I first read Proust’s Swann’s Way as a sophomore in college. Not even 20 years old, what could I know about time? Time was still in front of me, in the amorphous form of things that had not yet happened. So Proust’s extraordinary reflections on time passed me by, but other motifs (dimensions of his writerly signature) made me pause and think hard.

I read him in a course on European masterpieces, sandwiched between Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It was clear Proust wasn’t concerned with the drama of the soul (that was Dostoevsky) or with the fate of the West (that was Mann). Instead, he was inviting me to ponder two issues already familiar enough: the travails of an oversensitive boy who clings to his rituals, and the miseries of a love affair that began by accident and then went on to more inextricable suffering.

Proust does all of this from inside — Marcel’s elaborate thoughts and feelings, Swann’s befuddled desires — and I knew that at some point I would have a richer rendezvous with him, in French if possible.

It became possible. Three years later, ensconced in a Paris hotel room and (ostensibly) in France to write a thesis about French theatre, I read all of A la recherche du temps perdu, grasping a good deal, missing much more. Obviously, getting inside Proust’s world was going to be a bigger project than I had imagined.

Eleven years later, as an assistant professor at Swarthmore College, I took my first sabbatical, in France of course. I was by then teaching Proust (in translation) in my courses. This was the time to get all the way in. I was to learn, over the decades, that no one gets all the way in, but that sojourn in France witnessed my most sustained attempt. Sprawled in a comfortable armchair, with the French text (Pléiade edition) in front of me, the English translation propped up on my left, an English/French dictionary propped up on my right, I reread the entire thing, making notes as I went. A labor of love, but, make no mistake, a labor.

With renewed energy I returned to Swarthmore and began to teach him in bigger swatches (assigning as much as 1,000 pages, over several weeks). It wasn’t long before I wrote Random House (his American publishers) and proposed a synoptic 1,200-page Proust. My edition would permit a comprehensive reading of Proust, one that followed the main characters and drew on vivid materials from all the sub-novels. I designed it to provide readers what no other edition provided: a responsible yet manageable reading experience of one of the geniuses of 20th-century literature.

Random House (to their eternal discredit) rejected the proposal flat out. As publishers of the entire novel (as well as its individual sub-novels), they worried that my proposal, however justifiable on pedagogic grounds, would compete with their other Proust offerings.

So I continued to teach him every year, in great swatches until my retirement from Swarthmore in 2014. His hold on me only deepens. Well into my seventies, I now know a thing or two about life in time that I couldn’t have guessed at nineteen — things he knew too, things he probably taught me to recognize.

Here is a partial listing: that our memories play us false (our past experience actually slips away, bears almost no part in the abstracts of it that we tell ourselves and write to others); that we interpret others mainly by way of what we project upon them rather than what they actually reveal; that we pursue projects long past any practical justification they might possess; that we are strangers to ourselves, constantly falsifying (sweetening) the self-reports we draw on for self-reconnoitering.

Freud knew these things too, but not novelistically, not as a flexible framework for narrating how people move, self-reflexively and among each other, through space and time.

It is illuminating to draw on a pair of phrases penned by another French genius, Pascal, in order to distinguish between Proust and his great Irish counterpart, Joyce. Pascal contrasted the two modes of 17th-century mind-activity as l’esprit de finesse and l’esprit de géométrie (the spirit of finesse and the spirit of geometry). Joyce is the great mapmaker, the man of categories and charts, the 20th-century mind musing on Homeric epic; his work deploys the spirit of geometry.

But no other writer comes near Proust with respect to finesse. It’s as though he were born knowing that man is the creature who throws curve balls; he is incapable of hurling it straight down the middle. You grasp human thought and behavior only when you take into account its full range of oblique moves, feints, projections, indirections.

Unsimple, all of this. As I grow older, I want the truth, more and more, but I want it unsimplified, with its arabesques and contradictions intact, writ large. Proust illuminates unsimple truths, unforgettably. This is why, in the fall of 2018, I look forward (eagerly but with trepidation) to teaching his great novel on the Vineyard.

Philip Weinstein is the Alexander Griswold Cummins professor emeritus of literature at Swarthmore College. He lives in Aquinnah and frequently teaches courses at the Vineyard Haven Public Library. This fall he will be doing a series on the short story. This essay on Marcel Proust was written in honor of Proust’s birthday on July 10, 1871.