Friday, February 24, 2023

Should you read Proust?

With most great writers, I’d answer such a question with an unhesitating “Yes!” With Proust, however, the honest answer would have to be: “That depends.”

It depends on a lot actually. For one, have you read wide swaths of Western literature? If not, you maybe shouldn’t read Proust. Your efforts would be better spent reading other major writers you’ve so far missed. The reason is simple: the time it will take you to read Proust’s massive novel would be enough to read well into your list of neglected greats. And you’ll certainly get more from immersing yourself in five or six different writers than you’d get from burying yourself alive in one writer, however great he may be.

A friend asked me years ago if he should take up Proust. “You can if you like,” I said, “but you won’t be able to finish it.” He was a bit miffed, but understood the gist: the work’s stylistic density plus its sheer length have left thousands of corpses in the ditches of Volume I or II.

“What if I read five pages a day, so I don’t get bored with it?”

“Yeah, that’s not a bad plan.”

“I wonder how long it would take.”

“Well, you’re 34. If you start now, and read five pages a day, you’ll likely finish before you retire.”

I was exaggerating, but not by much. Because hey, how many people planning to read “five pages a day” of something actually end up reading five pages a day?

Proust as a young man, portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche.

I don’t find Proust boring, except in stretches, but the work is often exasperating. To give one early example, the denouement of the narrator’s failed love for Gilberte in Volume II (which has the delicious French title A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur) seems well-nigh interminable, insufferable. He explains how he has decided to break with Gilberte, analyses his reasons, lays out his plan of action, then … a handful of pages later, explains again how he has decided to break with Gilberte, analyses his reasons, lays out his plan of action, etc. This gets probably four iterations over what may be thirty pages. I realized just how bad it was only later in Volume II when my eye fell upon Gilberte’s name again, long after the affair was over, in a paragraph on Balbec. I shuddered. Just to see the name. At that point I didn’t want to see the name Gilberte again. Ever.

Proustians will say I’m not being fair. Proust is a supreme artist of the tricks desire plays on us, of the inevitable pain of love. An artist of pain, he needs to detail that pain as experienced by his narrator. He needs to do this even when that pain is drawn out and overwrought, because that’s what really happens when one is smitten, no?

I remain unconvinced. Because, to take the same example, the Gilberte passages are not redeemed by the brilliant formulae that make Proust worth reading. They are, for instance, pale stuff compared to his treatment of Swann’s love for Odette in Volume I. That grim tale, though also lengthy, traces a clear movement. And in it Proust offers us one of his first great insights into the mystery of love. Namely, that we are subject to falling most deeply in love with those who are precisely not our type. The treatments of Gilberte and Odette offer a contrast revealing much about what works in Proust and what doesn’t.

But I digress. Still, I’m writing of Proust. And if a two-paragraph digression bothers you, here’s your takeaway: You will not enjoy reading him.

The problem is this: What makes Proust supremely worthwhile is also what makes him, at intervals, a bore. That’s the paradox you’ll have to shoulder. The wellsprings of everything in Proust reside in his narrator’s indefatigable inwardness. The work prods out what lurks at the margins of the narrator’s psyche, prods it into the light, then sketches the shades and contours of what is there. Needless to say, Proust is masterful at this, unmatched really. And as he’s also one of us, a being who lives in time and loves and suffers, the shapes he reveals are shapes we often recognize. Much of the joy of reading him, as with other great writers, is in the frequent recognition of something we already knew, but weren’t conscious of knowing it, because we aren’t possessed of the same analytical inwardness. But as Proust is also prone to diagnostic forays that risk tripping over into verbosity, there’s the paradox again. It is, finally, part of the deal. One doesn’t get the brilliant revelations without having to sit there while the master polishes his microscope. And polish it he will, a couple times each volume.

Still, I don’t want to give a false impression. Though he delves obsessively on the games our psyches play on us, the perfidious landscape of the self, Proust’s work doesn’t at all read like the journal of an introvert. In this respect he’s very different from, say, Pessoa, whose Book of Disquiet stands as modern Europe’s great monument to introversion. My own delight in Proust comes when he’s narrating encounters with others, setting down the echoes others provoke in his narrator, “Marcel”, at the moment of encounter. Here too we see his keen attentiveness to how the world impacts the self, the reverberations of that impact. But if the person or place whose impact is in question is allowed to lose immediacy—if, say, she drifts out of the narrative and becomes entirely a matter of thought, it’s there the sentences will tend to circle into tedium.

Still sticking to Volume II, we could contrast passages that show the law at work. If the break with Gilberte is overwrought and redundant to the point of intolerable, against this, however, in the very same volume, we have the brilliantly oblique introduction of Charlus and then the supreme opening pages of “Frieze of Girls at the Sea”—both passages taking their strength from their staging of the affect these others provoke in Marcel. Both passages depend, in short, on the same unflagging inwardness that makes other stretches of Volume II falter.

Likewise, in Volume V, we meet similar contrasts: the wonderful pages on Albertine sleeping, followed by pages in which Marcel lays out the metaphysics of jealously. In the former Albertine is present, grounding the narrator’s attention. He cannot go wrong. The latter pages, however, grow needlessly recursive.

I’m just giving examples. And perhaps it comes down to that fundamental rule recognized by all good writers: Don’t tell, show. When Proust begins to tell at length, he risks losing us. When he is showing us a scene as it unfolds, we cannot set the book aside. His handling of the back-and-forth between external event and the immediate echo provoked in his narrator gives us some of the finest pages in 20th century prose. Yes, all good writers know the rule Don’t tell, show—but Proust is not merely a “good” writer, he’s one of the greatest. Thus the paradox.

Some may again protest: "To appreciate the impact others have on his narrator, we have to know that narrator intimately. We have to know just what he is." Thus Proust’s lengthy passages of self-analysis and hand-wringing are claimed as necessary to give us such knowledge: they are are needed as ground for everything else that “works”. I’d disagree, insisting that whole pages could have been cut, and the work would still stand, and we’d still know just who it was that was so taken by the clique of rude girls strolling down Balbec beach. We’d know who it was and why he was so taken. The doldrums aren't necessary to the work.

But yes, there are also crucial passages of telling, even telling at length: most obviously the series of epiphanies in the final volume, where Marcel at long last realizes what he is to do. The rule, then, doesn’t always apply. Proust succumbs to telling as soporific only on occasion.

But a Disclaimer: If I’ve read Proust myself, it was … partly a matter of duty. As a grad student in literary studies, I thought it necessary to know this writer. And in fact I didn’t read all the novel in grad school, only the first two volumes, in French, then some of the rest in English translation. So in a way I was similar to the friend I warned above: I too had once fallen in the ditches. I’d only finish it a few years later, and am rereading it now, decades later, spurred on by René Girard's brilliant assessment in his early study Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. (Amusingly, during those grad school years, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there was a course offered by Prof. Elaine Marks in which students were to read the whole work in one semester. Which, honestly, is obscene. I knew how obscene it was, and didn’t take the course. As to how many students took it and “faked” it, not actually reading the whole, I’m not sure. 97%? 100%?)

Whether telling or showing, Proust is not entirely a novelist of human relations, a “psychological” novelist full of labored character analyses and dredging in the Self. The passages I complain of here don’t make for a sixth of the whole, if that. And the rewards of reading him outweigh these dull stretches any day. The work is stunning in its rhetorical effects: Proust’s metaphors, often extended over pages, are among the most subtle in literature. The work is also rich in penetrating passages on music, landscape, painting, architecture—the range of aesthetic phenomena. Marcel is, as always, the medium of perception, Proust tracing the troubled encounters with art of one coming of age in a society for which art mattered greatly. Marcel’s long struggle with literature especially, culminating in the final volume, effects a signal shift in the history of the novel, in our idea of literary writing per se.

The work is, besides, often very funny. From the indomidable dignity of the family servant Françoise to the grave hysterias of the Baron de Charlus, Proust’s humor catches all classes and types, yet manages to remain sympathetic to those he satirizes. Such sympathy is perhaps necessary in this narrator, who records his own manias and follies in detail, yet it is another mark of the work’s greatness. Proust is something one would think impossible: a high aesthete who is also a wisdom writer. (Girard, by the way, reveals much about Proust's wisdom, relating it to the extremity of his follies.)

In Search of Lost Time immerses us in the Belle Epoque world of the writer’s youth, a world that already in the writing is recognized as lost. To read it, for us, is also to travel back more than a century, to engage the struggles and subtleties of a culture now distant and growing more distant with each decade. I’d say that Proust’s world is foreign, but not entirely so. To read him is to recognize things both familiar and intimate, things being lost even as we read, lost both in our own lives and in the swiftly changing culture we’re subject to. To read him, above all, is to attain to a deeper grasp of the power of time and how it shapes and warps us.

Finally—need it be said?—reading Proust is unlike reading anything else. In this, he’s similar to other great writers, Kafka for instance, writers who create a world one enters, rather than write a novel set in this or that milieu, but one which, if one reads random pages, might be mistaken for a different writer’s work. There are great writers of the latter sort, but the greatest writers are the former.

Should you take up the challenge then? I’ve tried to offer some aspects of what it entails. If you’re going to read Proust in English, I recommend you stick with the C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, originally titled Remembrance of Things Past. Certain precisions are gained in the later translations (titled In Search of Lost Time) but Scott Moncrieff’s work is a masterpiece in its own right, he was a contemporary of Proust’s, and his prose captures the era in an English style closer to that era.

I should acknowledge that Proust does have his detractors among other major writers. Though Conrad, Woolf, Faulkner and Nabokov saw an absolute value in him, Joyce, Borges, Evelyn Waugh, a few others, left mostly negative assessments. Some of these No votes, however, come down to incidental carping, even individual pique. Those who voted Yes offer more in the way of actual argument. Conrad for instance: “What compels my admiration for M. Proust’s work is that it is great art based on analysis … I don’t think there is in all creative literature an example of the power of analysis such as this.”

Proust’s novel, at 3,000-plus pages, demands time. And will test your patience. But after the passing of many decades, Conrad’s judgment still holds true.

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