A Proustian excerpt

I’m reading Proust at the moment. Swann’s Way, the first volume. That’s also the most popular volume I understand – apparently more people buy it than the rest put together…

Anyway. It’s brilliant. That’s not a surprise, after all it’s famous for a reason. But it’s also dense. It demands a degree of concentration, of attention. It repays that, but it’s best if you’re reading it to make sure you have some free time to do so. Lately I’ve been working long hours, and that makes reading Proust a challenge.

What I’ve been most impressed with so far is how funny much of it is. It’s actually one of the funnier books I’ve read recently (not hard I admit, I’ve read some Derek Raymond not that long ago after all). What’s also fascinating is its style. It’s discursive. It wanders off in tangents. When you start a paragraph it’s wholly unclear how it will end up.

All that said, I came across one passage that reminded me irresistibly of my own childhood. Like many children I was discouraged from reading. It was seen as unhealthy. Reference was made to “having my nose always stuck in a book”, and I was regularly commanded to go out and play.

That all sounds a bit Dickensian. It wasn’t. It was just that most of my family weren’t readers. To them, it seemed a waste to sit indoors reading a book when I could have been outside playing football or whatever. They meant well, but the result was I’d just go and read outside somewhere instead of reading inside.

If there aren’t many readers in your family then you may well recognise all that. Certainly Proust would have:

While I was reading in the garden, a thing my great-aunt would never have understood my doing save on a Sunday, that being the day on which it is unlawful to indulge in any serious occupation, and on which she herself would lay aside her sewing (on a week-day she would have said, “What! still amusing yourself with a book? It isn’t Sunday, you know!” – putting into the word “amusing” an implication of childishness and waste of time), my aunt Léonie would be gossiping with Françoise until it was time for Eulalie to arrive. She would tell her that she had just seen Mme Goupil go by “without an umbrella, in the silk dress she had made for her the other day at Châteaudun. If she has far to go before vespers, she may get it properly soaked.”

It’s somehow fitting that while reading Proust I was suddenly transported back to my own childhood, and reminded of arguments with aunts who I love to this day but who couldn’t for the life of them see what on earth I was wasting my time with a book for. Across barriers of country, culture, time and indeed class, people remain much the same.

More on Proust soon. There’s a lot to talk about in this book. I’ve not finished it yet (and this is just the first volume), but I can already say that In Search of Lost Time deserves its fame.


Filed under French, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist fiction, Proust, Marcel

24 responses to “A Proustian excerpt

  1. I wondered where you’d go after finishing Powell. I am looking forward to my Proustian project someday, but right now I’m conducting the biggest project of all: getting through the books I have already got!!

  2. My copy of Skylark turned up today, one of those occasions where I finished the review and immediately went to buy it. Thanks for that, I’m still getting up to speed on the NYRB’s catalogue and I’d have missed it I think.

    On projects, reading Proust is ambitious but eminently doable. Reading the books I already have though, that really would be ambitious…

  3. Perhaps the first volume is the best seller because that’s as far as most people get.

    I have the set and started it once, but the timing wasn’t right.

    Reading has always been a refuge for me.

  4. I think I would have qualified as a four-time buyer of Swann’s Way before I actually finished it. And it was several decades later, that I bought (and read) the others.

    Your description of the experience so far brings back memories — Proust more than anything else has a rhythm and when the reader is in that rhythm his books are marvelous. And when you are not, they are an uphill slog.

    My advice is to use Swann’s Way as a learning experience on “how to read Proust”. He is not easy, but he is very good. And anyone who can read SF and noir should not find him to be a challenge.

  5. I’m among those who have still to commit to my Proustian project, but I feel it getting closer. I do, though, find it hard to contemplate reading such extensive works when there are a lot of other books I want to read and can fit into my life more easily. Right now, I feel so busy that taking on something like this feels quite overwhelming.

  6. My mother was brought up in a Methodist family who discouraged all reading of fiction as being pointless. She later became an avid reader and spent most of her latter years reading. Fortunately she allowed me to read as much as I wanted.

    I’ve read three volumes of Proust now but can’t see myself getting any further with it. Swann’s Way is by far the best of the first three at least, and I would say the earlier parts of Swanns Way are the most enjoyable.

    Did you leave comments on the Guardian website about the Orlando Figes business? I’m sure I read them yesterday but can’t see them today. Perhaps I’m dreaming.

  7. I, too, have yet to commit to Proust, but have been feeling more keen to do so lately. You post pushes me closer, but I am not sure if it will be this year.

    The closest I came to your childhood experience was one night when the family was watching a movie which went past my brother’s and my bedtime. I was reading while they watched TV. My father asked my brother if he wanted to finish the movie and my brother did. “Okay, you can stay up to watch it. Kerry, go on to bed.” I was aghast. I thought it was a clear indication that books and reading were being discriminated against in favor of television.

    Of course, the practical point is that I could pick up the book tomorrow while my brother could not continue the TV show (this predated VCRs,in our house anyway). And my brother was almost four years older than I was.

    I didn’t say my outrage was rational or justified, only that I felt I and books were being treated unfairly. After all, shouldn’t the kid reading the book be rewarded?

  8. Pingback: My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: April 23, 2010 « Hungry Like the Woolf

  9. I finished the entire Recherche a week ago, which took me nearly 6 months, and as it happens I wrote a long post on Proust and all sorts of background reading only this morning. Unfortunately it is in Dutch so it won’t be of any interest to anyone here, but I do want to stress that the effort and the concentration required to read Proust are more than worth it. Like many people I, too, had a couple of false starts: many years ago I started to read Swann’s Way in the original French, but soon realised that that was way too ambitious. About 7 years ago I started on the English translation, but somehow did not get past p. 78. Then I tried again last autumn and apparently the time was right this time. I read in small batches, only about 20 to 30 pages a day, but I loved it. It’s probably the best book I have ever read. And the last volume ties everything so beautifully together …. Simply marvellous. I plan to reread the whole thing several times. Only not just yet 😉

  10. Anna: “I plan to reread…” As do I. The incredible thing about Proust is that once you finally do finish it, you realize how much you have missed along the way.

    It is an interesting “reading” picture. Many approach the start and get no further (I am willing to be that I can find 10 readers who started Swann’s Way for every one who finished it). Some progress and read that first volume.
    A few move on. Almost none reach the finish.

    And when we do, we realize that we probably have to do it all again, to enhance the whole experience.

  11. Max – nice to see your Guardian comments repeated in Guardian Review today – a nice defence of book-bloggers! Tom

  12. That’s definitely why it’s the best seller Guy, it’s the same for Powell. It’s easy to get discouraged after all.

    Kevin, the rhythm point certainly rings true. And thanks for the advice on using this as a training ground. That makes a lot of sense.

    WG, I definitely wouldn’t start this until you have some free time. My timing’s been lousy, and it doesn’t help. It’s good I’m enjoying it, because I haven’t the time free for it that it needs which makes it much more challenging.

  13. I think there’s been more than one Figes article Tom, I certainly left comments on one of them. From your later comment I see they’ve been immortalised, I’ll have to try to get hold of a copy (tricky as I missed it on the day).

    Kerry, childhood outrage is rarely about what’s reasonable. Besides, it was reasonable but not necessarily fair, things can be funny that way. On Proust, if you do get to it in a year or so I’d be fascinated to see your views.

    Anna, in Dutch? I’d so like to read that, but it’s not a language I have any grasp of at all. Tricky to learn actually, a friend of mine tried because he was going out with a Dutch woman. He took classes, went to the Netherlands, and everyone kept speaking to him in English. Not to be difficult, but everyone already seemed to speak it and he was just learning Dutch so not that good at it yet, so it was easier for them to speak his language each time.

    In the end he gave up, he couldn’t practice while over there. I think it was made worse by many of the locals having better English grammar than he did…

  14. No, not in Dutch. I actually read the Scott Moncrieff translation, as Swann’s Way in Dutch (“De kant van Swann”) costs nearly as much as the entire series in the Modern Library edition.
    It’s funny about your friend trying to speak Dutch and not succeeding. I hear that all the time. We Dutch are extremely keen on practicing our English 😉

  15. Ha, re Kerry’s comment. I love your bit of parent justification that it was “reasonable but not necessarily fair”.

  16. Another thought about Proust’s rhythm. I found that when you had to leave the book for a while if, when you return to it, you simply go back a few pages, the rhythm returns very quickly. This does become even more important in the succeeding volumes.

  17. I’m French, I read “In search of Lost Time” a long time ago and I still remember it. I remember the story, the names of the characters, his unbelievable way of describing people and situations. Even now, I can’t hear the name “Oriane” without thinking of Mme de Guermantes.

    You’re right, he was funny and insightful. He captured the way the French society changed and entered into the XXth century. He wrote about the Dreyfus affair and how the whole society was divided between pros and cons. Unexpectedly political, if you compare it with “Swann’s way”
    He wrote about homosexuality, not exactly an easy subject at the time.

    Keep on reading. “Swann’s Way” is really not the best one according to me. I suppose it’s the most famous because it is the first one and because somehow, it is a story in itself.
    Hold on until “Sodom & Gomorrah” and “The Past Recaptured”.
    It requires a tremendous amount of concentration but it’s worth the effort

  18. Extremely glad you’re finding Proust rewarding and not succumbing to this rather tardy view by Germaine Greer –


    Personally, reading Proust changed the way I see pretty much everything. Not a bad novel then!

  19. Thanks for the encouragement all. Happily I don’t have to work this weekend, so I’ve a chance to make a serious dent in it.

    Bookaround, welcome to blogging! I’m looking forward to reading your Romain Gary piece. There’s no chance of my giving up I think, it’s just that it takes more focus than I’d realised going in.

    Richard, I saw that. I thought it a classic piece of contrarianism for its own sake, choose something significant and say it’s terrible to get a headline or two. I wasn’t hugely taken, and I saw several comments that her views on the French weren’t terribly accurate.

  20. Just came across a NYRB classic called Monsieur Proust and it’s written by his housekeeper. You have your hands full at the moment with ROTP, but I thought I’d mention this in case you haven’t heard of it.

  21. leroyhunter

    Guy, I’ve read Celeste Albaret’s book (Monsieur Proust) and it’s certainly a curio. You can have great fun reconciling what you may know of Proust’s character & biography with the account given by Mme. Albaret: suffice to say it’s generous to a fault, although with occasional hints that she knows more (or different) then she lets on.

    I believe there was some minor controversy when it was published about “what-she-said” vs. “how-it-is-reported” (the book is based on a series of interviews, not written by her) but it should definitely be on the radar of anyone who enjoys ROTP.

  22. Leroy: interesting. I’m not at the point of reading ROTP (started once and faded off track). There’s a film too, isn’t there, about the housekeeper, called Celeste. Haven’t seen it.

    Also interesting that she should be generous about P. She must have liked him/admired him/fill in the blank.

  23. leroyhunter

    She seems to have been in awe of him, Guy, and to have felt it was her role to protect his reputation (or provide some from of official version).

    I haven’t seen the film you mention: I have seen Raoul Ruiz’s excellent Time Reganied though, which I’d strongly recommend.

  24. That is interesting. It’ll have to wait until I’ve finished the whole work though, not just the first volume…

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