Time and Timelessness: Reading Proust from Start to Finish, #1

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After staring down Anna Karenina last year I crested a daunting hill and looked down into the valley on the far side. The summit was the overbearing weight and patience needed to tackle the long novel. The valley below was the relief I felt that not only is reading a 700-800-plus page novel not difficult (considering the reader agrees with the author’s subject, pace, style, etc.) it is relaxing, in its own certain way, and it soon becomes familiar – spend so many nights with the same few people and they soon become like family – and therefore a joy to read rather than a burden.

Having made the summit it disappeared and I was left on a flat plain, where the 800-page, multi-volume novel was as accessible as the 80-page novella, and each had its share of worthy merits. I made it my mission to tackle another long-form novel this winter. Keep with Tolstoy and move on to War and Peace? (By the way, if you plan on reading either this or Karenina, go with the recent Pevear/Volokhonsky versions – they’re excellent). Move to the Americas and Moby-Dick? But in the back of my mind there was only one possibility, which was to go for the mother of them all, À la recherche du temps perdu, or, In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. The name “Proust” is enough to make even the most hardened literary souls quiver. For many his novel represents the highest and hardest task available to any avid reader, and more often than not, judging by anecdotes and reviews, most flounder and drown in Proust’s verbosity, usually finishing only the first volume, Swann’s Way.

Perhaps with good reason: In Search of Lost Time holds the Guinness World Record for Longest Novel with 1.5 million words. Though now, with the internet being what it is – an equalizer of things and a destroyer of all sorts of records – Proust’s distinction is now no longer true, not technically. For example, Artamène, or Cyrus the Great, by Madeline and Georges de Scudery, is 2.1 million words (what’s with these French guys?), but is only available online, in French. The internets reveal all sorts of other astoundingly long novels:

  • The Story of the Vivian Girls, by Harvey Darger, 9 million words
  • The Blah Story, by Nigel Tomm, 11.3 million words
  • Marienbad My Love, by Mark Leach, 17 million words (!?)

These books’ extraordinary lengths hold a few caveats, however. Vivian Girls exists (as far as I know) in handwritten manuscript form only, and The Blah Story just seems to clever and artsy to actually be readable (most of the book’s 11.3 million words are actually one word: “blah.” As in: “In a blah she was blah blah blah down a blah between blah roses blah blah blah, her blah blah hair blah blah gently the blah blah trees, most blah blah blah, she thought, as blah blah he blah the nice blah blah she blah…” Seriously.). Marienbad is published online only, and is an extreme version of the cut-up style of writing, which leads one to wonder whether it is in fact a novel or some other kind of text (which is not to be dismissive of the work, in fact it sounds pretty cool). The title, by the way, of Marienbad includes a rather lengthy subtitle of 6,931 words. And this doesn’t even cover some of the immensely long Japanese and Korean books out there, or the multi-novel epics like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

So then, what we have in Proust is, ahem, the Longest Single Novel Written in the Latin Alphabet and Published in Book Form, and Doesn’t Use the Word “Blah” Millions of Times. There. See, now reading In Search of Lost Time doesn’t seem so bad anymore, does it? Proust is long, but not that long by comparison.

Getting back to the actual reading, the novel begins with the first volume Swann’s Way, which consists for the most part of the narrator’s recollections of his childhood in the fictional country town of Combray, France. The story begins with a dozen or so pages about the act of falling asleep, which is perhaps an ironic and funny way (looked at with postmodern eyes) to start a lengthy tome, but is in fact key to Proust’s thematic development of the formation and use of memory, time, and epiphany. This book was written just after the turn of the century, from 1913-1922, a time when psychoanalysis was just beginning, Europe experienced a major and scarring war, and the physicists began dismantling and recreating the ideas of time and the universe as we knew them. This is the bewildering world into which Modernism was born, and many consider In Search of Lost Time to be the greatest of all Modernist novels.

After Swann’s Way the book continues on for another six volumes, charting a course through the narrator’s life and loves as he navigates the daunting paths of aristocratic France and his own mind. Over a series of posts I hope to cover my impressions on the novel itself as I’m reading it, its joys and difficulties, and talk some about Proust and critical aspects of the novel as I learn more about both, all while keeping it light and inviting and without getting too literary criticism-y.

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