I’m not sure when I made the decision to tackle Proust, but, I resolved many years ago that if I did nothing else with my life, I would at least attempt to be well-read. Whilst I’ve met lovers and loathers of Dickens by the bus-load, whenever I’ve heard mention of Proust, it’s been hushed tones thick with wariness and fear, like you’ve just asked directions to a village untouched since the Black Plague.
So, a few years back I thought I’d test my reading metal and dip an intrepid toe into ‘The Way by Swann’s’, volume one of ‘In Search of Lost Time’. I’ll confess, I trudged earnestly onwards with grim determination, totting up my page count with very little idea of what was going on, but determined to reach the end at all costs. I didn’t manage it, quitting just beyond the halfway mark. I found the writing so dry and the whole experience was the very essence of encrusted dullness.
Looking back, I’m not at all surprised, because what I’ve since discovered is that, very much like poetry, you can’t read Proust at speed. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t. He’s best savoured slowly, with every phrase lovingly tasted and left to melt in your mouth. That’s how to discover the beauty, the richness, the genius of the man.
So, I’ve started again, but very slooooowly, and it has changed everything. Like watching the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in slow motion, Proust captures each moment in crystalline brilliance. His observations on what it is to be human are razor sharp and the language – Ah! the language is exquisite. I’d recommend reading him aloud so you can actually feel the beauty of the words as they roll off your tongue and hang in the air like bubbles waiting to burst.
But, be warned! You may need to hang on in there for the first 50 pages. Those are hard. They just are. There’s a lot of whingeing to get through – it’s hard to warm to a whining child at the best of times, especially if, having finally got your own chimps to sleep, you pick up your book and have to read at length about the bedtime torments of young Marcel. My advice is to stick with it. Resist the urge to check on your own sleeping tots and keep those pages turning. You’ll be home and dry once you get to ‘the dunking of the madeleine’, I promise.