Help, I'm reading Proust!
December 29, 2005 5:38 AM   Subscribe

I've started In Search of Lost Time and found I like it. Should I keep going? At page 80 I'm barely 2 percent of the way through the whole work; it would likely take me 2-3 years to get through all seven volumes. Has anyone finished the whole thing? Was it worth it? I don't want to read a couple thousand pages only to lose interest ...
posted by futility closet to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I read 3 volumes, enjoyed them a lot, but got worn out & didn't get a lot out of them that didn't hit me in the first 400 pages or so. YMMV.

For green-light modernism, Faulkner's my man. I'll even take him over Joyce.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:12 AM on December 29, 2005

Best answer: Oh yes, you should certainly finish it. I'm reading the whole thing now for the second time, and I've read sections many more times than that. I have a blog (soon to be updated again) about reading the first sections as well as some of the attendant lit, that you could check out. Le Temps de Proust.

That initial comment out of the way, let me be a bit more specific about methods of reading and strategies.

It's certainly a long book, and although I think it's grand, it may not be for you. Page 80 is actually not very far at all, not because it's so little of the way through, but because there are a lot of other things that happen in Swann's Way that you should think about before you decide to read the whole thing. Basically, it can be very useful to think of Swann's Way as the overture to the novel as a whole. Most of the themes of the book are introduced in this first section. Pay particular attention to the notion of jealous love in the Swann in Love section, as it is a major concern of the book. If, after reading the whole of Swann's Way you find that you like what you are reading, then decide to go on.

Note, however, that when I say like, I don't mean like the characters. The two times I've been through the book (not all the way done with x2), I've done it leading bookgroups that were also reading it. There are invariably people driven to distraction by what a brat the narrator can be, how insipid and worthless the aristocratic characters are, etc. Almost all of those people have ended up deeply impressed by the book and able to read despite their poor relationship with the main characters.

The novel is great in parts, but really works best as a whole. There is a lot of deferred gratification inherent in reading Proust, something that is reinscribed at each stage of the text. One waits for the verb in a sentence, one waits for anticipated events, but above all, one waits for the final volume to draw the strands together to form one of the most profound visions of humanity, mortality and artistic production ever to be committed to paper. There are stretches that I've read where I knew I was reading in order to understand what came later.

As far as the actual reading goes, Roger Shattuck, who just died, has suggested an abridged reading schedule in his book Proust's Way. It's in a footnote at the bottom of a page somewhere in his book (which I don't have, and don't love). It's very abbreviated, and to my eyes seems almost cursory, but it does get you to the end of the novel. There is a book which I am more fond of which came out in 2005 called The Proust Project edited by Andre Aciman. The conceit in that book is that a large group of writer's excerpts their favorite part of Proust (which is excerpted in the Aciman book) and then comments on it. Someone else writes brief interregnums which explain what happens between the excerpted sections. In this way you "read" Proust in something like 200 pages.

The part of Proust that I've had the most trouble reading is the book of Albertine, the sections of which are called The Prisoner and The Fugitive. I found them very slow going, and largely joyless, a descent into jealous and obsessive love. Shattuck suggests that readers can skip The Fugitive completely. Everything else has such great writing that I love it, even when the reading is slow. I swore that I would never read the novel again after finishing it the last time, but I find that I'm enjoying it so much this second time through (only 5 years later), that I already imagine I will read it again. Also, I don't know how old you are, but In Search of Lost Time is about aging and memory, in large part, and I think that it's a book to be read at least twice in one's life, once as young as possible, once as an older person.

You can look at my blog for some of my opinions about the secondary literature if you care about that sort of thing. Whether or not reading a biography of Proust is a good idea is something about which my own opinions differ depending on the time of day. There is a temptation, a very strong temptation, to reduce In Search to an autobiography in which a few facts have been changed, which I think is a mistake. On the other hand, one of the truly amazing things about the writing is how Proust manages to transform a life into a work of art, so the tension between Marcel's life (the narrator) and Proust's is important and very rich. Unfortunately biographies mean more reading. The Edmund White bio in the Penguin Brief Lives series is good and short, but in my opinion is too focussed on Proust as a gay man. It's too reductive that way. George Painter's bio is readable and decent. Tadie's bio (which you should be able to find remaindered) is far too exhaustive but is definitive. I used to think it was unreadable, but in fact, it's broken up into discreet sections which lend themselves well to intermittent reading when interest strikes.

Please feel free to email me if you want to discuss it further. I trust that my reponse here shows that I like to talk about Proust.[/proustpedant][If only it were so easy to close that tag in real life.]
posted by OmieWise at 6:22 AM on December 29, 2005 [11 favorites]

Someone sent me Shattuck's abbreviated version earlier this year, but they had already read the first two volumes, so that information is missing:
Chapter One: The Grandmother's Death from The Guermantes Way

the first and last thirty pages of Sodom and Gomorrah, Charlus and

first 30 and and 200 pages on the concert at the Verdurins' arranged by
Charlus from The Captive

omit The Fugitive

the last 200 pages of Time Regained, the last reception and reflections
on writing.

I think it's impossible to give a good opinion of the novel without reading Time Regained.

I'm not sure if you're in the US or not, nor what translation you're reading, but be aware (if you are in the US) that the last three volumes of the most recent Penguin translation are not available in the US do to the Mickey Mouse copyright extension. You can order them from the UK, though.
posted by OmieWise at 6:28 AM on December 29, 2005

Given OmieWise's passionate response to your query, I'll probably be slagged for this suggestion but you could check out de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life as a sort of Cliff's Notes to the overarching themes of In Search of Lost Time. It's a tongue in cheek read that's quick and fun.
posted by phoenixc at 6:45 AM on December 29, 2005

As for the reading speed, I got a bit bogged down in the first book (and I must admit, I'm still mired there), but my boyfriend found the second to be a much quicker read. Then he got stuck again in the third... Anyway, all I mean is that you can't really extrapolate how long it'll take you to finish based on your reading speed of the first 80 pages :)

Jane Smiley's article on reading Proust for might be interesting to you starting out. She recommends stopping in the middle and reading a Sue Grafton novel to cleanse the palette. Heh.
posted by bcwinters at 6:49 AM on December 29, 2005

Nice post, OmieWise. Can you (or anyone else here) recommend an English translation?
posted by grumblebee at 6:57 AM on December 29, 2005

I was just about to ask that grumblebee. I'd like to add an easily obtainable English translation (ie not a UK edition).
posted by geoff. at 7:02 AM on December 29, 2005

Grumblebee: The first book of the Penguin translation that OmieWise mentioned (it's by Lydia Davis) was definitely far more readable to me than the canonicalish Montcrieff. For one thing, the jokes (such as they are) were actually *funny* yet the text didn't feel as if it had been simplified/"updated" for a modern English-speaking reader.
posted by bcwinters at 7:14 AM on December 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

Here is a brief comment on Proust translation, which gives some history.

Basically there are only two or three possibilities. The Moncrieff/Kilmartin, that translation as revised and updated by Enright, and the new Penguin translations which have a different translator for each volume. I'm not trying to be difficult when I say that different people like different translations. Mocrieff is often criticized for over-wrought prose, the criticism being that despite the complexity of Proust's sentence structure, his prose was actually quite clear. Some folks love the texture of Moncrieff, and like the unrevised translations the best. I find them a bit too stifling. Here is an online copy of Moncrieff.

Enright is a bit clearer, in my opinion, some mistakes have been corrected, but it's basically the same translation.

I like the new Penguin translations. Only the first 4 volumes are available in the US, but if it were me, and I didn't want to order from the UK, or wait the couple of years for the next volumes to come out here, I would start with the four that are now available and then switch to the Enright. Proust is widely available in used stores.
posted by OmieWise at 7:32 AM on December 29, 2005

Oh, incidentally, I love How Proust Can Change Your Life. I think it's a great book and a good interpretation of Proust, although idiosyncratic enough that I would read Proust Among the Stars by Malcolm Bowie (which is also excellent) for a more general overview.
posted by OmieWise at 7:34 AM on December 29, 2005

I think Combray is indicative of the best in A la recherche du temps perdu. It is reasonably short. You'll know it when you have an appetite for more after that part.

The worst is where Proust gets carried away on obsessive jealousy: Un amour de Swann is bogged down by this a bit, but La Prisonnière most people find unreadable.

I think La Prisonnière is The Fugitive in translation so omiewises direction of highlights seem good.
posted by jouke at 8:04 AM on December 29, 2005

i read about half of the whole group of novels years ago and dropped it, meaning to get back to it later ... i was impressed with his ability to describe things, but not real impressed with what he was describing ... there's something that's a little artificial about it ... he's like one of those fabrege eggs ... nice to look at, but you wouldn't have it for breakfast
posted by pyramid termite at 8:51 AM on December 29, 2005

jouke writes "I think La Prisonnière is The Fugitive in translation so omiewises direction of highlights seem good."

La Prisonniere is The Prisoner in translation. The Fugitive is Albertine disparu.
posted by OmieWise at 8:56 AM on December 29, 2005

Anyone read Harold Pinter's The Proust Screenplay? Thoughts?
posted by dobbs at 9:16 AM on December 29, 2005

I read the whole thing about five years ago. It took me six months but was definitely worth it. The Fugitive is indeed the most annoying part.

Pinter's screenplay is pretty good, although I bet it would be pretty confusing to someone who didn't already know the book. It jumps back and forth a lot in time, if I recall correctly (which is a very thematic approach, of course). It's surprisingly complete (I guess there isn't a whole lot of plot in the book), but the one thing it omits is the madeleine scene!
posted by dfan at 9:26 AM on December 29, 2005

Go one volume at a time: different readers like different aspects of the book—I enjoyed vol. 1, struggled with 2, very much liked 3 & 4, only to get stuck in 5 (in The Prisoner aka The Captive).
posted by misteraitch at 11:37 AM on December 29, 2005

A Proust question! On AskMe! I'm in heaven! (If you check my profile, you'll see I'm a confirmed Proustophile.)

Yes! By all means, keep reading. You say that you've liked the first eighty pages, so I supect you'll like the rest. There are spots that you will find tedious. Skip them. You can always read them later.

OmieWise has done a marvelous job answering the question. I've never finished the entire novel, so I won't attempt to add anything except by way of a comment on translation.

I'm not trying to be difficult when I say that different people like different translations. Mocrieff is often criticized for over-wrought prose, the criticism being that despite the complexity of Proust's sentence structure, his prose was actually quite clear. Some folks love the texture of Moncrieff, and like the unrevised translations the best.

This is astute. No one translation is The Best Translation of Proust. Your best bet, if you really want to give it a try, is to leaf through several different versions in a book store or library. See which translator writes in a style that you like.

Me? I'm one of those who prefers the Moncrieff translations. I don't find his style overwrought (as many people do), but then I'm a huge fan of Dickens and Hardy and, especially, Thackeray. If you're keen on Victorian literature, then Moncrieff's translation is likely a good choice.

For my Proust collection, I tracked down the Modern Library editions from mid-century. They're relatively easy to find and inexpensive. They have a fantastic form factor (I love the old Modern Library editions!) and a nice neutral font.

Proust isn't for everyone. I chose Swann's Way for my book group and was practically stoned to death. (Barbara Kingsolver this ain't.) Still, there was one other member who loved it. And I loved it. And I love the second volume, especially. As OmieWise implies, the older you are, the better this book is. If you are at all fascinated by memory, then this novel holds vast riches for you.

Lastly, I rave about Proust often, so that it's become something of a joke among my friends and family. Here are some past examples:
  • Social Personality, a meditation on a passage from Swann's Way.
  • 125, comments on reading the first 125 pages of Swann's Way
  • Within a Budding Grove, in which I review the graphic novel adaptation (!!!) of Remembrance of Things Past. (Worried that this project had been abandoned, I recently e-mail the publisher and was told that there would, indeed, be future volumes.)
  • I Dreamed Once More of Berma, in which I fawn over Proust's writing.
  • On the Malleability of Time, which is a meditation on time inspired by reading Proust.
Whichever translation you choose, I hope that you are patient and thoughtful in your approach to Proust. He can seem dense, but as OmieWise has indicated, the rewards are well worth the energy you expend.
posted by jdroth at 1:07 PM on December 29, 2005

Did you decide to proceed?
posted by OmieWise at 7:51 AM on January 12, 2006

« Older Name That Old Film   |   Publicly-Traded Paternity Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.