So… I’ve begun reading Proust.
More than once, I’ve begun Swann’s Way.
I can’t say how many times I’ve picked it up off my nightstand… only to put it back down two paragraphs later. I tell myself I’m done with it, that the time isn’t ripe for me to read this masterpiece; but then, resolve weakens.
So I pick at it. And it picks back.
Between all that picking, sometimes I flip pages back and forth to ferret out meaning, while wondering where Monsieur Proust is taking me. I’ve no answers. Only questions. Easy ones, like what brings people to Proust if he’s such a hard read? What causes readers to persist and not give up hopes of reading his work? Is there any plot? If so, has it begun… and I missed it?
With no small relief, I’m able to report my reading experience imperfectly normal, if one ignores all my vacation time away, which amounts to something like four days out of every seven. I know this because, when on vacation from Proust, I take off on the internet to visit other readers who’ve confessed their many failed attempts in reading this four thousand
word page story.
One of my favorite retreats, which I’ve visited over and over since beginning the novel last month, is a blog piece addressed to a reading group connected with The Guardian. Authored by Sam Jordison, the entire post is wonderful; the blogger’s insights, as well as testimonies of other readers, has assuaged my guilt and inspired me to soldier on in spite of the questions littering Swann’s Way. A short excerpt follows:
Of course, describing Proust in terms of plot alone does no justice to the reflections, counter-reflections, digressions and musings that form so much of the immersive pleasure he offers. But it does explain why so many readers feel themselves going under so quickly. Even those who find his writing lovely struggle to progress, as Reading Group AndrewLesk puts it,
‘I have started this book four times. Once got to page 200. Why did I stop? Time, ironically. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve read. Looking forward to getting through it all now that the Club is onto it.’
He wasn’t the only one to struggle. JuliaC42 wrote:
‘I started reading it once (the Moncrieff) but it took me so long to read the first chapter that I gave up. It is now doing a good job of supporting my clock radio at the correct height.’
So what brings me back? Why do I continue to pick up Proust? I wish I knew. But what I know instead is that is has nothing to do with checking off bucket lists or acquiring bragging rights for traversing the work’s heights “because it was there.”
Perhaps Proust’s appeal lies in passages, like the one below from page 116 (The Modern Library Classics version, translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enright) as well as others that allude to the way reading a book can help us better read everyday life… to know reality rather than the perceptions of reality that too often blind us to truth.
Next to this central belief which, while I was reading, would be constantly reaching out from my inner self to the outer world, toward the discovery of truth, came the emotions aroused in me by the action in which I was taking part, for these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic events than occur, often, in a whole lifetime. These were the events taking place in the book I was reading.
By excerpting this, I’ve killed its passion, haven’t I? So it goes with me and Proust and why I turn so often to the world-wide web for comfort.
If my internet interludes tell me anything, it’s that there are many ways to take Proust. Some read to get the gist of his thoughts; others consume his prose in small doses, like poetry. That neither approach has worked for me, nor that I’ve yet stumbled upon some middle way, may explain why I’m out of step with my own on-line reading group since I’ve only half-finished with Part One. And why I’m planning to take Proust with me on vacation next week… if not to catch up, or to catch on, then to at least allow Proust to catch some Caribbean sunshine…before we begin again.