In mid-May my book discussion group will meet to discuss Swann’s Way, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s 7-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. We’re not taking on the whole seven volumes, of course – if any of us want to do that, we’ll do it on our own. But this overdue introduction to Proust (how is it I never got around to reading his work before this?) can be enough for now. I’m not sure how well we’ll all do with this book – book club members take Proust on with uneven results (click here for one take on that.)
Happily, I’m loving the book – no real surprise there, since I ask little from the plot line of a book and a lot from the language. Proust, who writes long, complicated sentences (even Proust’s whole name – Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust – is Proustian!) can be challenging, but I like his digressive style, and I particularly like the way he plays with temporality and the idea that memories change the smell, sight, taste, texture and music of the present moment. I like to linger and float with a story – I need to move forward only so often. This ability to linger isn’t shared by everyone. An editor once said to Proust’s brother, “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense, but I just don’t understand why a man should take 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”
Swimming. Precisely. I like my head – my whole body – to swim in a piece of fiction, and I often shoot for that effect in my poetry. Sometimes submersion is a good thing, and my natural inclination as a reader and a writer is to get a little obsessive about (and totally soaked to the skin by) anything that captures my interest [see ** note below.] When I read, I read in a trance. And during my more lucid moments with Swann’s Way, I dog paddle by doing Proust-related research.
I hunt up Proust’s precise landscape on the Internet…
I find a picture of his bed at Aunt Leonie’s house…
I look up a recipe for the very famous madeleine (sugar, flour, eggs, butter, salt, rosewater…aha, there’s the Proust: rosewater!):..
“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake . . . a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it…. but ….as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me …. immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage…” (from Swann’s Way.)
I imagine myself learning French and reading Proust in the original. “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: ‘Je m’endors.’ ”
And while I’m at it (speaking French), wouldn’t it be nice to go to France and see the original manuscripts…?
I imagine the trip…I go to the Proust Museum. I drive around Normandy in a Peugeot. I read the remaining six volumes of In Search of Lost Time in a nice little cafe every morning for several months. I order tea and a madeleine every day. I write postcards home…
I buy an old farmhouse and restore it…
also, considering Proust’s lifestyle, I buy a townhouse in Paris…
and at night (no matter where I sleep) I take at least 30 pages to turn over in bed….
Viking/Penguin Classics came out with a new translation of the first volume, by the novelist Lydia Davis, about ten years ago, and now it’s true, I’m swimming in it. Maybe growing gills would be a good idea? It’s hard to come up and breathe the regular air when you’ve been spending afternoons with Proust. As if that weren’t enough, I’m trying to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life before our discussion because I think it will help me understand the profound effect this book has had on some writers I admire – both in terms of their own writing and in terms of the way they see the world.
There’s no guarantee I’ll love Swann’s Way through to the last page. But I’ll be glad to have read it. I’ll end here with this quotation from Proust. It’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever come across – it’s true, and it’s basic: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” When writing teachers say, “Make it new,” that’s what they mean.
**Note: I say “swim,” but other people describe it in a less complimentary way. Consider this review of Proust’s work by another author whose writing I admire, Alexander Wollcott: “Reading Proust is like bathing in someone else’s dirty water.”
Ah, well – that’s what’s fun about a book discussion group: so many different reactions to the same book! If you’re a writer, remember that you’re not writing to please the largest possible audience – that produces insipid writing. Instead, you’re writing for the reader who is going to feel buoyed by (immersed in, swimming in) the way you tell your story.