As of this morning, at 11:26 am, I’ve been reading Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu for eleven months. Not continuously, but off and on, in spurts and bursts depending on the day, the week, the month, the mood. You might be thinking: eleven months? What’s wrong with you? Sure, many readers comment on the length of this work. All three volumes total in excess of 3,000 pages, but we can’t compare this work to other traditional works of fiction because there’s nothing like it in all the Western Canon.
I first heard of Proust as a sophomore in conversation with one of my English professors John Halperin. During office hours one day, I asked him what he considered the greatest novel of all-time. Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied that the greatest novel of all-time was written by Proust. Proust? Who? What? We often refer to Marcel’s last name metonymically, that is, in place of his body of work, the way that we say The White House said this or that. I asked my professor about Proust, his work, and my professor gave me what one might call a “literary warning.” He said: “Don’t read Proust until you’re older than 30. It’ll mean more to you.”
Banning books, or forbidding them in any way, is no doubt the surest way to make them all the more tantalizing. I was only 21 when he told me this. I wondered what sort of terrible things might happen in the next nine years of my life, while I waited to read Proust. And sure enough, life happens the longer you live it, the gore and glory, and so it was this past January that I started it, past the goalposts of 30, and I’m glad that I waited.
In the past eleven months, I have read over six hundred pages of the first book. The famed translator Gregory Rabassa has said that Proust is the only author he still reads. The late Maurice Sendak, in an interview with The Believer, also spoke of Proust’s importance to him late in life. I’m currently reading the Moncrieff translation (the silver one, originally published by Vintage). Various English translations of this work have appeared over the years, among them: In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past. Rabassa has pointed out that Moncrieff is correct to have called the book “Remembrance of Things Past,” as Proust himself cites Shakespeare’s Sixteenth Sonnet, from which the title is taken, and to which, one might argue, the entire work pays homage.
So, in six hundred pages, what exactly happens? Well, it’s not about what happens, so much, as what you hear in the pages. Proust’s accomplishment is the approximation of prose to the pattern of human thinking, consciousness, Joyce and Woolf maximized, obliterated into perfection. Joyce chunkily captures a day in the life of a man in Dublin with ULYSSES; Woolf captures a day in the life of a woman in London with MRS. DALLOWAY; Proust captures the thoughts of a man’s entire life of a man in France. I believe the duration of consciousness here is a parallel achievement to Joyce and Woolf. The real technical accomplishment in this text, and what I’ve most enjoyed, is how Proust writes the mind’s perception and emotional reaction to music.
The great passages of Proust so far, take place when Swann hears the composer Vinteuil’s “little phrase,” a fugue he hears early in the text, and whose meaning eludes him, but which he hears again, and again, in differing circumstances, at times when he is desperately in love, elsewhere when he is heartbroken, eventually, as an old man. The text moves and twists with the sound of the music, and the emotion you feel while reading it is devastating. Proust himself describes this reaction to music in relation to a person’s reaction to great art: “Great works of art do not begin by giving us the best of themselves.” Great works of art aren’t always accessible; they require repetition, so that the mind might learn and strengthen its memory of the work.
Perhaps it’s preemptive to give this book such a blessing so early in the experience of reading it. Even if I stopped right now, and didn’t keep reading, I’m still a changed reader for having encountered this book. And so, in lieu of any kind of top ten list, or best of the year list, let’s just say: if you’re looking for one life-changing book this year, this is a good place to start. Take your time, and listen carefully.