Is it better to read Proust when you're young, or when you're old?
December 28, 2013 1:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm approaching forty; there are only so many books I'll get to read in my life. With that in mind, I'm trying to plan out my reading at the start of each year (planning one year at a time, mind you -- my 40-year-old self doesn't get to be the boss of what I read when I'm eighty).

There are a few "epic" things I'd like to read in my life; this year my plan is to read the 5-volume Canopus in Argos series by Doris Lessing.

So here's my question: At some point, I'd like to schedule In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Is it better to read it now, when I'm still sort-of-relatively young, or when I'm older?

Bonus question -- what other huge, sprawling, multi-volume tomes should I consider?
posted by spacewaitress to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have only read snippets of it here and there. But isn't it multiple volumes? I would read a volume each decade. I feel like this approach would suit the style of writing somehow.
posted by aniola at 1:16 PM on December 28, 2013


I've always had a plan to read it when I retire. Because I wouldn't have the time otherwise.
posted by matildaben at 1:19 PM on December 28, 2013


I read it in my late 40s, taking thirteen months to read the six volumes at a steady rate of ten pages a day. I feel that being 47-48 when I read it was a stroke of great good fortune. If I had been much younger, I don't think I would have fully grasped the enormous humanity of the book, its great generosity of spirit, the way that time and memory and attention can redeem the idiocies of youth without rejecting them or despising them or pretending they didn't happen. If I were much older, I'm not sure I would have fully benefitted; it might have seemed just an exercise in nostalgia.

So I would say read it when you're no longer young, but before you get old. Whether that's at 40 or 50 or 75 is, of course, up to you.
posted by muhonnin at 1:57 PM on December 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


I read it in college at Berkeley and loved it. My professor was a Proustian scholar and we actually discussed this very question, and he had a couple of conclusions. First: you get different messages from this book depending on where you are in your life, so if you read it once while you are younger or once while you are older, you will be gaining one layer of meaning and missing the next. That's OK, just a reality-- his advice was to take it as a contemplative read when it feels right to you. Second, he felt that "When you start to read Proust, you will know if it is the right time in your life to read Proust." I know what he meant... There are times in my life where I'm very practical and focused on the now, and then there are times where I am in a more contemplative period. My advice to you is to start small and read Swann's Way first, then expand to the whole book if the time is right for you. I say Swann's Way because it is the most culturally relevant (it's the book people reference), but also because it made the biggest impact on me as a twenty-one-year-old going through tragedy that aged me rather quickly (ie someone on the younger side of the age spectrum). If it's not striking the right chord with you right now, put it down for now but keep it in mind for a year or two down the road.
posted by samthemander at 2:12 PM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I read Swann's Way back in 2007 at 24. I'm a little over halfway through Within a Budding Grove, having started in this past July.

Start Proust now. You're going to need time to read each volume, then digest it, cleanse your palate for a long time then read the next. I love Proust -- I can't even describe how much I love these books. I want to read them for the rest of my life, and the good news is that I probably will.
posted by mibo at 2:43 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it's better to read Proust when you feel like reading it — regardless of your age. Also, I think it's better to read Proust the way you want to read Proust. If it takes 5 years to read it, it takes 5 years.

Don't pressure yourself, reading Proust is fun !
posted by agregoire at 3:52 PM on December 28, 2013


> what other huge, sprawling, multi-volume tomes should I consider

A Dance to the Music of Time.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:41 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I had a girlfriend in college who loved Proust, so I tried but soon gave up. I started the first volume several times over the years but never made much progress. A few years ago, in my fifties, I read the whole thing to my wife in the evenings over the course of several months, and we both enjoyed it a great deal; I don't think I would have gotten as much out of it if I'd been much younger.

> I would read a volume each decade. I feel like this approach would suit the style of writing somehow.

Not a good idea. It's basically one long novel, broken up into separate books for convenience, and it's important to keep track of who's who and what they've been up to.

> Bonus question -- what other huge, sprawling, multi-volume tomes should I consider?

I second The corpse in the library's recommendation of A Dance to the Music of Time (my wife and I are reading it now, as a matter of fact); I would also strongly recommend the Aubrey–Maturin series and (not as long but still multivolume) Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War (made into a wonderful BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) and Paul Scott's Raj Quartet (made into an equally wonderful series, The Jewel in the Crown).
posted by languagehat at 5:43 PM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've read In Search of Lost Time twice, a few years apart, in my early 30s, separated by a few years. I plan to read it again later, but I think about it frequently even now. I honestly don't think it matters.
posted by JohnLewis at 6:15 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Read it now. That way, it'll be with you for the rest of your life.

In 2003 I quit a job I hated and lived off my savings for a few months. I read the whole of ISOLT in three months during that time. I was planning to re-read it every decade for the rest of my life but unless I can find a way to read the whole thing in the next two days, that ain't gonna happen!

I can't recall a single thing from A Dance to the Music of Time.
posted by Sarah Lund's Jumper at 6:24 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


>What other huge, sprawling, multi-volume tomes should I consider?

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney.
posted by Sarah Lund's Jumper at 6:29 PM on December 28, 2013


what other huge, sprawling, multi-volume tomes should I consider

Kristin Lavransdatter (full disclosure, I have started it but haven't gotten very far).
posted by matildaben at 6:33 PM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm a lifelong Lessing reader, and Canopus in Argus is definitely cool. But as a connected work, I think her earlier Children of Violence series hangs together even better. It also provides an intriguing viewpoint, from just after the Great War to 20?? after the Third World War.

Lois McMaster Bujold and Ursula K Le Guin offer multivolume space-faring science fiction epics with particular attention to social construction, from the instruction of children to the government of galaxies.
posted by Jesse the K at 7:53 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Re: Bonus question -- what other huge, sprawling, multi-volume tomes should I consider?:

- I have been hearing really good things about My Struggle (e.g. James Wood, NYT). I have just started on the first volume (only the first 2 volumes have been translated into English so far).

- While I can't describe it as a literary epic (the language can be trying at times), I absolutely loved A time of gifts and Between the woods and the water. I have not read a more erudite travel book. Patrick Fermor died before he could complete the last volume on his 1933 walk to Constantinople. Artemis Cooper and Colin Thurbon have now ghost-written it posthumously based on his notes.
posted by justlooking at 9:16 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seconding a Dance to the Music of Time: much more readable than Proust, and for me, it resonates in a way I can't put my finger on. It's possible I'm just not putting in the effort Proust requires, though.
posted by redlines at 4:41 AM on December 29, 2013


I read it at around 30 and didn't feel like I was too young for it or anything. Heck, the narrator was younger than I was! And the love story, such as it is, is very much an in-your-20s love story. I do plan to read it again when I'm older.

I also loved A Dance to the Music of Time, although somehow I think that's pitched to an older reader than Proust is.
posted by dfan at 7:45 AM on December 29, 2013


Thanks for all your answers! I especially liked the idea that "When you start to read Proust, you will know if it is the right time in your life to read Proust." I'll aim to start within the next few years -- maybe around the time I'm 45. My other decision is whether to struggle through it in the original French or read it in English. I have the feeling it'll be OK if I decide to read it in English, though.

Some other things I'd like to get to:

Toynbee's A Study of History
Boswell's Life of Johnson
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
Dorothy Dunnet's Lymond Chronicles and Niccolo series
Joseph Frank's five-volume biography of Dostoevsky

I'm also hoping to read as much as I can of Dickens, Vonnegut, P.K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Balzac.

When I was in college, I had a humanities professor in his 80s who was talking about all the great books he hadn't read yet. He said, "I feel like a kid in a candy store... with only a nickel to spend."

Even though we can't know how much life we have left, I feel like I'm at the halfway point right now. I've had a tendency to read whatever just drifts into my attention; I'd like to start planning it out more.
posted by spacewaitress at 10:58 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Boswell's Life of Johnson

Have you read any Johnson? I'd recommend reading him before you read Boswell. Johnson was funny, and not a saint -- Boswell makes him sound much more serious, as I recall (it's been years).
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:14 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I haven't read any Johnson, yet. I downloaded a sample from a huge Johnson compendium for Kindle (God bless the internet! Hurrah for living in the future!) and I liked the writing, so I was thinking of reading Johnson first, then Boswell.
posted by spacewaitress at 12:48 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another vote for Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. It's an astounding work. And you're perfectly set to begin it: it's twelve books, and reading one a month is not only easy but stretches things out nicely to somewhat mimic the passing of time in the books. Try A Question of Upbringing in January, and I bet by February's A Buyer's Market and the incredible 150-page dinner/dance/party night, you'll be hooked.

Bonus: Powell does a Proust pastiche in a later volume (and also pastiches of Pepys, Burton and others).
posted by wdenton at 2:39 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


> My other decision is whether to struggle through it in the original French or read it in English.

I would recommend English unless you start it in French and find it easy going and really get into it. My French is quite good (I'm reading Balzac in French now), and I know Proust is a master of French, but after making my way through most of the first volume with the help of various reading aids and dictionaries, I realized if there was any realistic chance of actually reading the whole thing it had better be in English. (Of course, when my wife suggested it be our nightly reading, that settled it, because she doesn't know French.) Remember, you can read it in English and then go back and try it again in French later!
posted by languagehat at 1:09 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Coincidentally I was just reading Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and in it she says, "It's said, after all, that people reach middle age the day they realize they're never going to read Remembrance of Things Past." So I guess that argues for young, though it doesn't put a specific expiration date on it!
posted by sigmagalator at 6:44 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sigmagalator, that's one of the things that made me realize I'd better read it soon!
posted by spacewaitress at 12:51 PM on January 3


I started A Dance... this year for the second time. I think I got three books in this time rather than the two I got in 15 years ago, before things sort of petered out for me. I find the writing to be journeyman level and the insights to be kind of trite and overreaching. I may yet finish it, it isn't horrible, but the comparisons to Proust come from folks who haven't read Proust, I think.
posted by JohnLewis at 5:52 PM on January 7


I am 40 and just started reading In Search of Lost Time… I think I would have enjoyed it equally ten years ago, because it's so incredibly good and engaging and smart. Although I did try starting it a couple of times before and I couldn't get into his style somehow. A couple of months ago I tried again and this time I completely clicked with everything, the style, the story, everything. I don't think it has to do with me being older now, it was just a question of being able to tune in to his way of writing. I'm around 30% in the second volume (that's what kindle does to you, you start quoting percentages of books) and it's one of the most amazing and rewarding things I have ever read. And it's very gossipy and fun too.
posted by MrMisterio at 8:31 PM on April 14


> I started A Dance... this year for the second time. I think I got three books in this time rather than the two I got in 15 years ago, before things sort of petered out for me. I find the writing to be journeyman level and the insights to be kind of trite and overreaching. I may yet finish it, it isn't horrible, but the comparisons to Proust come from folks who haven't read Proust, I think.

My wife and I are reading it now (I read to her in the evenings); we've just started Book 7, which means we're past the halfway point, and by now it's clear we're going to finish the whole series (Lord willing and the creek don't rise). I know what you mean—it's slow going for a very long time, and comparisons to Proust are ridiculous—but a few books in you realize he's building up his effects very well over the long haul, and the reappearances and changing fates of the central characters (the titular "dance") become genuinely fascinating. I completely understand if someone feels that it's too much effort to invest, but I wanted to make the point that it does reward the effort in the end.
posted by languagehat at 8:43 AM on April 15


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