Well, I've finally made it to the top of literature's Mount Everest ... That's twenty years of my life which I'll never get back!
But - it was definitely worth it. The view from up here is amazing, and I have a feeling every other book I read from here on after will be slightly different because of my having made it all the way through this one. It's hugely pleasurable, hugely entertaining, mind-numbingly tedious and immensely boring in places. It's both frustrating and exhilarating. It, shocks, it surprises, it cloys, it flows, it gushes, it's tart and acerbic, it's sweet and mellifluous - it's all things, and it's nothing. A wonder, and a waste of time. Marcel's a ninny and a prig; he's a genius, he's witty and wise - he's all these things and more, just like this book - this book is everything, it's life; it's memory and experience, it's thoughts in and out of time. It's excellent, it's clever, and, despite initial appearances, it's surprisingly well crafted, and odd to say at the end, but it even feels - concise ... if that can possibly make sense of such a phenomenally long and long-winded book?
Henry James summed up the experience of reading Proust as one of “inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine.” And it’s true, reading Proust is exquisite boredom. Andre Gide was the reader who famously turned down Proust’s great book when it was first offered to the Nouvelle Revue Française in 1912, hence Proust resorted to having Swann's Way published privately. Gide later noted his error. Proust was then published by Gallimard; and in 1919 Proust won the Prix Goncourt. The rest, as they say, is history.
… Life is a piece of cake, if you take the time to think long and hard enough about it.
For me, reading Proust was oddly like meditating. I’d read ten or twenty pages in a sitting. Sometimes it was hard to get into, but after persevering for a few agonisingly aeon-like moments, one soon found that the flow of words would suddenly, inexplicably and effortlessly carry you off on the current. Submitting to the gentle meander, either drifting along, or letting one’s head spin in the pedantically fussy eddies of his particularities, reading Proust is akin to turning one’s brain off – or rather slipping it into neutral and letting your consciousness coast along. At times I did wonder if reading Proust is in fact unhealthy; as, when reading Proust, one can’t help but automatically suspend one’s critical acuity. It’s an impossible book to ‘close read’ as the many themes he ambles through and around continually send your mind off on its own self-absorbed tangents. You can’t help reflecting on your own life and times, prompted by Proust’s gentle ruminations, and it takes several pages before you suddenly awaken and realise you’ve been reading without reading. It’s an infuriating habit. Reading Proust cultivated it, and I’m sure it had a negative effect upon my other reading – certainly, when during my studies, I frequently found my mind wandering and unable to concentrate on whatever academic article or book I was meant to be reading, suddenly having to stop and retrace what was nothing more than a meaningless blur of words stretching back over an endless sheaf of pages, I found myself mentally shaking my fist and blaming Monsieur Proust for turning my mind into a lackadaisical blob.
E. M. Forster is right to poke fun at Proust’s famously long sentences:
“A sentence begins quite simply, then it undulates and expands, parentheses intervene like quick-set hedges, the flowers of comparison bloom, and three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb, making one wonder as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, such expensive dogs, and what, after all, is its relation to the main subject, potted so gaily half a page back, and proving to have been in the accusative case.”
But they do serve a higher purpose. The book is all about transcendental experience. There is no real plot, so to speak. The book is an encapsulation of that internal reverie which we all manage to execute in the lightening quick instant it takes to think and feel everything within. Like a momentary flash of self-reflection before we fall into sleep at the end of a long day. Like a dream in which all of our memories coincide and happen simultaneously, sparking new thoughts, reflections and revelations only half of which we will ever fully recall or examine in close detail. And that is why we are all Proust. His colossal monument, as he likens it himself, is to help us comprehend the cathedral of the mind in all its intricate enormity:
“How happy would he be, I thought, the man who had the power to write such a book! What a task awaited him! To give some idea of this task one would have to borrow comparisons from the loftiest and the most varied arts; for this writer – who, moreover, to indicate the mass, the solidity of each one of his characters must find means to display that character’s most opposite facets – would have to prepare his book with meticulous care, perpetually regrouping his forces like a general conducting an offensive, and he would have also to endure his book like a form of fatigue, to accept it like a discipline, build it up like a church, follow it like a medical regime, vanquish it like an obstacle, win it like a friendship, cosset it like a little child, create it like a new world without neglecting those mysteries whose explanation is to be found probably only in worlds other than our own and the presentiment of which is the thing that moves us most deeply in life and in art. In long books of this kind there are parts which there has been time only to sketch, parts which, because of the very amplitude of the architect’s plan, will no doubt never be completed. How many great cathedrals remain unfinished!”
Proust’s great work is a cathedral. It is whole, intricate, vast, open, overwhelming; a maze and a labyrinth in which to lose oneself – and although it is unfinished (the last volume has its technical flaws aplenty, which had he lived longer he’d no doubt have polished and smoothed into proper shape), it is surprisingly complete. I feared there wouldn’t be, but happily there is a sense of an ending. When you get to the final word, as with the harmonic variations in a great symphony, you realise Proust has actually managed to bring you full circle. It really is a book unlike any other.
|Marcel Proust briefly caught on film in 1904|
It took me twenty years in all to read it, with two lengthy sabbaticals between volumes, which, I think means I near enough read it in real time. Starting aged twenty and ending aged forty, I've spent exactly half my life with this book happening in the background. I'd always assumed that once I'd finished reading it that that would be it - never again! It was such a long hard slog in some parts, yet in others I flew through it, caught upon the wave. The actual reading of each volume was relatively short, between two and four years, depending on various outside factors. But now I've finished (much to my deep surprise) I can sense I may well one day find myself drawn back in again ... But not just yet, I'm going to savour that final sweet taste of the madeleine, and continue to enjoy the view a little longer from up here, on the top of the highest mountain ...
You can leaf through Marcel Proust's original notebooks, here.