One of the motivations — in addition to the flapping sound from those wings on time’s irritating chariot — to create this blog was the notion of maintaining a running commentary on my current reading of Marcel Proust’s “A la Recherche de Temps Perdu.” (Despite my use of the French title, I AM reading it in English.) It’s always been looming out there: vast, majestic, mysterious, forbidding. Dare one attempt it? Or would one, as most of us have, reach base camp and complete only “Swann’s Way,” plus maybe a few pages of the next volume, before the lack of oxygen and the prospect of the endless, ever more demanding climb that lay ahead caused us to turn back to the bar in Lahore and pick up something light, like “The Magic Mountain,” nursing our disappointment while the other inhabitants of the place give us those knowing looks:
“No shame in giving it the game go, old chap. Tried it myself back in ’73. Sentences got me. Bloody long sentences. And plot. I was starved for plot. Plenty of characters, but they don’t do anything. Have another pint. Chin up.”
As it turns out, I’ve left starting the blog a little too late. I’ve now made my way to the final volume of “Remembrance of Things Past,” “The Past Recaptured,” so, if you were planning to be a regular reader, you’ve been saved months’-worth of posts about the preceding 3,000 pages of the novel. However, no fear. We still have six or seven hundred pages to go, and we can look back over the six books you’ve missed!
I resolved to face this personal demon last year, when a long thread of reading, starting with Clive James‘ “Cultural Amnesia” (thank you, Bill and Daisy), led me from one book to another, tracking down writers in James’ book with whom I was unfamiliar and, indeed, whole swaths of intellectual history about which I realized I was ill- or uniformed. A lot of this was 19th Century material, and every time my path led me up towards the end of that century, I kept bumping up against the the obstacle that stood at the boundary zone between that world and the “modern world:” Proust!
Although I did long ago read “Swann’s Way,” the first of the seven books that comprise the novel, I was still ill-equipped to explain why Proust was as “significant” as any other long, serious book from the last century. Careless reading, I suppose. But, clearly, there must be something there. I knew what you might know about Proust and his work. He was a sickly recluse, focused on the events of his own past, confined later in life to his cork-lined room in Paris, and the work is vast and, well, long. Long beyond anything one would normally call a “novel.” Barth? Child’s play. Joyce? An afternoon’s romp. Pynchon? Too short. Nope, this was the mongo librero of Western Literature, and I was going to make it mine.
You’ve already concluded that, unless I am some sort of dedicated masochist intent on claiming some odd bragging rights at imaginary literary gatherings, I must’ve found something in these months of reading to make it worth continuing. And, yes, I did. This work is an astonishing accomplishment of creation. This applies on many levels and, over the next few weeks, though not every day, I’ll have more to say about it that may make you consider picking up at least Swann’s Way and giving it a try.
To start, consider this pleasure that awaits you as the long, long sentences unfold and the pages succeed one another: Proust was a terrible editor, and didn’t have any genuine editorial assistance or advice. The early volumes were, essentially, self-published, after a few rejections, and if there is an avatar for the supremely self-confident artist, determined to produce a massively interlocking complex of events, characters and themes without even CHECKING with someone as to whether or not this stuff WORKS, it is Proust.
Enough for now. At the very least, I would hope that if you read all the Proust posts, you’ll be motivated to pick up one of the illustrated versions of his work that now are emerging in multiple volumes. I kid you not, they’re worth a look! (Thanks, Michael, for introducing me to them.)
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