“After I finished “In Search of Lost Time,” I called the real literary types that I happen to know — the ones who make their livings by being famously well-read — and I asked them if they had read the whole thing, too. “
says scribbler Jane Smiley in Salon, celarly identifying her project as not as literary criticism but social one-upsmanship.
“Mostly this was to introduce the idea that I had read the whole thing — but I thought it was a good idea to first show deference to their superior reading programs before happening to mention this accomplishment with which I had impressed myself. Mais non! as they say in France. Yet all of them knew someone who had read all seven volumes; that person was Richard Howard, who introduces the Modern Library edition of the novel. I wondered: Could he be the only one other than me and Alain de Botton, who wrote “How Proust Can Change Your Life”? If so, I am here to tell you, we are a lucky group, and it is time for you to begin, because reading all of Proust is not hard.”
Well of course it’s not hard. Begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end, then stop, as Charles Dodgson was wont to say. But you won’t get much in the way of guidance out of a book as resolutely silly as How Proust Can Change Your Underwear.
Phyllis Rose’s The Year of Reading Proust is a shade better, but one would do well to skip it and dive right into A la recherche du temps perdu itself. Afterwards Ed White’s charming brief biography is a good palate-cleanser before one turns to George D. Painter’s more traditional bio, or Jean-Yves Tadie’s less traditional one. But the fact of the matter is there are no short-cuts to great literature, Smiley’s fantasies notwithstanding.
“First, you buy all seven volumes in a uniform edition — mine came in a six-book set — and you arrange them in a row next to your bed, the bathtub or your favorite chair, wherever you are most comfortable reading. For a few days, let’s say no longer than a week, you glance at them from time to time and pick them up and look at the covers. You can even flip the pages — but don’t read anything. You are familiarizing yourself with this new acquaintance. You are coming to recognize his appeal. You are letting him impose upon you, because for the next 70 days or so, you are going to organize your free time around him.”
Hey look — it’s Proust as Pet Rock !
“You are going to find that he is both more friendly and more alien than you ever imagined. You are going to be charmed and also offended, sometimes disapproving, and occasionally bored. Quite often you are going to be impressed — his capacity for thinking things through is going to seem almost infinitely great. Mostly, though, if you are like I was, you are going to come to anticipate your daily what? — Dose? Encounter? Immersion? Meditation? — with greater and greater eagerness but also greater and greater languor. You are going to come, at least in your own way, to feel French. When you have finished “In Search of Lost Time,” you will be convinced that you know something visceral about Frenchness, and that that knowledge is important.”
Actually a far easier way to know about Frenchness is to have an affair with Lambert Wilson and Julie Delpy
“Of course everyone knows that “In Search of Lost Time” begins with a madeleine dipped in tea, except that it doesn’t. It begins with falling asleep while reading a book. Someone, “I,” a voice who occasionally calls himself “M.,” closes his eyes and wakes up a half-hour later, thinking that his book is still in his hands, and by a process of association, begins to think about all sorts of things: the time, an imagined traveler, the comfort of his bed. He sleeps again and is reminded of earlier nights and long ago dreams. The first event he relates is one that happens to have been singular in what seems to be a lonely childhood; unable to sleep and longing for his mother, he is discovered on the stairs by his parents as they go up to bed after a late evening of socializing with their neighbor, Swann. M. expects to be disciplined (“Too late: my father was upon us. Instinctively I murmured, though no one heard me, ‘I’m done for!’”), but he is not. The normally strict father is sympathetic and merciful, and suggests that M.’s beloved mother spend the night with the child.”
Proust “begins” where he ends. For it was at a party he attended after the War, recounted in the book’s last volume, that he had the idea in the first place. It was a real “What’s wrong with this picture?”moment as he was among friends he’d known for years yet somehow everything had subtly and not so subtly changed. Why was everything different? How did it come to be so, he asked himself? And thus Proust began to make his way through his past, starting with a childhood recollection of desiring a goodnight kiss from his mother and working its way through to his very last breath. Consequently Raul Ruiz was wise to contruct his Proust movie out of the last volume. Volker Schondorff’s Un Amour de Swann is far less successful, despite the best efforts of Ornella Muti and Alain Delon. Percy Adalon’s Celeste , however, shows precisely how Proust wrote the book, in great style. Needless to say, style is something Smiley does not understand. Likewise while she can prattle on about all those swell parties Marcel attended–
In Paris, there is society — which M. investigates at length in Vol. 3, when he becomes something of a protégé to a very wealthy and aristocratic neighbor, Madame de Guermantes. By this time, M. is in his early 20s. At first he is fascinated with everything that Madame de Guermantes stands for in French society and French history. Her family is older and more aristocratic than that of the king, or, indeed, of any king. Kings and queens litter her get-togethers and she does them the favor of being kind to them, even though she prefers the company of M. She laughs at her own lineage and prides herself on being modern and ordinary, but M. does not let you forget the lands and the architecture that Madame de Guermantes is the human embodiment of. You feel a bit privileged to be at her parties, in fact.
Yet she has nothing to say about the Dreyfus trial — the most important political event in the novel. In fact accounts of how the Dreyfus trial affected French society are almost entirely dependent upon Proust.
But why should Salon give a shit about that?
“And then there is love, which M. explores by imprisoning his beloved Albertine (who is based not on a girl but on a man Proust loved named Agostinelli) in his house in Paris (Vol. 5) and keeping her until she manages to escape and run away (Vol. 6). It is clear from the beginning that M. is ambivalent about Albertine. When he meets her, she is part of a larger group of girls who are breezy, active and liberated. They play tennis and ride bicycles, perhaps have lovers, and perhaps are each other’s lovers (M. can never decide). He chooses Albertine out of the group almost by chance, but once he has chosen her, he becomes obsessed with her, while also doubting whether he can marry her, or, indeed, marry at all. He lures her to his Paris maison while his mother is away in the country and keeps her there, partly by promising her marriage and partly by giving her gifts. Whenever she acts trustworthy and affectionate, he is put off and grows bored. Only when she arouses his jealousy does he actually experience love (remember, this is a book about a very young man). During this section, you might want to take a break. I did, of about a week. I read “R Is for Ricochet,” by Sue Grafton.”
Actually you might want to take a break and read Proust & Signs by Gilles Deleuze
There is, of course, no one-to-one equivalence between Albert and “Albertine.” The character that Proust invented was inspired less by his chauffeur than the women in his circle. For next to Baudelaire, Proust was literature’s most important Lesbian-Hag. But this is far about Smiley’s featherhead, I know.
“M. also explores ideas of love by spying upon the homosexual encounters of many of his male friends and discovering what he soon realizes is a broad and deep underground of ruling-class homosexual connections partially concealed by wealth, marriage, costume, parties and politics. If “In Search of Lost Time” is undeniably about everything that passes through the consciousness of M., one of those things is sex — what he feels about it, how he gets it, who else seems to be getting it, what it means to individuals and to social networks, whether it is worth it, what is more interesting and less interesting, and what it makes people do that they otherwise might not do.”
And that’s precisely why Ruiz was so wise to cast Proust physically quite other than he did vocally.
But what does Smiley know of same-sex passion?
About as much as Joan Walsh (ie. nothing)
“He seems to agree with the opinion that the Marquis de Sade expresses in the 18th century novel “Justine,” that woman are for making economic, social and familial liasons; what men really want is to be buggered, or whipped, by the lower orders.
But, as I say, M. is a narrator of great charm. By the time you get to his “homosexual agenda,” many days into your reading of the novel, it will not seem that he is trying to persuade you of anything, only that he is reporting what he sees and thinks and that his greatest desire is to report faithfully and truthfully. As with all novels, you may take it or leave it. Only those who take other people’s private sexual choices as personally threatening (and he portrays those types of boors from time to time, the blind, narcissistic and truly self-centered who don’t have the capacity to hear or appreciate the nuances of the “strange and individual tone of voice” that is the pleasure and fascination of great literature) might want to quit reading at this point. “
Those who speak of same-sexuality as “private” wish only to rebuild the cordon sanitaire that the gay liberation movement destroyed. Such boors are indeed blind, narcissistic and truly self-centered.
Consequently one should quit reading them entirely. Not just “at this point.”