Proustian promises

Marcel Proust in 1900

Marcel Proust in 1900 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This year I’ve done what I hope is not a foolish thing: I have joined a Goodreads group called “The Year of Reading Proust.” There are some 800 of us led by a well-organized and devoted Proustian who online goes by the wonderful sobriquet Proustitute. The group formed late last year and, once the best English and French editions were identified and a year-long schedule devised, we began with ancillary readings to enhance the understanding of In Search of Lost Time: lectures by John Ruskin on architecture and art, books about the paintings and music in Proust, biographies of Proust, other books by Proust.

But now we are reading the masterpiece itself. I’ve read Swann’s Way before, back in the day when the entire work was mistranslated into English as Remembrance of Things Past, a title Proust apparently disliked. Tomorrow we must be through the first section, which is some 64 pages describing the narrator’s childhood memory of going to bed.

There is a hypnotic, almost dreamlike specificity to Proust’s writing. Long, entwining sentences full of refined sensations and thoughts. Re-reading Swann’s Way, which culminates in Swann’s crushing realizations about obsession and love, teases me with my own notions of time and memory (a bright fall day in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sitting in an armchair in the living room of my parents’ house, the musty scent from the yellowed paper of an old edition tickling my nose), notions that only reinforce the essence of Proust’s theme. Reading him again is like dipping a madeleine in tea.

But, seven volumes, over 4000 pages, a full year of devotion! It’s quite the New Year’s resolution. When will I eat, when will I blog, when will I write? Can I go a year, or whatever it takes to finish, so single-mindedly devoted? Is the journey worth it?

Doubts already creep in, and it’s only January. Proust’s last volume is titled Time Regained, but that only happens in fiction, right?

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Proustian promises

  1. What a wonderful project! I read Proust over a period of a couple of years if memory serves me right (no pun intended) but however one reads his work, it’s such a delight to read. I often find myself rereading passages as it’s my mother’s favorite book and she is constantly referring back to it.

    As you speak Spanish, perhaps you can glance at the original French from time to time to get a feel for the original style.

    Anyway, enjoy your reading!

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Letizia. I think I need all of it I can get.
      Yes, I wish I had taken more than two years of high-school French. What is fun is to go back to my old copy to see the sections I highlighted. That, too, is a trip through time!

  2. If it is not anathema to you and if you drive at least 3 hours per week, a recorded book version will help you keep moving forward with your reading. I admire your reference to Proust’s specificity and look forward to your pointing out some examples of his word choice (even in translation) along your way through the text.

    • That’s a great idea. I can imagine a long cross-country road trip with Proust as my companion. I was just reading his description of the church in Combray, and the detail he provides of the stained glass windows and tapestries, the attention he gives to the church’s architectural details are perfect examples of the flowing specificity I mentioned.

  3. Goodreads has some really good reading and discussion groups. You have taken on an admirable task. I agree with postmoderndonkey that audio can be a lighter medium. Audible is a good place to start with but I know you miss things in audio format which can be much richer in print. I look foward to your future posts on Proust. He was a serious-looking fellow, don’t you think?

    • Yes, the idea of listening to him is intriguing, since his prose really is like a river. And I agree with you, he was intense looking. There is something unusual about the eyes and slightly drooping eyelids.

  4. Tom,

    Which edition/translation are you using? I’m not sure I can join this year but I’d be interested in doing so next year. And I’d love to know which version to focus on!

    • Hi Samir. There was a big discussion about that and not a simple answer. Penguin recently asked six translators (each taking a separate volume) to do a new updated version based on the definitive French edition, but the results were not very satisfactory in the opinions of many. The one exception was the translation of Swann’s Way by Lydia Davis which gets rave reviews. For the rest, the group moderator recommended sticking to the Modern Library’s version which is the old Moncrieff translation updated by two subsequent translators who worked from the definitive French edition. I decided to go with that version for the entire book.

  5. Hi Tom
    Just to say bonne chance and to agree with postmoderndonkey (what a wonderful name, especially prefixed by a ms or mr (or even dr). When I was ill a few years ago and couldn’t read I listened to the thirty-eight CD recording: it is abridged, unfortunately, but very skilfully abridged. However that didn’t stop me from dropping off to sleep every five minutes. My favourite character is Baron de Charlus, a wonderful invention.
    And in answer to your question, it was 25 degrees here earlier this week (am in north-eastern Spain), but temperature dropped yesterday. Back to wales tomorrow, where it is cold and wet and nasty.

  6. I’m half French and there was much pressure to be able to say one had read “A la recherche du temps perdu” when I was growing up. One teacher advised us to read the last volume (“Le temps retrouvé”) first and then continue with the first volume and so on, sequentially. So I read the last volume and bits of the first and then must have fallen in love and lost interest in Swann’s drama.
    Reading this post made me want to have another shot, before too long. It’s not a book for the young, really. I think I will start from the beginning this time.

  7. I have read “Swan Road”, “in the shadow of young girls in flower” and “Sodom and Gomorrah” … But I think the literary power is reduced. It is increasingly difficult to continue. I ended with the volume 5 “the prisoner” yet I could not read totally…
    .That’s my point 😉

    Cheers and Congratulations for the blog… Very good stuff, Tom !,

    Aquileana 😉

    • Gracias, Aquileana. I have already fallen behind my group. I think Proust will be a two year project. I’m looking forward to following your blog. It looks very interesting, y será muy buena práctica para mi.

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