Monday, January 9, 2012

Party Time Proust, or Parting Glances

I've been snacking on the imperishable carcass of this beached whale, off and on, for many years. I had read the first two volumes and wondering whether it was worth the effort skipped ahead and read the last three-hundred pages … and decided it was!

All Proust, like Gaul, is divided into three parts: narration, impressions, and commentary. The commentary—echoing Flaubert on Tolstoy one might say he psychologizes—too often seems trivial, false, or incomprehensible. The impressionistic passages (I tell myself) are good for my soul. Much of the narration are parties. There are nine of them. Most of what we read was the sixth, the grand Guermantes soirée. These are for me the best part, certainly the most fun. Someone at our meeting said nothing ever happens in Proust. But something's always happening in the parties, usually somebody behaving badly. Nothing would be happening in a party if Proust sat off by himself describing his feelings of … (whatever … ) boredom—and analyzing them.

I had thought I would never read all of Recherche. I was bored with Swann's jealousy. How would I put up with two volumes of Marcello Gelosiato!? Our reading, however, has suggested to me that I may. People often talk about the best time for reading Proust being a long summer on a slow steamer to nowhere. Alternatively, nibble away, a few pages a day, somewhat à la Swann, in this long-running Gaulois. Even skip selectively through—or to—the jealousy passages, leaving the infill for later.

Our discussion, covering less than a tenth of the whole, could never be complete, could only be radically incomplete because there's so much to consider from the whole that cannot be seen in the parts until one has read (or at least read about) them all. Even if you've no wish to read Proust further, I recommend looking at Roger Shattuck's "field guide" Proust's Way. Reading about Proust for some people may be more rewarding than actually reading him!

And finally my awe of those early readers. A wit once remarked that Proust whether or not a great writer requires great readers. I wouldn't qualify as one, with my guides and synopses and indices and what not, but those first readers, venturing out onto that sea of ink, having no idea where they'd end up—whether they'd end up—simply enjoying the billow of the sail, the creak of the boards, the smell of the salt … it's humbling.

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