In Search of the Time to Read Proust

I did it. I read it. Seven volumes. 3,090 pages. Proust’s ‘A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu’, finished.

Well, for now. I read the latest translation (overseen by Christopher Prendergast), but there are others (in particular the famous Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation) and I will be making time to read them.

Is it worth it? Yes.

Did I enjoy it? A resounding yes. I had imagined it be ‘rewarding’ and ‘enriching’, but I had not imagined that I would enjoy is as much as I did.

Why was it worth it and why did I enjoy it? Now, these questions may take a little unpacking, but I’ll try and sum up my thoughts.

A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is not an easy book to read and not merely because of the sheer volume (a tip, courtesy of Andy Miller: take breaks with other books – I particularly enjoyed chasing it with the short stories of Lydia Davis and Julian Cope’s autobiographies – because it will take you a few months). The sentences unwind tangentially, sometimes over the course of a page or two. If asked to do the washing up, I could easily say “I’ll be with you at the end of this sentence” and – remaining true to my work – still be sat reading 10 minutes later. However, this difficulty is not the same difficulty as with, say, Faulkner, Joyce or Pound. The meaning behind the sentences is easy to pick apart and, once you learn to ride the language, getting carried along becomes easier and easier.

The book provides peculiar joys. You might not believe it’s possible to enjoy a description of someone ringing a doorbell that unfolds over the course of 4 pages, but it is and I did. There are joys scattered in the middle of seemingly arduous paragraphs, which made me shift in my seat on the bus and want to tell the person next to me all about it. Obviously, I didn’t do this, because I’m not a maniac. Like all socially awkward modern book-lovers, I took pictures of the passages, posted them on Twitter to be ignored, and moved on.

Occasionally, it can seem like a shallow book, with long sections describing the social make-up of Parisian salons, but underneath the surface of this lies a surfeit of complexities and emotions. There are strange touches, such as in this passage, where the narrator describes the skyline of Paris in almost surreal terms.

As I was not in any hurry to arrive at the Guermantes soiree… I whiled away the time outside; but the summer daylight seemed in no greater haste to move than I was. Although it was after nine o’clock, the daylight it was still which, on the place de la Concorde, had given to the Luxor obelisk an appearance of pink nougat. Then it modified the tint and turned it into a metallic substance, with the result that the obelisk did not merely become more precious, but seemed thinner and almost flexible. You fancied that you might have been able to twist it, that this jewel had already been bent slightly out of true perhaps. The moon was in the sky now like a quarter of orange, delicately peeled but with a small bite out of it. Later it would be made of the most resistant gold. Huddled all alone behind it, a poor little star was about to serve as the solitary moon’s one companion, while the latter, even as it shielded its friend, but more daring and going on ahead, would brandish, like an irresistible weapon, like a symbol of the Orient, its marvellous ample golden crescent.”

It’s a sensual and sexual passage, laden with simile and metaphor (Proust is a fan of both), which sets the tone for long sections of the novel that discuss sexuality, in particular homosexuality.

These sections on homosexuality are controversial, partly because Proust was gay, but wrote from the point-of-view of a straight man, but also because there are some fairly unflattering portraits of homosexuality. In particular the narrator’s distaste for the perceived lesbian tendencies of his girlfriend and obsession, Albertine, can be jarring. However, I think some of the criticism and controversy misses some rather sensitive portrayals of homosexuality, even by modern standards.It is also important to remember that the narrator, ‘Marcel’, is unreliable. Proust is unafraid to let the narrator make a fool of himself. At times he is snobbish and dislikeable, as many of us will have been in our youth. Some of it makes uncomfortable reading, but often because it is easy to recognise your own faults in his. Proust may not have been a modernist, but he is a very modern writer, particularly in his use of psychology, philosophy and the unreliable narrator.

Another point to make is that, for all its highbrow reputation, it is a very funny book. There are moments that are reminiscent of Wodehouse. In one particular scene, the snobbish aristocrat Baron de Guermantes has returned from attending an gravely ill cousin to make sure that he makes it to a fashionable party. He has told his servants to make sure that, if news comes through that the cousin is dying, they should let him know so that he can return to the bedside, as he should. However, the Baron hints that the servant should do no such thing and really wants to go to the party whatever the situation with the gravely ill cousin. The Baron’s servant does not pick up on this and soon informs the Baron that his cousin is, in fact, definitely dying. The Baron replies, so that everyone can hear – and to the servant’s bemusement – that he is enormously glad of the news of his cousin’s return to health, which means that he can proceed to the party.

The humour is not all broad, however, and there are Morrissey-esque touches of dark humour throughout the latter stages of the novel, as the narrator begins to age:

True books must be the product not of daylight and chitchat, but of darkness and silence

As for happiness, almost its only useful quality is to make unhappiness possible.

The characters that fill this book are brilliantly drawn. There is the often-monstrous, increasingly corpulent Baron de Charlus, the fashionable, snobbish and stupid Mme de Guermantes, the flighty and adroit Albertine, the social-climber Odette de Crecy and the gauche, but brilliant Swann. The minor characters are as fantastically comic as any of the minor characters of Dickens and often more fully-formed (the advantages, perhaps, of those 2,000+ extra pages). There is the villainous Morel, the pedantic Brichot and the writer Bergotte, whose sentences on the page are dexterous and sensitive, but who is unable to articulate an intelligent remark when speaking.

Proust writes brilliant passages involving these minor characters, such as the artist, Elstir, the zen-like impressionist artist, who passes on wisdom to the narrator through his work and his word. These passages reoccur and inform the rest of the book:

It was the enchantment of this sea that Elstir, like the people who dozed in those boats held comatose by the heat, had experienced so profoundly that he had been able to capture and set down on his canvas the imperceptible ebbing of the tide, the throb and thrill of a minute of happiness; and to see it in this magic picture was to fall suddenly in love with it, to be filled with the resolve to seek out that vanished day, somewhere in the world, and savour it in all the dormant immediacy of its charm.”

As this passage demonstrates, one difficult thing about A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is how to define it. It’s not quite a novel. It’s part novel, part autobiography and part philosophical tract. There are long, brilliant passages on the meaning of art, time and memory (involuntary memory is, as is well-known, the main theme of the novel).

All this can make it sound as though there is a lot of padding around some extremely bare bones and it is fair to say that Proust does not, at times, seem particularly interested in plot. He writes at one point about how imagination is not necessary, if one has sensitivity and intelligence:

It may well be that, for the creation of a work of literature, imagination and sensitivity are interchangeable qualities, and that the second may without any great disadvantage be substituted for the first, in the same way as people whose stomach is incapable of digesting pass that function over to the intestine. A man born sensitive but with no imagination might none the less write admirable novels. The suffering that other people cause him, his efforts to prevent it, the conflicts that it and the other cruel person created, all of this, interpreted by the intelligence, might make the raw material of a book as beautiful as it would have been if it had been imagined…

However, despite all this, it seems to me that a lot of commentators (perhaps including Proust himself) forget about one of the greatest aspects of the book: the plot. It may not be a Dan Brown twist-a-minute extravaganza, but it is gorgeously put together. There is his love for and obsession with first Gilberte, and then Albertine, the portrayals of which are both grotesque and utterly human in the frailty and jealousy that underpin the relationships. Throughout the novel, there are set pieces that are mini-masterpieces, mixing comedy of manners with passages on ego, insecurity, snobbery, death, art and love. Finally, there is an over-arching narrative, which oddly, does not really pull together until you reach the final volume, where, in an astonishing final 100 pages, Proust pulls together plot strands (not altogether faultlessly) from across the volumes and which left me reeling.

The novel that it most reminded me of was Eliot’s Middlemarch, perhaps more for the way it affected me than anything else. There is a similar grown-up feel to the writing, in particular in the final volume. It deals with difficulties in adult relationships and with philosophical thought in a way that is beautifully engaging, but, like Middlemarch, it takes hard work to get the most out of it. There are also great similarities with Tolstoy and even Dostoevsky in the mixing of philosophy and narrative. There are references throughout to these writers, who are a clear influence on Proust.

One of Proust’s most brilliant qualities is that he elucidates thoughts that you may have had, but have not put into words. In this, I kept being reminded of Heaney’s words about literature, which at its best, can be ‘like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering’.

A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is worth getting to the end of, because it continues to reveal things and plays out to a close-to perfect conclusion. It is a joyous and enriching experience; what great literature should be. It is worth the hard work. I might have finished A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, but I don’t think it’s finished with me.

The final passages are particularly magnificent. His writing on literature is some of the best I have ever read; right up there with Schopenhauer, Woolf, Nabokov and Carey. But don’t take my word for it, read the man himself…

Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as in the artist. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it. And so their past is cluttered with countless photographic negatives, which continue to be useless because their intellect has never ‘developed’ them. Our lives; and the lives of other people, too; because style for a writer, like colour for a painter, is a question not of technique but of vision. It is the revelation, which would be impossible by direct or conscious means, of the qualitative difference in the ways we perceive the world, a difference in the ways we perceive the world, a difference which, if there were no art, would remain the eternal secret of each individual. It is only through art that we can escape from ourselves and know how another person sees a universe which is not the same as out own and whose landscapes would otherwise have remained as unknown as any there may be on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing only a single world, our own, we see it multiplied and have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, all more different from one another than those which revolve in infinity and which, centuries after the fire from which their rays emanated has gone out, whether it was called Rembrandt or Vermeer, still send us their special light.”

You can consider A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu added to that list, Marcel.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: