Around ten years ago, I decided that it was simply not on to be a student of 20th century French literature and to have read only the first volume of A la recherche… and that only in English translation.
And so it began.
I trotted reasonably swiftly through Vol. 1, largely because I had already read it in English, and because I was reading it in conjunction with a friend and fellow student – but things then slowed down rather dramatically. Finally, a couple of days ago, I reached the final sentence of the final volume. Fittingly, I had made some splendid progress whilst staying in the Hotel le Marcel, in one of their Chambres St Loup, after long walks through the streets of Paris.
I’m normally a fast reader. But not in French. In English, I can see large chunks of text and absorb them easily, but in French I have to read each word, and I cannot be sure I have the meaning of a sentence until I get to the end of it – and with Proust that full stop could be several pages away. So my reading speed slows down dramatically whenever I’m reading in my second language. That’s not all of it, however. Roger Shattuck acknowledges (reassuringly) that:
both in translation and in the original, Proust slows most readers down. His sentences move through long spirals that will not be hastened and deserve to be savoured. He offers few paragraph breaks to declare the steps and stages of his thought. In contrast to most nineteenth-century novelists, he does not construct out of short chapters that divide the story into conveinent mental mouthfuls. One simply cannot force one’s speed and hope to register the prose.
But there were certainly times when I thought I might pack it all in, were it not for the fact that my original rationale was still valid – how can I study Butor without having read Proust? – and a certain bloody-minded stubbornness that those who know me will recognise. I said I was going to read all of Proust in French and I would do so. Even if it was the last thing I did. Thankfully it didn’t quite come to that.
Ten years of reading – albeit with some rather long gaps. Was it worth it? Emphatically yes. It’s an extraordinary work and its influence is so enormous, not only on the French writers who came after Proust, but on literature across the world. I expected that, however. What was unexpected (apart from the fact that it was a great deal funnier than I’d anticipated) was that in many ways it did not work as a novel, because it’s not, or not just, a novel.
Earlier this year, I read Clive James’ wonderful Cultural Amnesia, a collection of short essays on writers, film makers, musicians, political thinkers and philosophers, chosen on the basis that they interest him rather than, necessarily, that he admires or loves them. It’s a book that makes you feel desperately un-well-read, but rather than that being alienating, you feel at the same time that any steps you can take towards being the kind of reader that James is – including simply having a bash at reading in languages in which you are far from fluent – are eminently worth taking. His piece on Proust, which I read before I’d finished Vol. 7 because spoilers aren’t really that much of an issue here, is particularly enlightening.
A commonplace book in the classic sense, it is, itself, a set of annotations to all the works of art that Proust has read, looked at, listened to or otherwise enjoyed, and to everything he knows about nature, natural science, love, sex and the workings of the mind.
A la recherche du temps perdu is never done with, because it keeps growing while you are reading it. Like no other book in the world, Proust’s book leads everywhere: a building made of corridors, and the walls of the corridors are made of doors.
There are people who read Proust just for the clothes. But those of us who read Proust for his remarks about life will always be wondering whether A la recherche du temps perdu is really a work of art at all. A work of imagination: yes, of course, and supremely. But is it a novel? Isn’t it a book of collected critical essays, with the occasional fictional character wandering in and out of it?
These qualities of non-fiction are useful to remember when we realize how many qualities of fiction the longest of all novels does not possess. It has, for example, no structure worth speaking of, and probably would not have attained to one even if Proust had been given another ten years to work on it. Characters would still have shown up twenty years too young at the last party, or twenty years too old, or simply still alive when they should have been dead.
Bloody brilliant. I rather wish I’d read this at the start of my project, rather than as I approached its final stages. There were so many moments when I was frustrated by the pages of rumination, distractedly wondering when something was going to actually HAPPEN, rather than realising that the rumination was what was happening. what mattered, what the book was about. (In this context I could not help but recall Monty Python’s All England Summarise Proust competition…) And I wouldn’t have wasted any energy trying to work out how much temps had actually passé, when it really wasn’t about chronology at all.
Readers and critics of Proust reach for comparisons and metaphors, as James does. Roger Shattuck says that ‘Reading Proust bears many resemblances to visiting a zoo’. It’s commonly referred to as a roman-fleuve, a river that flows on relentlessly and the only way to read the roman is to abandon oneself to that flow (though I note that it also has a more critical connotation – a discours-fleuve is an ‘interminable’ speech…). It’s a web (Malcolm Bowie uses this metaphor), in which everything/everyone is connected to everything/everyone else.
It’s an unfinished cathedral (this draws on a passage from the final pages of Le temps retrouvé) – but James suggests that it is instead ‘a sandcastle that the tide reached before its obsessed constructor could finish it; but he knew that would happen, otherwise why build it on a beach?’. For me, it is a labyrinth, a labyrinth in time and space.
Reading the final pages, I wished that my memory of the earlier volumes was clearer. I want to see how the threads relating to the nature of time and to the Dreyfus affair, and so many more, run through the whole tapestry (another metaphor…).
I could always go back now, and start again at the beginning…
Malcolm Bowie, Proust among the Stars (Fontana, 1998)
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time (Picador, 2012)
Roger Shattuck, Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time (W W Norton, 2000)