Some years back, I declared I intended to read all of Proust. I have a long history of intending to read Proust. As a teenager, I started with the last novel, The Past Captured. Perhaps I liked the cover? Perhaps it was short? Now my mind needs to read Proust in sequence, but it didn’t matter to me then and I understood it perfectly at the time.
In the ’90s, I declared again I intended to read Proust. We bought a set of old Modern Library editions at The Haunted Bookshop, a small bookstore near the Greyhound bus station in my hometown. And so we ended up running for the bus with seven books weighing down our knapsacks. I made it through four of the books that year.
I am loving Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, though it’s futile to try to articulate it. The series is one long novel, no? My husband, who has read the entire series in French, crossly says that Swann’s Way is the only volume worth reading. Well, I’m simply loving it, but I see the structure is looser in the second volume, Within a Budding Grove. Of course it’s all modernist brilliance. And there are seven fucking volumes so get used to it! One basks in Marcel’s symphonic descriptions of places, walks, meals, dinner conversations, the hotel in Balbec, neurotic worries about girls, friendships with the pretentious Bloch and the generous Robert, and lovesickness for the lively Gilberte Swann,. The pattern of hopeless, anxious love is set by his relationship with his mother, but his love for Gilberte is also echoes the pattern of Swann’s courtship of the fickle Odette, who makes him miserable. In the second volume, we are amazed to find that Swann has become a bourgeois husband bustling to convince government officials to dine with Odette, since his aristocratic connections won’t entertain her. There are many comic episodes: when Gilberte tells Marcel that Swann and Odette don’t like him, Marcel is indignant and writes him a very long letter about his love and respect for the Swanns. Ah, youth! So funny!
Some readers are lucky; they fall in love with Proust on page one and enter a sort of rapture that transports them through all six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Others struggle, resist, quit in a huff. My guess is that many readers are alternately smitten and outraged by Proust’s prose style, especially in the opening pages, when we are in the dark—or rather, in a room where the drapes are drawn—and the only thing we can figure out with any certitude is that the narrator is unable to get to sleep and that this reminds him of many other sleepless nights.
I think I’ll follow Marcelle Clements’ advice. But only the future can tell if I’ll read all of them!