Category Archives: In Search of Lost Time

the miraculous possibility of their conjunction

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust and translated by Kilmartin and Moncrieff

I’m not sure why Proust is so rarely described as a great comic writer. Perhaps it’s because readers focus instead on the beauty of his prose or his extraordinary psychological insight. It could be because contemporary literary culture undervalues comic fiction. I think though the real reason is that those people who read Proust know perfectly well how funny he is, but most people who discuss or refer to him don’t actually read him. See also: Joyce.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah kicks off with Marcel inadvertently seeing a gay hookup between M. de Charlus and a tailor named Jupien. M. de Charlus is of course one of the Guermantes; at the pinnacle of the social ladder (he frequently looks down on royalty). M. Jupien is a tradesman.

Normally two men of such disparate backgrounds would never become friends or have any kind of social contact. Homosexuality though is a bridge across such barriers. When any romance you might have is already forbidden, it doesn’t much matter if the target of your affections is the wrong class.

Proust uses this apparently trivial incident to springboard a near-40 page consideration of what he considers the miracle of gaydar (though obviously he doesn’t call it that); the misery of isolated gay men living with what they consider a shameful perversion (lacking a wider gay community to contextualise their emotions); and the vagaries of gay love and life in then-contemporary France.

If that sounds modern, it’s because Proust is quintessentially modern. That’s part of his genius. Another part though is that Proust takes these topics, shocking at the time and tragic with hindsight, and just plain has fun with them.

For the two angels who were posted at the gates of Sodom to learn whether its inhabitants (according to Genesis) had indeed done all the things the report of which had ascended to the Eternal Throne must have been, and of this one can only be glad, exceedingly ill chosen by the Lord, who ought to have entrusted the task only to a Sodomite. Such a one would never have been persuaded by such excuses as “A father of six, I’ve got two mistresses,” to lower his flaming sword benevolently and mitigate the punishment. He would have answered: “Yes, and your wife lives in a torment of jealousy. But even when you haven’t chosen these women from Gomorrah, you spend your nights with a watcher of flocks from Hebron.” And he would at once have made him retrace his steps to the city which the rain of fire and brimstone was to destroy. On the contrary, all the shameless Sodomites were allowed to escape, even if, on catching sight of a boy, they turned their heads like Lot’s wife, though without being on that account changed like her into pillars of salt.

For the rest of the book homosexuality remains a major theme. M. de Charlus is a key figure in this volume, and a brilliant comic creation with his mix of vanity, snobbery and lust (I particularly liked that M. de Charlus is widely known to be gay, but utterly convinced that he’s fooling everyone and completely incognito). Lesbianism also features heavily, but I’ll come back to that separately.

From gay sex and cross-class dating (hard to know which is more shocking), Proust goes on to nearly 130 pages describing a party thrown by the Guermantes. After all that, you’re still only a third of the way through the book.

Marcel turns up at Oriane’s uncertain as to whether or not he’s actually invited. As Oriane has burly footmen present to chuck out any gatecrashers he’s naturally a little anxious, but Marcel by now is an accomplished party-goer and something of a figure in society. He is a prized guest, much in demand.

The party itself is full of wonderful comic set-pieces. Here M. de Charlus is speaking with his excellency the Duke of Sidonia. Proust has revealed they share a common vice, but it’s not the one the reader expects:

M. de Charlus and M. de Sidonia had each of them immediately detected the other’s [vice], which was in both cases that of being monologuists in society, to the extent of not being able to stand any interruption. Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was “no help,” they had made up their minds, not to remain silent, but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the sort of confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia—without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to draw breath, the gap was filled by the murmuring of the Spanish grandee who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

Marcel passes on leaving them to their soliloquies, but having made it past the door guards soon finds himself facing another social challenge. Marcel has not been introduced to the prince, M. de Guermantes, who is hosting with Oriane. Marcel cannot of course introduce himself, but equally he must greet his host. How then can he arrange an introduction?

What follows is a series of stratagems and ruses to effect an introduction to a man Marcel has previously spoken with, but who by society’s rules he has not been introduced to. After several attempts he gets M. de Charlus to agree to introduce him, but then a chance comment offends the ever-prickly Charlus and Marcel is no closer. Then he tries Mme de Souvré, who knows both him and the prince:

Mme de Souvré had the art, if called upon to convey a request to some influential person, of appearing at once in the petitioner’s eyes to be recommending him, and in those of the influential person not to be recommending the petitioner, so that this ambiguous gesture gave her a credit balance of gratitude with the latter without putting her in debit with the former. Encouraged by this lady’s civilities to ask her to introduce me to M. de Guermantes, I found that she took advantage of a moment when our host was not looking in our direction, laid a motherly hand on my shoulder, and, smiling at the averted face of the Prince who could not see her, thrust me towards him with a would-be protective but deliberately ineffectual gesture which left me stranded almost where I had started. Such is the cowardice of society people.

The party is filled with other comic vignettes, including one man who is so fawning that he has “an excess of politeness which he maintained even when playing tennis, thus, by dint of asking leave of the eminent personages present before hitting the ball, invariably losing the game for his partner)”. There are, however, darker currents also.

At this point in the narrative, evidence is emerging that Dreyfus is in fact innocent and that senior army figures lied. Until now whether you were a Dreyfusard or an anti-Dreyfusard was more a matter of tribal allegiance than anything else; a short-hand for describing your broader politics. With evidence of innocence though, that starts to change.

Some anti-Dreyfusards faced with new facts start to question their beliefs, though mostly quietly so as not to be ostracised by their friends (there is a nice sequence where a husband and wife both form Dreyfusard views, but each keep it from the other). Some however see the weakening of their case as reason to argue it all the more strongly, such as M. de Guermantes “who evidently considered that to denounce Dreyfus as guilty of high treason, whatever opinion one might hold in one’s heart of hearts as to his guilt, constituted a sort of thank-offering for the manner in which one had been received in the Faubourg Saint-Germain”.

Worse yet, as the Dreyfus case begins to unravel the anti-semitism rife in French society becomes even more outspoken. Swann is among those who become known as Dreyfusards. His views are no longer particularly unusual, but while one cannot easily condemn a prince for Dreyfusard sympathies Swann is a Jew and one may always condemn the Jews:

“I have always been foolish enough to believe that a Jew can be a Frenchman, I mean an honourable Jew, a man of the world.”

“Don’t you see,” M. de Guermantes went on, “even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally. It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going, and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew. People will say: Ab uno disce omnes.”

There is of course a kind of parallel here; gays and Jews both being outsider groups having to assimilate into a dominant and intolerant culture. Ostensibly, society accepts Jews and condemns gays. Proust, however, has an unerring eye for hypocrisy and is only too aware that his society will accept gays provided they are discrete but will never regard Jews as truly French.

Following the party, Marcel goes on holiday (for several months) to Balbec. It’s his first visit since his grandmother’s death, and while to date he hasn’t really felt her loss somehow being back in that context brings it suddenly home. He can no longer knock on the wall between their rooms and expect her to come round to tend to him. He can knock all day, but she will never again answer.

Proust’s description of Marcel’s grandmother’s final decline and death was one of the highlights (if that’s the right word) of The Guermantes Way. Here Proust writes of grief with the same skill. Once it emerges it’s everywhere. Even when he feels moments of happiness, the fact of feeling happy itself triggers the grief anew as he feels guilty for not feeling sad.

Grief swallows Marcel, and through it he sees too how much his grandmother’s loss has devastated his mother. No emotion though, happy or sad, can entirely consume us indefinitely even if we would wish it to. Soon, Marcel is attending such society as Balbec presents and otherwise spending his days with Albertine, whom he may or may not love but certainly desires.

Proust contrasts the glitter of Paris society, explored in the Guermantes’ party, with the more provincial and bourgois Balbec scene. Here the Verdurin’s rule. They are a family of bourgeois who rent a highly desirable house from the Cambremer family. The Cambremer’s have title and position, but no money, and Proust has great fun with the sniping and condescension between the two.

Marcel is again in high demand (hardly surprising given his status in Paris) and soon becomes part of the Verdurin set. M. de Charlus also shows up, pursuing a romance, and himself becomes a highly prized Verdurin catch (they are however so far out of mainstream society that they ask M. de Charlus if he has ever met the famous M. de Guermantes, unaware that the two are brothers and unsure whether to believe him when told).

Marcel should then be happy. He is in his beloved Balbec; he has society and he has Albertine who being of a slightly lesser family than Marcel’s and not having much by way of money is as affectionate as he might wish. Marcel though has spent his entire life with women who catered to his whims, and as we saw in the first volume when his mother did not come immediately to tuck him in at night he takes poorly to his women (the possessive is intentional) having any kind of life beyond his needs.

In particular, Marcel becomes fixated on the thought that Albertine may be a lesbian. He finds this unbearable, less because it means she is unfaithful than because it makes her part of a world utterly beyond his control. Marcel is both jealous and unreasonable, putting her constantly to the test and never satisfied for long with the answers he gets.

I could have dispensed with seeing her every day; I was happy when I left her, and I knew that the calming effect of that happiness might last for several days. But at that moment I would hear Albertine as she left me say to her aunt or to a girlfriend “Tomorrow at eight-thirty, then. We mustn’t be late, the others will be ready at a quarter past.” The conversation of a woman one loves is like the ground above a dangerous subterranean stretch of water; one senses constantly beneath the words the presence, the penetrating chill of an invisible pool; one perceives here and there the treacherous seepage, but the water itself remains hidden.

To be fair, there is some evidence that Albertine may be gay, or at least bisexual. Partly this allows Proust to discuss gay women just as he has gay men, with Marcel obsessively seeking out information about women he has heard are lesbians so as to discover Albertine’s connections to them. Partly too this shows a less attractive side of Marcel, and his obsessive and controlling nature.

I could easily keep writing, but I’ve already written far too much. In a few weeks I’ll try to write a follow-up post on the role of the car and airplane in this volume and how these new technologies epitomise the arrival of modernity, but I’m already well over 2,000 words here and I’ve not managed to say as much as I’d have liked about the relationship between Marcel and Albertine, or the dynamics of the Verdurin set, or the comic descriptions of the hotel staff (including for me the only missed beat in the book – the hotel managers wearying malapropisms which aren’t nearly as hilarious as Proust seems to think they are), or a hundred other things…

At times I found The Guermantes Way heavy going; I had to push myself through parts of it and it tested my desire to read the whole sequence. Sodom and Gomorrah though, with its insight, its humour and its sheer richness, restored me. This was the first of my #TBR20. If I have another #TBR20 after this one, volume five will definitely be among that number.

Other reviews

Emma of Book Around the Corner has a page devoted to Proust, here. She wrote three separate pieces on this volume alone, and I recommend all of them. Her main piece is here, she wrote an article on the treatment of homosexuality in this volume here, and I found this piece on the comic nature of this volume (drawing comparisons with Molière) particularly fascinating. If you read only one of Emma’s read the Molière (then read the others, they’re worth it). Emma also helpfully links to this piece from Caravana de Recuerdos and this rather good one from Vapour Trails.

Finally, Allan Massie in The Telegraph, shows here that at least some of the more mainstream commentators do get that Proust is, among much else, a great comic writer.

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

M. de Norpois recommends some investments

Currently I’m reading Within a Budding Grove, by Proust. For various reasons it’s taking me a lot longer than I’d hoped. Mostly the issue is that I wasn’t able to read it on holiday as I planned. That’s a shame because Proust needs time. He’s incredibly readable, but dense too. Every sentence requires attention. The sheer volume of wit, psychological insight, sociological comment and just sheer style demands concentration. It’s a great read, but it’s not a great daily commute read.

Quite honestly I’ve no idea how I’ll write it up once I have finished it. Inadequately is probably the best answer I have. How else could it be? To write with any accuracy about the scope of this volume alone would need more words than Proust needed to write it. Still, it should be fun to make the attempt doomed as I know it will be.

It’s impossible, for me anyway, to read Proust without being sent off on hundreds of digressions and tangents. Every page sends my mind racing in different directions. This quote, almost a humorous aside in the book, like so much else sent me well beyond the page I found it on:

My father, who was trustee of this estate until I came of age, now consulted M. de Norpois with regard to a number of investments. He recommended certain stocks bearing a low rate of interest, which he considered particularly sound, notably English consols and Russian four per cents. “With absolutely first-class securities such as those,” said M. de Norpois, “even if your income from them is nothing very great you may be certain of never losing your capital.”

Recently at bookaroundthecorner’s blog there was a discussion regarding the familiarity characters in 19th and early 20th Century fiction have with the financial markets. Often they display a casual knowledge of the merits of different classes of investment that’s quite alien today. The modern middle classes don’t, can’t, discuss gilt rates over dinner unless some of them actively work in the bond markets.The middle classes of the late Victorian/Edwardian period appear much more comfortable in this territory.

My personal theory is that it’s related to the need to procure a remittance (a competence as it was once wonderfully called) which doesn’t require the beneficiary to actually engage in work. The range of occupations open to the upper middle classes and upper classes was relatively narrow. There was no real social safety net. To maintain position, particularly in old age but also during the more active years, required a source of income not dependent on a job.

In this period the only pension you had was likely that which you provided for yourself. The only illness or unemployment protection came from your investments. If you wanted to live as part of “society” you needed a source of income that didn’t tie you up when you could otherwise be calling on people and participating in the social whirl. Class and money are ever hard to separate, and while one is not the same as the other (even in America) class is hard to sustain without money and after a generation or two money tends to buy class.

The characters of the novels of this period then know financial instruments because they have to. It’s an integral part of their world. They know them because not to know them would be folly, and because their parents would have known them too. They are part of ordinary conversation because familiarity with them is key both to survival and to social position.

Today it’s very different. There isn’t the same stigma about working for a living, and the growth of the superrich has made incomes that would once have been counted wealthy now merely comfortable. The young men (and now women) of the upper middle classes who would once have lived on their competence while doing some light duties at the bar or the City now compare themselves to oligarchs, CEOs and top traders and in that company a solid competence from land and investments really doesn’t cut it anymore.

On the other hand, we do now have pension plans, occupational contribution schemes, unemployment benefit and sick leave (to varying degrees of protection according to country). Equally importantly, perhaps more so, we no longer have the stigma of debt. The characters of these great novels of the past fear debt as social catastrophe, but now it’s commonplace (consumer debt is even an underpinning of our economic model). At worst those characters could even face prison for debt. That’s unthinkable today.

The characters of these novels mostly live lives of considerable comfort but comfort stretched over an abyss. Today that comfort is less easily obtained, but the abyss too is no longer bottomless. There’s a long way one can fall, but not so far as prison and the workhouse.

That’s why I think finance is so important to pre-First World War fiction. The anticipated readers of literary fiction of the day would have needed to know such matters and so would have been interested in them. Today finance is more abstruse, less common knowledge. It is alchemy and the ways of the bond market are neither known by nor of interest to a contemporary readership.

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Filed under 19th Century, French, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist fiction, Personal posts, Proust, Marcel

his love was no longer operable

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

I doubt I shall ever eat Asparagus again without thinking of Françoise tormenting the kitchen maid.

Swann’s Way is one of the most vivid and extraordinary books I have read. It’s only one sixth of the full work. An introduction to what’s to come. That means it’s incomplete, but even so it’s a masterpiece.

It deals in themes of memory, loss, love (particularly unrequited love), art, the way in which we create meaning out of mere incident and vastly more. It’s beautifully written, often extremely funny and it contains depictions of jealousy I found personally difficult to read they felt so true.

It’s also suffused with a powerful sense of mortality, yet not in a morbid fashion. Rather it shows an immanence in the everyday; a fragile beauty to transient things which are all the more beautiful for their transience. There is a real sense of how fleeting our most important moments are, and how their importance is as often crafted in memory as in the experience of them.

I’m conscious that having written this much I’ve said nothing of what the book is actually about in terms of its story. In part that’s because it’s quite hard to say. The novel opens with Proust/the narrator as a child staying at his grandparent’s house in Combray. He is a nervous and sickly child who dotes on his mother’s affection.

At Combray the high point of each evening for Marcel is the goodnight kiss that he receives from his mother. That kiss is so important to him that he’ll even try to delay it, so as to stave off the bleak time after it’s been given when he has to wait for morning before feeling her love again. On evenings when company calls he knows that there’ll be no goodnight kiss at all but merely a banishing upstairs, and the thought fills him with gloom and terror.

Although this part of the book (indeed all of the book) is shot-through with anguish and unhappiness it’s also full of joy and life. One of the novel’s strengths is its capturing of the intensity of childhood emotion. Little is grey. Instead, the young Marcel’s life is full of light or plunged in darkness.

The Combray section also details Marcel’s family and their habits; the walks they like to take; their peculiar customs (as all families have peculiar customs) and quotidian eccentricities. There is an acute level of social observation and the portraits of the family members, their friends, acquaintances and social world are distinct and persuasive.

Many of the scenes with the family are small comic masterpieces – often with slow buildups making them very difficult to quote. I particularly enjoyed however Marcel’s grandmother’s sisters who “in their horror of vulgarity had brought to such a fine art the concealment of a personal allusion in a wealth of ingenious circumlocution, that it would often pass unnoticed even by the person to whom it was addressed.” This leads to a scene where they seek to thank a friend of the family, M. Swann, for the gift of some wine but do so with such subtlety that he has no idea what they’re talking about.

The young Marcel is an artistic child. He obsesses with the theatre, listing actors he hasn’t seen in order of merit and imagining the wonders of plays he only knows the titles of. He is a prolific reader, but is capable too of being distracted by the sheer beauty of the countryside (which frequently he sees more in his own fantasy of it than in what’s actually before him). Proust revels in descriptive passages, thinking nothing of spending three pages or more on the beauty of a hawthorn bush. It’s dense stuff.

After Combray, the book turns its attention to M. Swann and his great love affair with Odette de Crécy (some years before the events at Combray). Swann is a rich man who keeps company at the finest salons of Paris (something which Marcel’s family, who also know him, are largely unaware of. They generally think of themselves as doing him a favour by receiving him and have a quite erroneous idea of his actual status). Odette is beautiful but vulgar, and not particularly bright. Worse yet, she is not even Swann’s “type”

Although an inveterate womaniser Swann is not at first attracted by Odette, but as time passes his feelings change and he finds himself in love. She becomes more and more important to him; central to his life. It’s a pity then that (as he largely knows from the outset) she’s a woman of doubtful reputation whose own affection for him starts to fade. Where once she would drop everything at the hint of the possibility of an evening with him, eventually she spends time with him only when she has nothing better to do.

Swann’s love is mirrored in the final section of the book, which returns to Marcel who is now a little older (though still a child) and in Paris. Marcel is in love with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, but like Swann his love does not seem to be returned. There are parallels too between how, as Odette’s love for Swann cools, she causes him to wait on her in hope of her affection and how Marcel waits at Cambray for his mother’s goodnight kiss. With both the adult and the child their love is a thing in itself, independent almost of its object and certainly independent of whether it’s returned.

Returning to the Swann section of the book, it’s clear that Swann loves Odette even though he has no great reason to. She’s not his equal in taste or intellect, she treats him poorly and she’s unfaithful. It doesn’t matter. Gilberte plays with Marcel but gives him no preference to other playmates and seems quite unaware of the passions she inspires in him. Again, it doesn’t matter.

For both Swann and Marcel love is something which flows out of them toward its recipient. That the object of love may not return it is immaterial; the love is not rational and though not being loved is an excellent reason to stop loving reason has no part to play here. Swann undergoes agonies as Odette’s ardour cools, but while his love moves from bringing him happiness to misery it’s intensity remains the same.

Nabokov’s novel Laughter in the Dark has one of the finest opening paragraphs in literature. Among it are the lines “he loved; was not loved”. For Albinus in that novel that combination leads to disaster. In a less dramatic way though it’s something most of us have experienced to one degree or another. The experience and pain of loving where one is not loved is a tragedy no less powerful for it being so common.

Here Swann loves, and while there may be times he is loved it’s not always so. One of the novel’s most powerful scenes comes when fearing infidelity Swann questions Odette about the possibility of past affairs. Despite the answers being deeply hurtful he continues to probe – unable to resist his own perverse urge to know that which he cannot bear. I found it utterly convincing and frankly difficult to read. Whether Odette is unfaithful or not isn’t the point, Swann’s jealousy like his love creates its own Odette who may have little to do with the real woman.

When we are loved we see reflected in the eyes of those who love us someone better than who we are, but hopefully someone we still recognise as related to ourselves. When love sours sometimes we see those we loved (perhaps still love) as worse than they are. We see others through the veil of our own emotions, a truth Powell would have recognised and which he brought out in his own Dance sequence.

As I write this I’m still sorting through my feelings on the work. It’s somewhat stunning and contains so much that this post merely draws out those strands which speak to me as I make this blog entry. Another post on another day could speak to many different things. This is rich and serious writing which is a genuine and sensuous pleasure to read. I laughed at it more than most comic novels I’ve read, and yet at other times I found its emotions so powerful as to be uncomfortable. It’s hard to read a paragraph like this (particularly the last line of the quote) without wincing:

He went to see Odette. He sat down at a distance from her. He did not dare to embrace her, not knowing whether it would be affection or anger that a kiss would provoke, either in her or in himself. He sat there silent, watching their love expire.

My only caution with Swann’s Way would be that it’s writing to sink into and works poorly as a casual read. It demands attention. It repays the effort put into it many times over, but it’s best read a hundred pages or so at a time rather than in smaller instalments.

I’ll wait a month or so before launching into the second volume. I’ll need to be sure I have some free time to do it credit. I’m already looking forward to it though, and while it’s taken me a fair while to get through this one I don’t regret a single moment I spent on it.

Swann’s Way
. I read the Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enright translation published by Vintage Classics. For me it maintained an excellent balance between keeping the prose modern enough to be easily read while retaining the period feel of the original. I can’t speak to its fidelity to the French, but I understand it’s pretty good and it has the benefit over the Penguin Classics version of having the same set of translators for all six works (though I understand the Penguin translations are pretty good too).

Unusually for me, I’ve written this whole entry with barely a quote in it. I couldn’t resist though the following, which is I admit a bit obvious but what’s a discussion of Proust without it?

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, except what lay in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

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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.

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