Proust. It’s a short name with a lot of baggage.
I was almost embarrassed to tell people that’s what I was reading when they asked. It felt so grand, like such an obvious “profound book” to choose. A little on the nose for the Book Dr.
But what I have discovered is that so many people fall into Proust and read his crazy long book because it’s amazing.
“It is seldom that a joy is promptly paired with the desire that longed for it.”
-Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
I read Swann’s Way several years ago. I had picked up Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño and determined quickly that it was not a cold-weather book. It was January and I decided that January is when one should read Proust.
This year, I decided to continue with the second book in the beautiful Penguin deluxe editions of the series since I loved Lydia Davis’ translation of the first volume so much. I had let a few years lapse between the books because a number of people had warned me off the second volume.
“It’s really boring,” they said. “I think you can skip that one.” I decided to go for it anyway, and I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did.
What I should admit at this point is that I am incredibly influenced by people’s comments on books and films in the worst possible way. If too many people compliment a film, I am invariably disappointed. Same with books. If someone tells me that they’ve just read the greatest thing ever written, there is no way I will feel the same way. “It’s really good” is about the level of guidance I can tolerate.
The other side of this is that when people pan a book, I am much more likely to love it. I should have known this several years ago, but perhaps I just read this at exactly the right time. Having just finished a year of short books due to my daunting 100 book Goodreads challenge, I was ready for a meaty one.
What you should know going in is that this is going to challenge you if you like to read short chaptered books so there is a continuous sense of progress. This book has over 500 pages and only two chapters, the second one about 60% of the length of the book. Many pages don’t have paragraph breaks. I often finished reading at the breaks so I wouldn’t lose my place too badly.
And this is not a book that is heavy on plot. It’s more the meanderings of the inside of a mind that is beginning to figure out what relationships are about and how he relates to women. It jumps back and forth between whiny and self-indulgent and incredibly poetic and profound.
As I was reading, I realized how much Karl Ove Knausgaard must have been influenced by Proust in writing his own autobiographical opus (according to the article linked above he devoured it in the 90s). His themes of his life have- so far- paralleled the Proust volumes. I plan to read volume two of Knausgaard’s in the next month or two so I have the Proust fresh in my mind to compare. This awareness has made me love each author’s books more since reading them all can be a conversation that I get to follow. Sadly, Proust can’t write back, but the conversation is worth hearing all the same.
When should one read this book? During a breakup, this will either feel incredibly helpful or excruciating. If you like to commiserate, then I would say this is for you. If you don’t want to thank about love at all at those moments, then wait a while before trying it. Maybe years.
Read this book when you have time to sit down and drink it up in long sessions.
Read it at the seaside when you can enjoy his vivid descriptions of a summer at an ocean resort in southern France. Read it in January, or over the winter holidays wherever you live, and connect with the winter scenes in the first section. Read it when you want to wander around in someone else’s mind for a while. Read it when you are tired of plot-heavy blockbusters and too little character exploration.
Have you read Proust? What did you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or join the conversation on Facebook.