Sunday, June 06, 2010

Truly a Proustian Effort

OK, so I have this book. Well, three books actually. The three "definitive" volumes of Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. En Anglais, The Remembrance of Things Past, or more correctly, In Search of Lost Time.

(An inadvertent typo just gave me an idea for a spy series along the lines of Ian Fleming or Graham Greene -- Remembrance of Things Psst!)

(Or a documentary about how the good old Gliberal government of good old Ontariario is once again screwing its loyal but phlegmatic citizens -- Remembrance of Things PST (ie. provincial sales tax).) (That could be a whole other post.)

To get back to the epic at hand -- Proust. This book. This tome. These tomes.

Volume One, which includes Swann's Way and In a Budding Grove, comprised just over one thousand pages. The remaining volumes are about the same length. For some reason, when I began reading this, I wrote a note on a piece of paper that I had started reading it in June, 1991. I finished it today. Exactly nineteen years. I may not live long enough to finish Volumes Two and Three.

Of course, I didn't spend nineteen years continuously, nor even continually. In fact, I began Vol. 1 more than once. The last time was January, 2004. I began it then and left it for some time and then started again where I had left off probably some time last year. Or maybe I actually started again from the beginning. But this time I was determined to finish it and I did.

Proust, like Joyce's Ulysses, is notoriously difficult to read. Like Faulkner, Proust tends to write extremely long sentences. Therefore, very few paragraph breaks. Lots of pages of solid print. Convoluted thought processes. Not much actual dialogue.

You may ask me what the book is about. I haven't the faintest idea any more. Except that it seems to be Proust's attempt to put on paper every convoluted thought process a man might engage in throughout the course of his life, in the finest detail possible, including all conditions, conclusions, concussions, confabulations, contradictions, concessions, and conniptions.

No detail escapes Proust's verbose perusal. Sort of. For a man who wants to tell every little thing that goes through his head while he's trying to figure out how to get a girl to kiss him, he neglects in the most irritating way to inform you how old the central character is at any given time, or the girl, or anybody else. They are either older...or younger. His grandmother, for example, is older.

Here's an example of what I mean. I remember the last part of the book best -- for reasons which should be obvious. The character (Proust himself, let's say) is plotting a romance with a young girl named Albertine. Or perhaps it's Andrée, a different young girl, but a friend of Albertine's. It all depends on how things work out. Or whether they work out. Now, one of the male friends/acquaintances of Albertine and Andrée smokes cigars. So that puts him at an approximate age. But the girls themselves seem to act like precocious schoolgirls, and Proust's description of the campaign to win Albertine's lips sounds remarkably juvenile or adolescent. I mean, it just drips with teenage angst.

The problem is that this character has already had one love affair, which was his first, with a girl named Gilberte. OK, first loves could come at twelve or thirteen, no? So is this guy like fifteen? Or eighteen?

And just to make it more complicated, in the early book, Proust spends much time with M. Swann in love. Now, M. Swann is no teenager, but a grown man well known in French society circles. Except that his convoluted thought processes are not much more mature than those of our lovesick protagonist.

Anway, the last part of Vol. 1 was a bit of an easier read because it seemed to move along more quickly in its obsessive way, but I think I'll be having a bit of a rest before I tackle Vol. 2.

Really, when you think about it, writing this novel killed Proust. Best not to have it kill its readers too.

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anagasto said...

That is really sad. You are worse off than I. I am addicted to Proust. I read him whenever I wonder what next to read. I know large parts of his work so well that wherever I open any (except the last)of the volumes, I know exactly what comes next and can even quote a line or two: the lies of Odette; the stratagems of FranÇoise; Swann's delusions; Charlus; aunt Léonie.

Maybe you should try to read only "Swann in Love" which is part of the first volume and is sort of a trial run of the whole thing.

Larry Keiler said...

Cantueso, you clearly have more stamina than I. I agree that more than one reading is required to really appreciate the novel. But at this point I don't have the courage to start Vol. 1 again, let alone the others. It will have to wait for a while.

One thing that I meant to mention in the post, but forgot, was that there are some very perceptive observations and some sparkling prose scattered throughout. Proust makes some vivid descriptions and comparisons. I even laughed a few times at his cleverness. However, the mass of the work overwhelmed my ability to single them out consistently.

Larry Keiler said...

FYI, buyer beware, comment above is actually an ad for an essay writing service.

Some people's kids....sheesh. I leave this one up because somebody actually used a name rather than good old "Anonymous" but I must say I'm getting annoyed with people (jerks) advertising surreptitiously on my blog. Thank the lord for Google's improved spam filter.

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