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.