I’m done. I’m sick of Proust. Sick of his rambling go-nowhere prose. All that BS I laid on before? Total crap. My metaphor of exploration was based on the idea that my exploring would be rewarded with some shiny treasure; instead, it just goes on and on and hardly says a thing. I swear I read all of Swann’s Way and it’s all been meaningless. The prose, yes, is beautiful and a joy to read; his way with language cannot be understated enough. The guy knows his way around an epiphanic moment too. But at some point in the middle of saying things, you have to Say Something. The dense, thick language which takes so long to navigate (one paragraph I read was six pages long) must be made worthwhile. And for me it hasn’t been. I’m just bored. Simply bored. Somehow I keep finding book after book to read instead of Proust. There’s a reason that keeps happening. In my mind I keep comparing the book to Tolstoy, whose novels are also very, very long, but who has perfected the trade-off between lengthy ambiance/exposition and plot/character development. Perhaps at another point later in my life I will have the time and patience to enjoy finishing this novel. But for now, it’s just stupid to waste my time reading and reading and reading a novel that I can’t enjoy, when there is so much out there to read that is enjoyable for me. It was a noble pursuit but I admit defeat…for now. You win, Mr. Proust. Zut alors!
I’m still working my way, slowly but surely, through volume one of In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way. As expected the book’s plot (I’m assuming there will be something of a plot sometime soon) develops at a glacial pace, however Proust has announced his themes of time, memory, dream, and epiphany clearly and quickly. Without the forward momentum of a plot it is hard to read at anything but a leisurely pace, which is fine by me. The book is also so dense as to be nearly impassible from one micro-plot to the next; it’s as if you were dropped at a river delta and told to walk your way to the source, somewhere high up in the jungle-covered mountains, and you don’t have a map. You are simply told to follow the river to its end. You walk, and walk, following the river, but every so often you come to a fork, and then you must explore each fork, for you don’t know which will bring you to the source. But up each fork is another fork, and so on and so on, until by the time you’ve explored each little creek and made your way back to the main body of the river, you’ve forgotten what the hell you were ever doing in the first place. Most will say, oh, the hell with this and walk back down to the delta and tell the guy who set them off on this journey to go flour his nuts. But you, and by you I mean me, are an intrepid explorer and like Stanley, or Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, you become desperate to discover the mysteries that await you at the end of the river, even if it’s Colonel Kurtz’ creepy bald head (probably not what is waiting for me in Proust, but who knows?!). You are also assuming, maybe naively, that there are mysteries waiting for you at all.
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.
Proust is the literary world’s great intimidator…known for his massive 7-volume Remembrance of Time Past and little else, it may come as a surprise, as it did to me, that Proust also wrote poetry, sketches, and short stories. As you think about it more, it makes sense that he would – nobody writes a 3,000+ page book and nothing else. So for those intimidated by our Marcel (I include myself), you can get to know him better in a little book, which I picked up yesterday, called Pleasures and Days, which is filled with beautiful short works, the scattered thoughts of a French summertime. This poem is from a series about painters, writers, and musicians.
The dusk applies make-up to trees and faces
In its blue coat, beneath its dubious mask;
A scatter of kisses falls on weary lips…
The vague grows fond now, and the near grows far.
The masquerade is sad and distant too,
Love’s movements now seem forced, with their sad charm.
A poet’s whim – or lover’s wise precaution,
Since love must be adorned with expert skill –
Behold: a ship, a picnic, silence, song.