Reading Proust

For a long time, I used to stare up at those thick volumes of Proust's famous Remembrance of Things Past with awe whenever I wandered into a second-hand bookshop.  Sometimes I would see single volumes from a 1970's edition in which the 4000-page novel is broken into many small, bite-size chunks--volume VII, say--orphaned from its siblings, as if that particular book was the very one someone would need to complete his or her collection.  More often, though, I would come across the novel broken into those three encyclopedic volumes with the art nouveau design on its covers. 


What dedication it would take to read that massive novel in its entirety, I would often think.  And what was it about anyway?  I shied away from the novel, too intimidated by it, until recently when I decided to tackle it, at least the first volume, Swann's Way, in its most recent 1992 rendering by DJ Enright, the novel now generally referred to as In Search of Lost Time.

All I knew of Search was that it's one of the longest novels in English, but what I didn't know was that it was also a challenging read, particularly because of those long, winding sentences and their numerous subjunctive clauses, page after page of solid, unbroken paragraphs, that it's easy to stumble and lose sight of what Proust is talking about, often emerging from such paragraphs disoriented and confused.  The novel is very much a meditation on memory, especially memory that comes unbidden or is lodged in taste (the famous madeleine cake episode in which the unnamed narrator dips his cake into a cup of tea and the taste of these combined elements usher back memories of his childhood in Combray) or in objects, smells or even music (Swann's entire relationship with Odette is contained within "the phrase" of a certain sonata) because, like meditation, at least mindfulness meditation, one is required to concentrate solely on one's breath without creating mental to-do lists or following other similar day dreams.  And so Proust, too, is equally demanding and challenging of the reader that, at times, I found myself only grasping snatches of meaning (was it better to back up and constantly reread those long passages, or to read quickly, picking up whatever I could? I was never sure) sometimes finding myself going from one scene to another without entirely knowing how I got there.  Early on in the novel Proust playfully foreshadows this when he describes how he used to read in his childhood and as "the plot began to unfold ... it seemed all the more obscure because in those days ... I used to often to daydream about something quite different for page after page," a passage which made me laugh because that is, at times, the challenge of Proust.  Later on, he ironically (and beautifully) sums up what his own writing is like when he describes the writing style of Bergotte, his favourite author:

What my mother's friend and, it would seem, Dr du Boulbon liked above all in the writings of Bergotte was just what I liked, the same melodic flow, the old-fashioned phrases, and certain others, quite simple and familiar, but so placed by him, so highlighted, as to hint at a particular quality of taste on his part; and also, in the sad parts of his books, a sort of roughness, a tone that was almost harsh.  And he himself, no doubt, realized that these were his principal attractions.  For in his later books, if he had hit upon some great truth, or upon the name of an historic cathedral, he would break off his narrative, and in an invocation, an apostrophe, a long prayer, would give free rein to those exhalations which, in the earlier volumes, had been immanent in his prose, discernible only in a rippling of its surface, and perhaps even more delightful, more harmonious when they were thus veiled, when the reader could give no precise indication of where their murmuring began or where it died away.  These passages in which he delighted were our favourites also.

But when Proust has hooked you in, when he's beguiled you, as the above passage attests, the pay-off is worth it.  Along a similar vein, here is another stunning passage from the end of Swann in Love:

The pianist having finished the Liszt intermezzo and begun a prelude by Chopin, Mme de Cambremer turned to Mme de Franquetot with a fond smile of knowing satisfaction and allusion to the past.  She had learned in her girlhood to fondle and cherish those long sinuous phrases of Chopin, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by reaching out and exploring far outside and away from the direction in which they started, far beyond the point which one might have expected their notes to read, and which divert themselves in those byways of fantasy only to return more deliberately--with a more premeditated reprise, with more precision, as on a crystal bowl that reverberates to the point of making you cry out--to strike at your heart.

Jaw-dropping, isn't it?  In his blurb at the top of my Modern Library Classics edition, David Denby says, "Reading Swann's Way was a rapturous experience," and he's right: that's exactly the word the comes to mind.  At times rapturous and mellifluous, at times, I admit, frustrating and boring (I adored Combray; was not as invested in Swann in Love until the end, regained my love in Place Names / The Name), yet, for me, Proust always seemed elusively just outside  one's grasp, and slippery like water.

As I said in an earlier blog post, when I read, I like to underline passages I like.  Not only was I doing this as I was reading Proust, but also making note of words whose meaning I was unfamiliar with (this happens to me a lot when I read Nabokov), like abjuration, inure, perorate, perspicacious, fulminate, confabulate; and words that I simply like and have found their way (or will find their way) into my own stories, like: mendacious, perfidious, carnal, beholden, ineluctable, and so on.  (Even his style, as you can see here in my parody, has infected my writing.)  But I've only scratched the surface of the novel that is In Search of Lost Time.  Having completed Swann's Way, there are five more 600-plus-page volumes yet to read: an intimidating task, and not one I intend to do back-to-back, yet fearing if I took a few years to read the whole thing I would begin to forget and therefore lose the overall thread of the story, just as we do in life with our own memories, making Proust even more ungraspable.  But I suppose that is the point with Proust.  As he says early on:

And so it is with our own past.  It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile.  The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling.  And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.