Today—a special day, 14 October 2016—I finally finished the 3700 pages of Marcel Proust’s of In Search of Lost Time. Ironically as this is the great book about time and memory, I can’t remember exactly when I started, but I do remember, probably falsely, starting in a garden in France. Lin was there, so it was after 1973; and Louis, who spent years emulating Proust and constantly revising the first sentence of his novel, was there. He never wrote the second sentence, nor did he finalise the first. And was he there? Or is that I have him filed in the same cabinet in my mind as Proust? Anyway it was before our children were born—because small children are not compatible with reading Proust, so I guess it was 1980. So it’s taken me 36 years to read Proust’s great novel. If I want to read it again, which I do, I’ll have to go much faster second time round.
I am, of course, a different person from when I started, and if and when I start again the experience will be different. Proust emphasises that we are multiple people—indeed, he argues, we should have no fear of death because our previous selves have died without discommoding us excessively. Proust would insist too that I’ve been reading myself for all those years: “In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.” And not many pages later: “I thought of those who would read it as “my” readers. For it seemed to me that they would not be “my” readers but the readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers— it would be my book, but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves.”
So the person I was in 1980 was reading about the person I was then, and I imagine that when I start reading again I will be not only reading the person I am now but will be reading in some way the person I was then. You can see how after reading Proust for days his way of thinking and his long sentences get right inside you, albeit it a bastardised and corrupted form.
Proust has a voice like no other and takes you to a world like no other. If I had been with him at those aristocratic parties in the Faubourg St Germain at the beginning of the 20th century I still would not have known his world. I can know it, as can he, only through his book. He writes about how through the labour of writing the book, always at night, he arrived at an understanding of the people and their psychologies that he could never achieve by simply talking to them. So the world we enter is an amalgam of ourselves, what Proust experienced, and, most of all, how he creates art from his experiences.
I read Proust most for his remarkable psychological insights and his style. What happens is mostly inconsequential, although sometimes very funny. We are all the time in Proust’s head, and you wonder how he could spin 3700 pages from his own impressions. Perhaps there is more repetition than I’ve been conscious of, reading the book over 36 years. There is an obsessiveness about the writing that can sometimes become exhausting.
I must confess to having to steel myself to start each volume—rather as to run a long race over a rough terrain. I knew that I’d have to concentrate hard, reread the 500 word sentences, and struggle to remember how A was related to B. This is not a book you can read on a tube. You need silence, time, and full consciousness. But the return is enormous.
instead of working I had lived a life of idleness, of pleasures and distractions, of ill health and cosseting and eccentricities, and I was embarking upon my labour of construction almost at the point of death, without knowing anything of my trade.