As the immortal Jesse would say: “This week, I ’as been mostly readin’ Proust!”. To be more precise, I’ve just finished reading Swann’s Way, the first of the seven volumes which go to make up Marcel Sprout’s (sorry: old habits die hard) Marcel Proust’s gargantuan novel À la recherche du temps perdu (‘In Search of Lost Time’) and am now halfway through volume two, Within a Budding Grove.
“So what?” you may well ask. “You’ve always read books like there’s no tomorrow. You gulp them down faster than Moby Dick could swallow squid. What’s new?”
‘What’s new’ is that it’s taken me nearly sixty years to get around to reading this one.
In spite of anything that Germaine Greer & Co might say, size does matter. Like, I suspect, most people, I’ve always found the thought of starting a seven-volume, 3,500 page, 1.4 million word novel just a bit daunting—even bearing in mind that one of my most re-read favourites is War & Peace, which, let’s face it, is hardly a ‘pamphlet’ itself. So I kept on putting off till tomorrow what I couldn’t face starting today; and, somehow, tomorrow never came—despite constant badgering from my old friend Mike Mooney (whom God preserve! as Beachcomber used to say), of Bradford, to the effect that if I (a) liked, and (b) had the staying-power to keep reading W&P again and again, then I really wouldn’t have any trouble with ALRDTP. But ‘tomorrow’ has finally arrived, because two important things have changed.
Firstly, I don’t have to work any more (in fact, those nice people at USS pay me not to work: it’s a great system; I can’t think why I didn’t try it years ago) and so I have a lot of ‘spare’ time. And secondly, I discovered that some good souls at the University of Adelaide have ever-so-kindly translated Proust’s magnum opus into Kindle format (since retirement, I’ve been working my Kindle almost to death) and will magnanimously allow me to download the novel, in its entirety, for free. At this point, since the last obdurate leg that I’d been standing on for the best part of sixty years had been unceremoniously yanked from under me, I promptly downloaded all seven volumes and started reading.
This, of course, is the point at which readers of popular fiction (in which category I include most national newspapers) would expect me to have been deluged with Bitter Disappointment (or, at the very least, Disenchantment): “After so long a wait,” they would wail (doubtless with all the plaintively-shrieked conviction of a Cassandra on amphetamines), “it must have been a dreadful anticlimax.” Well, I’m sorry to disappoint them… it wasn’t: I loved it. I read Volume I in just over a fortnight, and then moved straight on to Volume II. I am, as the vernacular has it, hooked on Proust.
But it wasn’t exactly a case of ‘love at first sight’. Indeed, at that first sight, Proust’s style seemed, in a word, tough: I had to learn how to read him. Why? Well, partly because he was writing in the post-Freudian era and was more than aware of the fact. So he doesn’t so much describe his characters’ thoughts and actions (there being far more of the former than the latter, it has to be said) as psychoanalyse them—and he is prepared to dig very deep in order to get at what he considers to be ‘the whole truth’. But thoughts never exist singly, in a sort of mental vacuum: they’re always linked to other thoughts. And these, in turn, may well provoke yet more related thoughts, which also need to be analysed; and so the delving process goes on and on… and down and down. This concept I could cope with. But it did cause me some initial problems when, from time to time, all these inter-related thought-galaxies were combined into one enormous sentence.
I’d read a good deal by William Faulkner in my late teens; and since he, too, was never averse to creating unbelievably long sentences when the Muse so-ordered, I ought to have been able to cope pretty well. But either I’d lost the knack over the years, or Proust’s sentences are somehow intrinsically different. Whatever the reason, I felt as though I was having to learn to read all over again. It took me several days to get my mind acclimatised, after which I went back to Page 1 and began again. Since then, everything has been fine. I no longer have any problems, and the novel has become a real ‘page turner’. I only wish I’d started reading it years ago!
For those of you who have never dipped even a single toe into the apparently bottomless depths of The Gargantuan Proustian Sentence (and therefore think I’m exaggerating), I offer a gentle pastiche of one, together with a link to a page that shows a sample of the genuine article. The ersatz version takes as its starting point a single line from an English folk song: “One man and his dog went to mow a meadow.” This comprises only ten words, no commas, and one full stop—which would be far too minimalist a structure to satisfy M. Proust’s impassioned cry (echoing Browning’s Grammarian) of “Let me know all!”…
On that summer morning, with June already two-thirds spent, the farmer came out of his cottage at seven o’clock, his habitual time during this season of the year (all his life, he had made a point of rising either with or before the sun, and hence had finished his breakfast over an hour before); and, having called to his dog—who, in his usual fashion, shot out of the house and raced down the path to toddle along beside his master, with much devoted tail-wagging and trouser-snuffling—he opened the garden gate onto the road which led down the hill, past Simon’s farm, to the village church, and then paused to survey the sky with the look of one who appears to be asking himself if the clear weather might not break before long; but, seemingly reassured, he returned to his shed and took out his scythe and whetstone: for today, he had decided, was the day on which he was going to mow the much-overgrown lower meadow (it was a pity that his son could not be there, he mused, as he sharpened the blade, to mow the meadow with him: for then the task would have been completed so much the faster; but heifers have to be taken to market, and someone has to take them).