MANY YEARS AGO, MY LOVER CAUSED ME A GREAT deal of suffering because I thought she was having an affair with her roommate. Though I was unable to produce proof of her treachery, and she continually assured me that they were close friends and nothing more, I could not stop picturing her locked in a long and blissful kiss with him. One summer she decided to go on a road trip to Mexico with her roommate. Naturally, I had serious reservations about this; the very idea of the two of them together in a small car, for two weeks, without my presence to make an impression on her during weak moments, was unbearable. But my apprehensions were disregarded; my lover left, promising that nothing irregular would happen and that she would remain faithful to me.

When she failed to call me two days after her departure, to call and reassure me that I was still her number one, I went crazy. Where was she? Which highway was leading her further and further away from me? Inch by inch, minute by minute, my life became a complete hell. I could no longer operate in the regular world, I was utterly dysfunctional; all I could do was wait for her call. Suddenly! my heart would jump when the phone rang, but then fall into despair when the optimistic voice of a telemarketer, never failing to mangle my surname ("Could I speak to a Mr. or Mrs. Moo-deed?") began his or her well-tested sales script. Then came the physical consequences of my endless nightmare: insomnia set in, and within two days made my eyes red like those of an albino laboratory rat; on the fifth day (still no call!), a fever rose like a sun into the sky of my mind and made my thoughts, my couch, my walls, my world as substantial as a mirage on the desert sands. When my lover finally called (on the eighth day!) and confirmed that I was still her "numero uno," the fever cleared, my eyes cleared, and a great happiness swelled inside me like a bright balloon. I had been to the end of the world and survived.

I recall this pathetic piece of personal history because it stands as the only moment in my life that I experienced "the destructive power of an obsession," as literary critic Page Stegner once put it. This was the type of obsession that could destroy your life, your family, your career. It took your reason hostage, chained it to the wall, and subjected it to the most meticulous and irrational forms of torture. In a million years I'd never wish on anyone this form of extreme obsession, which I call "love sickness"--the most electric of all obsessive states. I am grateful, however, that I went through it, because in the following years it enabled me to develop a profound appreciation of Marcel Proust's monumental novel (over 3,000 pages), Remembrance of Things Past.

Born on August 5, 1871 to wealthy bourgeois parents, Proust wrote Remembrance of Things Past (which when directly translated from the French is less elegantly called In Search of Lost Time) near the end of his life (he died in 1922). The book has had a great impact on writers such as Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Richard Wright (who, despite having achieved spectacular success as a writer, felt deep regret because he failed to provide the black American experience with the depth and breadth of expression that Proust lavished on the French world).

In most cases, a novel of this size and density would have quickly slipped from popular memory and been consigned to the burdened shelves of a handful of scholars, who convene every so often (in some small Canadian city like Regina) to share their neglected papers. But surprisingly, in our age of quick results and instant information, the book's influence has not waned at all--in fact, it continues to grow. Articles and books appear every year about Proust and, as Edmund White said in his delightful little study (published this year by Penguin as the debut to its "Lives Series," which will later add Crazy Horse, Saint Augustine, Buddha, Mao Zedong, Marlon Brando, and others to its shelf), "even those who haven't read the book speak of him freely and often."

Edmund White's book is not perfect; he has a weakness for extravagant and unsubstantiated claims about the source and mechanisms of Proust's sexual pleasure. White does, however, close his short study by correctly pointing out the reason why Proust has continued to be meaningful to our age of "permanent instability," and ultimately, what made Proust the greatest novelist of the 20th century: "We read Proust because, despite his intelligence, he holds reasoned evaluations in contempt and knows that only the gnarled knowledge that suffering brings is of any real use."

This idea of "suffering" being of "any real use" is the core principle of Proust's great imagination. This is what Remembrance of Things Past is about: the use of "gnarled knowledge" derived from suffering, or more specifically, from extreme love sickness. The reggae songs of "lonely lover" Gregory Issacs (especially "Night Nurse") and parts of Roland Barthes' beautiful book Lover's Discourse touch upon the pains and perils of love sickness, but it is Proust's novel that gives it its total expression. Indeed the book can be described as a gallery of Frenchmen who tumble from solid ground into the endless depths of obsession.

The first book, Swann's Way, describes Charles Swann's crippling obsession with Odette; later there's the Baron de Charlus' (who next to Humbert Humbert, Chichikov, and Falstaff stands as one of the greatest characters in all of literature) obsession over the vain violinist Morel; and in the fifth book, The Captive, we are given 400 pages of the narrator Marcel's obsession with Albertine.

Now, in real life this type of obsession (or love sickness) usually leads to unpleasant things like phone harassment, stalking, threatening letters, violation of restraining orders, and even--in extreme cases--murder. But for a writer of fiction, this condition is the very path, the indisputable course to the magical, faraway kingdom that is great writing. (This may very well be what Nabokov meant when he wrote, "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.") There are two reasons why love sickness is crucial to great prose: One, as Edmund White points out, it is "only passion and suffering [that] can sharpen the powers of observation." When we obsess over a difficult and recalcitrant lover, our attention to detail (especially any detail pertaining to our lover's doings) is increased to insane levels; nothing they say, do, or wear escapes our scrutiny, which tries to decipher from careless words or a pair of brand new shoes the true nature of their elusive soul. Two, the obsessed person becomes genuinely sick, and to be sick (as I was with a fever, when my lover left to Mexico) means to be dislocated from the world of everyday things--suddenly you are no longer wrapped in the warm hum of "life," but banished to the cold frontier of "being," a zone where you can hear too clearly the relentless beating of your own heart, and feel the weight of every breath you take. Indeed, if you want to live happily then you have to forget you are alive.

Alain De Botton's book How Proust Can Change Your Life, which came out last year and was a best-seller, contends that Proust's novel is "a practical, universally applicable story" that can help one "appreciate life." He comes to this conclusion because he believes that Proust's extraordinary attention to detail, his acute sensitivity, is acutely "healthy." His interpretation, however, fails to adequately point out (or post a proper warning sign) on two points: first, that the process by which one becomes "sensitized" and "stimulated" so that they notice the "faint yet vital tremors... the shades of the sky, and the changeability of a face," is by becoming unhealthy, both in mind and body. And second: This condition, this overload on the senses, has no real "practical" use; to become hyper-aware of the world is only useful if you want to write "fancy prose."

This is animportant truth. Yes, you can become a great writer if you have experienced the horrors of an intense obsession; but that certainly won't make you a better, healthier person, or lover, or father, or citizen. This is Alain De Botton's great mistake. It is the "breakdowns" and "[bouts] of insanity" that make Humbert Humbert, the spectacular narrator of Lolita, produce such wonderful passages as this: "We passed and repassed through the whole gamut of American roadside restaurants, from the lowly Eat with its deer head (dark trace of long tear at inner canthus), ...humorous, picture post cards of the posterior ...Kurort, type, impaled guest checks, life savers, sunglasses, adman visions of celestial sundaes, one half a chocolate cake under glass, and several horribly experienced flies zigzagging over the stick sugar-pour on the ignoble counter; and all the way to the expensive place with the subdued lights, preposterously poor table linen, inept waiters (ex-convicts or college boys), the roan back of a screen actress, the sable eyebrows of her male of the moment, and an orchestra of zoot-suiters with trumpets." Without his madness for his frivolous stepdaughter, Lolita, all of this American detail (or "stuff," as Nabokov liked to call it) would have been lost, invisible, to the eyes of the "old world" European. Yes, Humbert Humbert is a "fancy" prose writer but, as his enemy, Quilty, says, "not the ideal stepfather."

More recently, the local novelist Matthew Stadler has explored and profited from this enchanted and insane territory of love sickness in his new novel, Allan Stein. But Stadler adds some unexpected twists to the scheme of things. His narrator, also named Matthew, is never actually sick during the course of his obsession over the French boy Stephane--instead Stadler ingeniously transfers the sickness, the fever, to the boy. It happens toward the end of the novel, when the narrator and the boy take a train ride out of Paris and wind up in a rural cabin.

While spending the night there, Stephane develops a fever which reflects, as it were, the inner state of the narrator, who has otherwise maintained, throughout the book, a seemingly calm air (with the exception of the spell of madness he encounters during his long flight from the Northwest to Paris). Despite the fact that Stadler's narrator is never actually sick, his obsession for the boy is still the source of startling prose. In one soon-to-be-famous passage (Edmund White's recent New York Times Review of the novel also picked this passage to prove a point) he writes: "When the [basketball] game ended Stephane and I rode home. He led and I followed, keeping silent so the glow of my famous basket would not be diminished by any of the usually stupid things I might say. The boy seemed to like the silence. He was at ease. We coasted along the rue Pascal and the air was soft, perfumed with exhaust and flowers, as on the first evening when I arrived [in Paris] and saw him in the garden. I watched his strong legs, his slim back and shoulders, and saw everything I could ever love contained within the encyclopedic completeness of this solemn angle leading me into the evening traffic."

To form an insane obsession over a defiant and difficult lover is necessary for the production of superb literature. This is certainly what Proust is all about, and why Remembrance of Things Past is the greatest novel ever written. So, if you have been love sick (and are not doing 25-to-life as a consequence), treasure the experience; indeed, go forth and write beautifully. But if you are a bad writer and have never been through love sickness, I recommend you stay away from it, and find some way to come to terms with your poor prose. Love sickness is a dangerous state of mind, mon frère, so much so that to prevent it from ever happening to me again, I, like Charles Swann, married the lover who caused me all of that suffering.

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