Thursday, November 6, 2008

Reading, Proust (Again)

A few nights ago I finished re-reading Marcel Proust's lengthy novel In Search of Lost Time. I am a rather obsessive person and that comes in handy when it comes to Proust.

The novel, depending on which translation you read, is well over 4,000 pages long (the edition I just finished was over 4,500 pages). There is a joke about the work that describes it as thousands of pages in which virtually nothing happens. True enough, it can be a tedious read at times. There is one section, for example, that runs on for roughly 250 pages detailing the happenings at a single afternoon party among aristocrats in late 19th century French society. It is actually quite funny, but you can understand why some readers find it so laborious.

In fact, most people who attempt to read Proust the first time fail miserably to make it through more than the first few pages. His sentences seem perpetual. His thought process is winding and twisting and seems to go nowhere at all - or, perhaps more accurately, in far too many directions at once. The first 50 pages or so is about a man trying to fall asleep...a reader's challenge to say the least in these fast-paced, postmodern times of hyperactivity and attention deficits.

I myself tried twice before in recent years to get into the novel only to crash and burn both times. But, in the summer of 2007 something clicked and I finally made it well into the first section of the novel (called "
Swann's Way") while vacationing in Destin, Florida.

There were some things working in my favor besides just being an obsessive person. I have always been a lover of classic literature. My favorite classic novel was
Moby Dick before I managed to successfully tackle Proust. Other great books include the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Pynchon, and Kundera.

When I was 16 I was introduced to the wonders of
J.R.R. Tolkien's writings. I will perhaps cover that in other postings. Suffice it to say that I have read The Lord of the Rings 8 times. It was clearly one of the most important works of fiction during the first half of my life. I have read everything I could find on Tolkien. His letters, other works, obscure poems, biographies on him, and scholarly analyses of his work.

Another thing that helped me in particular with Proust was that he writes about life as I have experienced it. Not literally, for his novel takes place mostly prior to World War One. But, his attention to detail, his connecting of past experiences with the present moment, his grasp of the necessary aspects of sensual experience in everyday life, his tendency toward a philosophical outlook seasoned with a healthy dose of humor, his sense of history and of the importance of art are all very much a part of who I am as an individual.

At 49, I can say In Search of Lost Time is likely the novel for the second half of my life.

My first reading was rather rushed. In the summer of 2007 I pushed on through the novel, often reading far into the early morning hours, managing to complete the vast sprawling thing in about 60 days. After that (just as I did with Tolkien before) I read a couple of excellent biographies, some guides to the work, Proust's short stories, everything I could put my hands on.

In mid-January of this year I started the whole thing from the beginning again. Only this time I read more slowly, took breaks now and then, read other books in between my Proustian sessions. I completed the work in about 10 months as opposed to 60 days.

What a joy this novel is to read! The second reading was far more entertaining and rewarding than the first. Others who have managed to make it through the labyrinth indicate that the novel gets better the more often it is read. Certainly that is my experience so far. I hope to share some of it in future postings.

The problem now is that I'm in a sort of Proustian void. I'm restless with my reading. Nothing particularly catches my eye. Right now, I am pondering re-reading some Nietzsche...another interest of mine that I'll post another time.


People think me strange since I don't have cable or satellite television. This year I prepared for the next generation of "free" TV by buying a digital antenna (without a rotary). I have never paid for television and I never will. There's simply nothing on TV that I care to watch that much. I follow a couple of shows on the major networks and try to follow the Atlanta Braves games, but that's about all.

Otherwise, when someone looks at me funny for not having cable TV (a rather ludicrous gaze from my perspective since *they* are the ones paying all that money to watch a bunch of commercialized shit) I merely reply "I read."

I read. OK?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the opportunity to read your posts. Much as predicting the stock market, I don't think you can predict the second half of your life, and while I've never read Proust (and don't plan to), I hope you find work that transcends him in every way.
Stuffey