Reading Proust

My fabulous friend April and I are reading Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way together this month. Marcel Proust was French, and April speaks fluent French, and so this project seemed a good fit for the two of us. I can’t wait to be able to label ourselves as people who have “read Proust.” It seems so MFA-program of us. (Not that I’ve ever enrolled in an MFA program, I’m just betting Proust is the sort of author students read at the Iowa Writers Workshop, so reading him makes me feel “edified and privileged” in a good sort of way.)

In 1899, when Proust was 28 years old, he began to withdraw from the world. It’s interesting to try to imagine myself as Marcel Proust, and how different my life would have been if I’d been 28 in 1899. No Facebook, no YouTube videos of Miley Ray Cyrus twerking, probably still using whale oil in my lamps, and never dreaming that WWI was inching its way onto the scene, as the colonial powers continued their scheme of worldwide domination, bringing us all ever closer to that inevitable day when Miley Ray Cyrus would be twerking on YouTube, and people would post about it on Facebook.

I wonder how Marcel Proust would have explained twerking to his parents. Maybe he would have sought advice from Teddy Wayne, who wrote this beautiful opinion piece in The New York Times about this thorny issue on August 31, 2013. (And it’s well worth the two-minute read for a grin.)

But anyway, back to 1899.

Proust loved flowers and plants, but suffered from such brutal asthma that he hid himself away in his apartment, where he could ignore the bustling world outside, sleep all day and work all night on his masterpiece. Swann’s Way is the first part of that masterpiece, the full collection of which is called In Search of Lost Time. My translation of Swann’s Way (by Lydia Davis) is 444 pages long.

I must confess that the idea of reading Proust terrified me for a long time. I thought he would be insanely difficult to read, on the level of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I needed a copy of CliffsNotes to read The Sound and the Fury. I also had to reach the distinguished age of 31 before I considered myself mentally fit enough to attempt it. Despite how short that book is, it took me an entire week of full-time reading to finish it.

I can happily report that Swann’s Way is nowhere near that psychologically taxing.

I’ve read a little more than half of this novel in a week, and the prose is so lovely and enchanting that I keep turning pages, caught up in Proust’s memories of his childhood, his amazing ability with words, his acute ear for dialogue, and his lapidary reasoning to describe the behavior of his family and friends. Also, the boy really loved his mother, and who wouldn’t love a boy like that?

And now I have reached the part of the book where M. Swann, that infamous neighbor of Proust, has found himself falling in love, and I’m highly curious to see what happens next.

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