Michael Wood lectures on Proust, Nabokov, and time

Last Thursday, Michael Wood, professor of English at Princeton University, addressed an overflowing crowd in Weston 10 with a lecture entitled “Proust, Nabokov and the Misplacing of Time.” The lecture was part of a series of events, including a display in Sawyer Library, that marked the 100-year anniversary of the birth of the Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov.

Wood opened his lecture by giving an overview of his points. “Writers begin talking about time and end up talking about space, but ultimately what they’re talking about is chance,” he said.

He then approached the question of why time is difficult to comprehend. He examined this issue in terms of time’s multiple meanings. Examples included sentences such as “How many times do I have to tell you not to be late?” and the Oxford English dictionary entries for time, including “an indefinite continuous duration” and “a finite duration, distinct from infinity.”

Wood segued from an abstract consideration of time to issues of time in writing by observing, “While time is a difficulty for the philosopher, it is an opportunity for the novelist.”

He began his examination of time in literature with the opening of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The first word of the French novel is “time,” as is the last word, as Wood noted, “even if you don’t get through the thousands of pages in between.”

Wood also drew examples from Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His Woolf example was drawn from a scene in the novel in which an automobile transverses the streets of London and causes speculation as to what important person the occupant might be.

Wood also noted that when Garcia Marquez worked as a traveling salesman, he would recite this passage to himself from memory.

Wood quoted the first line of a translation of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Beundia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father first took him to discover ice.”

Wood noted, “We’re not supposed to unravel this, just be dizzied.”

Wood then moved onto his discussion of Nabokov. He drew most of his examples from the novel Ada and Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory. Wood asserted that “time is synonymous with consciousness in Speak, Memory.

At one point in Ada, the story of a journey across space and time, Van starts to explain his theory of time, but Ada just looks at her watch.

Wood then contrasted the authors’ views of chance. For Proust, chance is an important operating force and effort is counterproductive, while Nabokov believed that effort and concentration are effective forces.

Wood then began to draw parallels between Proust and Nabokov. He noted that both authors would agree that time can be negated, that time can only be escaped from within time and that time, in its purest sense, can only be experienced

Finally he outlined the differences between the two authors: “For Proust, time was the most interesting form of space, while Nabokov believed that only in space is it possible for us to get a glimpse of time.”

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