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Proust Is the Bottom Line for Everyone

I’ve been under an unusual amount of pressure lately, and when that happens, I like to take refuge in an enjoyable and not especially challenging book. Last week, when the various trials were bearing down on me with particular emphasis, I thought I knew just the book to hide away with: J. K. Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy. I had pre-ordered a copy from Amazon, and at the appointed time it showed up on my Kindle. But there was a problem: the text was unreadable [1]. Frustrated, I browsed through the books on my Kindle, looking for some appropriate substitute. And then something odd happened. I started reading Proust.

I had read Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, in graduate school, and then again a few years later, but I had never made it any further. This has long been a source of relatively mild professional embarrassment for me: embarrassment, because my academic field is 20th century literature; relatively mild, because I’m a British literature. But the embarrassment wasn’t enough to get me through he remaining 3000 or so pages — gulp — of the whole thing.

And embarrassment had nothing to do with last week’s decision, which really wasn’t a decision at all, more a momentary and unreflective impulse. I started reading at the beginning of Swann’s Way, and found myself caught up in the voice, the flow of the thing, the long murmuring sentences. I kept reading. The book seemed very different than it had when I read it all those years ago. I finished Swann and immediately started Within a Budding Grove. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think I’m going to keep going. Which means that there may be some Proust-blogging around here in the coming weeks.

And if that doesn’t drive away every last reader of this blog I don’t know what will.

(post title courtesy of Paul Simon)

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Proust Is the Bottom Line for Everyone"

#1 Comment By Noah Millman On October 3, 2012 @ 8:04 am

Hey, as the guy who convinced The American Scene-sters to read all of the U.S.A. trilogy one fall, and then failed to write anything about it (though I did read the books), let me be the first to say: bring on the Proust blogging!

I’m in the middle of War and Peace myself. Maybe we could get Daniel Larison to read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and Rod Dreher to read Clarissa, and when we’re all done we can have a virtual book party.

#2 Comment By Dylan On October 3, 2012 @ 8:09 am

Soon you’ll be able to participate in this.

#3 Comment By Austin Eisele On October 3, 2012 @ 9:00 am

Oh yes, please, some Proust blogging! I did the same thing starting in June, but I’ve stalled in the fifth volume – I need some encouragement!

#4 Comment By Matt in TX On October 3, 2012 @ 9:02 am

“Middle age is when you realize that you are never going to get around to reading Proust.” So maybe this has a staving-off-my-own-impending-doom aspect to it.

#5 Comment By FN On October 3, 2012 @ 9:18 am

For those who are deterred by the thousands of pages of the Proust text, I recommend the gorgeous, fabulous, miraculous, splendid graphic novel adaptation by Stéphane Heuet.

#6 Comment By Frank OConnor On October 3, 2012 @ 9:49 am

The great Civil War historian Shelby Foote was a Proust fanatic. He read the whole “In Search of Lost Time” about eight times, usually to celebrate an event in his life, such as completing a volume of his trilogy or a novel. Since I liked Foote so much, I gave it a try, got through volume one, but not very far in the second. I am currently working my way through the Henry James canon, daunting enough, and may give Proust another try when I complete the James cycle. May I suggest to those like me who find Proust too damned elusive but feel guilty about it, to give Anthony Powell’s twelve novels comprising “Dance to the Music of Time” a shot. Wonderfully witty and funny, moving at times and very easy to read. His central character, Widmerpool, the quintessential 20th century liberal, unites the whole work wonderfully and is a stunning depiction of the breed in itself.

#7 Comment By Cliff On October 3, 2012 @ 11:39 am

I too read “Swan’s Way” in college, many years ago. I could go back and… No. I’ll stick with Anthony Trollope, and leave the hard stuff for more supple minds.

#8 Comment By Daniel McCarthy On October 3, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

I’ve had the experience that Alan mentions with Proust with many works: reading them in college, or in an otherwise mandatory setting, was completely different from appreciating them at one’s own initiative. I know of people who think that having read something in college they need never look at it again. They’re missing out.

#9 Comment By Lance Kinzer On October 3, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

Following up on Frank OConnor the snippet below from Foote to Walker Percy, got me started on Proust, (though as I understand it Percy never shared Foote’s opinion), “I’ve always given myself a reward when I finish something and the reward I give myself is always the same thing. I read A la recherche du temps perdu. That’s my big prize. C’est mon grand prix. I think I’ve read it nine times, now. It’s like a two-month vacation because it takes that long to read Proust. I like it better than going to Palm Beach.”

#10 Comment By Aaron in Israel On October 3, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

David Frum has been blogging about Proust lately. I gotta admit, sometimes I even had trouble finishing the paragraphs he quoted.

I’m still waiting for my copy of Gidget to arrive.

#11 Comment By Rod Dreher On October 3, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

I tried once again to read “Swann’s Way” in preparation for my Paris trip, and I gave up, as I had done before, because I kept thinking, “OK, get on with it!” But as my long-suffering wife will attest, I am a hard case about fiction.

Completely agree, Noah, on “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.” It’s the book I keep on my iPad Kindle app to read around in, because it’s so rich and varied, and I love West’s voice. The main sense I get from it, though, is the weariness one gets from having to carry so much history.

#12 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 3, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

Some years ago I wrote a brief note for First Things on [2]. Well, except for In Search of Lost Time, which I hadn’t read yet. Halfway through Proust I’m pretty sure that West will be retaining her title.

#13 Comment By Jack On October 3, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

Read the whole thing with great pleasure roughly fifteen years ago, and would love to take the time to do it again. I had a lingering, persistent cold for much of the read, and spent most of it in bed. Consuming the novel (it is, truly, one novel) as a sort of “shut in” seemed to make it that much more resonant. Wonderful experience. Proust was the best cold I ever had. Still, I hope to tackle it next time in perfect health. Very much look forward to reading your thoughts on it, Mr. Jacobs. I suspect it will make me anxious to get at the book again that much sooner.

#14 Comment By Lynne from CO On October 3, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

Thanks for the memories… (sorry, couldn’t resist) About 30 years ago I came across an LP of Ralph Richardson reading part of ‘Swann’s Way’ in the Newark Public Library. This began a lifelong love of Proust – and of audiobooks. I just checked audible.com. They have two(!) unabridged editions of all five volumes. If you’ve never read Proust, or want to re-read him, having someone read aloud to you is a very pleasant way to do that.

#15 Comment By Aaron in Israel On October 3, 2012 @ 11:49 pm

Rebecca West! Another book I couldn’t didn’t finish, The Fountain Overflows. She knew how to write a sentence, that’s for sure, but I just got really tired of those adult-like little kids. It was probably a really fresh view on childhood back then, but now it was just kind of grating how unchildlike the children were.

So, should I still read this Black Lamb book, even if I didn’t like Fountain?

#16 Comment By Bill On October 4, 2012 @ 6:41 am

A co-worker once told me of her cousin, a young man who was depressed and suicidal. Therapy seemed to be going nowhere, but Proust brought him out of it.

#17 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 4, 2012 @ 7:51 am

Aaron, I don’t think West was at her best as a writer of fiction — she was much better as a kind of hyper-intellectual journalist, who saw every current event in the light of a long history. So for me her best books are Black Lamb (obviously) and her utterly neglected masterpiece about the post-WW2 treason trials, written in installments for the New Yorker, called The Meaning of Treason. But remember: Black Lamb is 1150 pages long. Gulp.

Bill: the story of Proust seems to be that he either cures people of suicidal thoughts or generates them.

#18 Comment By Anderson On October 4, 2012 @ 11:34 am

So, whatcha reading? The old Scott-Moncrieff translation? The Modern Library revision? The Penguin translations? Or the original French?

#19 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 4, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

Anderson: the Modern Library edition, with occasional furtive and inconclusive peeks at the French.