The Library of Babel contains all possible books — every combination of letters and punctuation marks. You can check out only one. The choice is obvious. Hurry. It’s a big place and there’s no catalog. The chances of finding it are astronomical. Most books contain nothing but gibberish; trillions more involve vampires. But you’re feeling lucky.
“The unicorn impaled the elf on its horn, thereby expunging him from the memory of elves.”
It’s a children’s book by Cormac McCarthy. Your niece would love this, and it would prepare her for life better than most of its condescending ilk. Keep looking. Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas as written by Dostoyevsky? Meh. You want something sublime, the greatest story never told. Put The Decline and Fall of the American Empire by Gibbon back. Slow down at a car wreck instead.
There will be many alternate versions of In Search of Lost Time, some the same as the familiar one except for a single punctuation difference, others with unusual variations where Marcel doesn’t go to bed early. (No, you’re not looking for the one where he falls in love with cannabis instead of hawthorns. Think big.)
Why Proust? It’s the sorcerous powers of description. You don’t need to keep a flow chart of the characters or study the Dreyfus affair. You want to read how the moon in the afternoon sky is like a beautiful actress who sneaks into the audience to watch a portion in which she does not have to appear. Virginia Wolfe said the best thing about life is reading Proust. That ignores some conspicuous contenders, but he’s the only writer who cracks the top five. There’s only one way it could be improved and you don’t have to feel like a Philistine for saying this.
Other patrons rush past you, some deranged. They’re not homeless; they live here. Most have never seen a book containing a coherent word and you’re holding The Bridges of Madison County as written by Faulkner. Who knew Robert and Francesca had such rich inner lives? Don’t wave it around. Some of the residents believe there’s a Man of the Book who knows where everything is. Being mistaken for him will only slow you down.
One patron stops and tells you he’s read the completed versions of Dead Souls and The Castle and a readable one of Atlas Shrugged and Animal Farm by Peter Singer. He obviously hasn’t spoken to anyone in ages. Is anything worse than listening to someone blather about his favorite fiction? He says Douglas Adams’ version of “The Library of Babel” is an improvement, but The Hitchhikers Guide as written by Borges is too short, little more than an outline. He starts to summarize the true account of what caused the Big Bang but his phone chimes and he has to take it.
It’s been a long day. You heft a few safeties in case you can’t find The One: your biography as written by Plutarch, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Henry James, Newton’s response to Einstein, War and Peace by Laurence Sterne.
Stop. Back up. On the top shelf of the previous hexagon. Open the book. Marcel’s potty training a puppy with copies of Le Figaro all over the floor. Read how it galumphs through Combray and Balbec, growing into its tree stump feet, not quite keeping up with the growth of its ears:
“Basset Hounds, followers of the scent from a golden age, keepers of the promise that reality is not what we can see, companions to our children, guardians of our homes, prodigal sons of Saint Hubert, beloved ones of Napoleon III, their consummate loyalty and stoic tolerance a beacon, do they not speak with the voice heard by Augustine: ‘We are not God, but He made us’?”
If that sentence has a verb it’s wearing camouflage. Score! You found the alternate version where Proust dumps Albertine and adopts a dog. Credit where it’s due: the original is beyond praise until The Captive and The Fugitive, when empathy fatigue sets in. Obsessive jealousy over your girlfriend’s girlfriends? Death, where is thy sting?
Skip ahead a few pages. Make sure this isn’t a version that turns to gibberish. “Children of wolves, abandoning their family to join the children of apes, shifting their shape to guide and protect them, enabling the transcendence of the apes, as though both blueprints were left out in a storm, smearing the designs as if some careless chronicler neglected to fix the boundaries, the ink of which was not indelible and remains wet, our relationship becoming one of mutual dependence, yin and yang, synergistic, not that of gods and pliant subjects, our paths crossing then merging in the manner of two themes converging in a symphony.”
No writer had more aptitude for canine phenomenology, a talent never realized in the original, two volumes of which were devoted to cursing the daughters of Gomorrah and fearing the conspiracies of their evil coven. It’s more than a stretch for anyone who grew up reading Penthouse. In the Babel version he turns his attention to seeing the world through his dog’s nose. Watching the dog nap, he wonders if its dreams are governed by scents the way its waking life is. There is an entire universe humans cannot access. We are illiterates surrounded by the classics. Delusions of our central importance are no compensation for the inability to smell rain before a storm, to read the history of a trail, to smell the spiced opiate of an excited mate.
Who but Proust can show the elasticity of Time, how it travels faster for dogs. In the span of a decade he changes little but his dog grows old. The difference between our concept of mortality and a dog’s awareness of its increasing feebleness is a difference of degree. They know something’s happening. Death approaches with a drunken swagger. We all hear it.
Remember the part in the original when you had to put the book down? After his grandmother dies he returns to the seaside resort they visited and the immensity of the loss hits him like some agoraphobic horror of empty space and all the grief you ever felt in your entire life returned. In the same way, only Proust could do justice to the heart-gouging agony of losing a dog, how it hurts worse than losing a person. (Shhhhh. You’re not supposed to say that.) Maybe he could tell us why. Hopefully your answer is wrong, that the worst dog is better than all but a few humans. Don’t bet that he disagrees.
Perhaps their time together gave him vicarious access to a world of joy unmitigated by anxiety, a paradise free from regrets of the past and fear of the future, a place outside Time. The madcap ecstasy a dog feels upon greeting its master, which human joy approaches it? The pleasures of the mind that allegedly make us superior are the ones that spoil the intensity and appreciation of bliss. How many systems of meditation are concerned with focusing on the all-encompassing nature of Now, the default state of mind for dogs, the one humans are programmed to avoid? Good luck attaining it by non-vicarious means.
Proust eventually came to a dim view of friendship, wondering how a man of Nietzsche’s intellect could have held it in high regard. This was only because he didn’t have the ideal friend. In the version you’re carrying, he does. Instead of slouching through a lull, this draft hits its stride, galumphing like a Basset Hound.
The first volume just turned one-hundred. Read all of them, even though he’s not accompanied by a faithful pooch. Some people have shattering religious experiences from Proust. Join them. This six pack version remains the gold standard, though the new Penguin one is not bad. This online version is great for work (if not the best thing about work).
Read Hitchens’ article: “We know from Proust’s haggard original editors, as we do from the memoirs of his naive and devoted housekeeper, that the first manuscript might have come from someone more than half insane, including as it did interpolations, marginal additions, excisions, scrawls, and—the worst sign of all—strips of fresh paper stuck at odd angles onto exhausted pages.”
The average page contains sentences like these:
And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
Sweet Sunday afternoons beneath the chestnut-tree in our Combray garden, from which I was careful to eliminate every commonplace incident of my actual life, replacing them by a career of strange adventures and ambitions in a land watered by living streams, you still recall those adventures and ambitions to my mind when I think of you, and you embody and preserve them by virtue of having little by little drawn round and enclosed them (while I went on with my book and the heat of the day declined) in the gradual crystallization, slowly altering in form and dappled with a pattern of chestnut-leaves, of your silent, sonorous, fragrant, limpid hours.
The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.
Jablonski is the author of An Odyssey of Historic Proportions & Priceless Treasure of Philosophy.