insight and curiosity. The core of the group stayed together as we read the seven volumes.
There was something really astounding about being able to read Proust that way—being apart for a year and then coming back together for one week. That pairs so well with what the book is about: to see the way that people are changing and the way that we stayed the same—there is something both linear and circular about it. At the same time, taking my son every summer and having the members of this group watch my son age as the boy in the book aged—there were so many layers to our shared experience.
I think those experiences of reading with the same group over years, not just sitting down over the summer and reading one thing together, have been a big part of what’s made me want to keep working on Proust. I think there’s something special about having a habit of reading it with certain people, even while the world and everything else is changing. And to some extent, it’s felt that way this summer, because with a few of the students [gathering to read Swann’s Way], we’re having conversations that we began as far back as three years ago. There’s something reassuring about knowing those conversations can continue, even in forms we never expected.
Thanks for a great conversation. It makes me want to read more Proust.
Everybody should be reading Proust right now. Proust really fits with our current era; when you start to lose your sense of time and then you open Proust, and he begins with this discussion of falling asleep and losing time and not knowing where you fell asleep or what time it is—I feel like that’s the experience we’re all having right now, even when we’re awake. And the best part is, when you finish reading Proust you have to start again. You’re making a mistake if you don’t start it again.