“To make [reading] into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.”
Quote from one of Proust’s books, In “How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain de Botton
“Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.”
In “How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain de Botton
I read Proust's masterpiece back in the 80s when I was attending the British Council. I still remember all too well one particular hilariously snippy Monty Python sketch (“the Summarize Proust Competition”). Back in the day, I too wanted to be able to rub elbows with the elite intellectuals who mocked Proust, so I picked up the first of three volumes (the weighty Moncrieff editions) and got started. The first few pages were tough going, but soon I became mesmerized, then I fell in love, and by the end of the summer I was tucking flowers into the plackets of my trousers and wearing bows in my shirts. Oh childhood! Swann's Way is the swiftest, plottiest volume in the monster, with “Un Amour de Swann” a little novel in itself, with a beginning, middle, end, and all that sort of thing. Originally drafted in a mere three volumes, the “Recherche” grew as Proust re-Proustified the later volumes while waiting for publication; many readers have wished that that long mini-book could be recovered. The pace picks up again in the last volume, which the author's death prevented him from reworking, so that a dinner party—one of the greatest scenes in all literature, by the way—takes only a few hundred pages to describe, what with the jolts of consciousness with which Proust bracketed it, while the first half of the volume is impossibly brilliant about the first World War without ever leaving Paris. It's best to have time for such idleness, best to be so besotted with the possibilities of literature that you love rather than loathe the lengthiness; which is to say that you need to encounter Proust at the right time of your life and possibly even the right place, so that Proust's times and places become yours. I’ve been avoiding re-reading Proust. More than 30 years later should I re-read him? My advice for those of you who haven’t read it yet. I hope that luck will be yours; without it, the task may prove impossible. If you find yourself fatally at a loss to know what and why you're reading his work, check out Samuel Beckett's slim monograph; for all its showy intellectuality—it's a youthful work—it's still the best compass for getting across that ocean. De Botton’s attempt is not the best way to go about it. I also recommend the Proust Screenplay by Harold Pinter, which accomplishes the amazing feat of boiling the whole thing down into a 90-minute screenplay without losing any of the flavour. When I felt lost at the beginning of my first reading of Pinter's work, revealed the whole structure to me and enabled me to carry on. Reading De Botton’s book, full of Proust’s excerpts, proves that I’m still finding reading Proust a strangely claustrophobic experience. I got the overwhelming impression of a man who observes, dissects and minutely describes life, but perhaps forgets to live it? As a reader, I feel the novel takes me over. There is no room for separate interpretation or thought. Proust leaves no margin for error. It's a bit like the difference between watching butterflies fluttering in a meadow and having them pinned and labelled, dead, on a board for inspection.
When someone asks me why I read so much, and why “I don’t think for myself”, I always like to refer them to this quote by Proust:
‘The mediocre usually imagine that to let ourselves be guided by the books we admire robs our faculty of judgment of part of its independence. “What can it matter to you what Ruskin feels: feel for yourself” […] There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has left. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with this.’