If you are wondering why there is a sudden barrage of posts from me, and you didn’t see the badge down at the lower left hand side of this blog, be aware that I am participating in NaBloPoMo. That’s National Blog Posting Month. The idea is to commit to putting up a post every single day in November. Easier said than done — especially for me since my posting style tends to be long wordy essays. By Day Five, I was already defaulting to a picture post. I mentioned my dilemma on Facebook and immediately got a suggestion from my friend Scott: “Write a post about Proust.” Uh, thanks, Scott. But Proust doesn’t exactly lend himself to a post one can dash off in about an hour before midnight signals that you’ve blown your NaBloPoMo commitment in the first week. However on second thought, I’ve already written a post about Proust (say that three times fast!) when I was only half-way through the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Now that I’ve finished the damn thing, I suppose it deserves another post. Actually, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I haven’t actually finished Remembrance. I soldiered my way through the ghastly thing until I got two thirds through the seventh and last volume. Then I just stopped cold realizing that I would probably have to slit my wrists if I had to endure any more Proust. I will get back to it. I promise. But it’s not as if I can’t figure out at this point how it all ends.
Before you call me a Philistine for not liking Proust, let me posit that at least three quarters of the people who assert “one simply MUST read Proust” have probably never read him. As I slogged through Proust, I was vocal about not liking him. This sentiment was met with a chorus of comments such as “Well, keep reading. It takes time to slip into the rhythm of his prose.” My response was always, “Well, have YOU read Proust?” Which was usually answered with something such as “Uh, I always meant to”, “I haven’t quite finished Volume One…yet” and “It’s on my bucket list”. Exactly. Proust is one of those things everyone is convinced you MUST do, but very few people bother to do. Yes, it’s so much easier to tell other people to read Proust. Especially if you are pontificating to gullible people like me who will actually take on the challenge through every excruciating page and chapter and unlikeable character. One of the few people I know who has been honest about Proust is my French friend, Philippe. One of the things the Proust Fan Club will tell you — if you dare to say that you don’t like Remembrance — is that “of course, it’s so much better in the original French.” But when I asked Philippe — now an American citizen but still a rabid Francophile — whether he’d read the original Proust, he answered something along the lines of “Proust? I’ve got more enjoyable things to do. Like take out the garbage and wash the car.” If even Phil is dissing Proust, either old Marcel really isn’t as great as the boosters claim he is or Phil and I are the last honest people in literary circles.
Of course, the Proust boosters have also condemned me for not actually reading Proust, but listening to the audiobook version. “But, of course”, they say knowingly, “Proust must be savored and read carefully and slowly. On audiobook? Well, of course you aren’t really getting the experience.” To which I, possibly quoting my friend Phil, would say, “Merde de Taureau.” If Proust’s prose can’t stand up to being read aloud, it’s just plain not very good. Prose that can’t transcend the page and come alive in the hands (or mouth) of a skilled narrator, is woefully lacking. And just a warning to anyone who wants to attempt to follow my footsteps here: an audio version may be about the only way you are going to get through Proust. I recommend the recording by the inestimable Neville Jason, who I praised highly in my earlier post. Quentin Crisp noted that Proust’s style is “so convoluted that if you turn the page too quickly, you’ll miss the principle verb.” I might add that his writing is also so tortured that you’ll have trouble on the page figuring out when one character stops speaking and other begins. Excellent Mr. Jason solves that by giving each of Proust’s characters a different and distinct voice. Not only that, but he imbues each voice with the accents and delivery appropriate to that character’s class and social standing. In a seven volume novel that is ALL about class and social standing, this is extremely helpful. And to those critics who say an audio version was “the fast and easy” way through Proust, note that it took me the better part of summer and fall to get through it. And that’s while listening through a weekly up to six hour commute back and forth between San Jose and Sonoma and, in most evenings, listening to at least an hour at bedtime (or until Marcel absolutely put me to sleep.)
So there I am with Proust. I’m not a fan. Apparently, I’m not completely alone as Germaine Greer agrees with me. Read him if you must. (Or take my wise advice and listen to him on audiobook.) I suppose he’s some sort of rite of passage for anyone who wants to consider themselves well-read. But color me mystified as to why he has been heaped with praise. Yes, his prose is dense with a lot of interior monologue. Well, so is Herman Melville and at least he gives us a ripping good yarn with a whale and a peg-legged Captain and, to my mind, a lot more universal and lofty themes. Sure he’s concerned with a microcosm of society and the class strictures and mores of that small world. Have you read John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga or anything by Anthony Trollope? The former lampoons his thinly disguised family and friends as much as Proust does, but with more affection and understanding and less persnickety judgement. And the latter? Well, Trollope serves up characters as vivid as a 19th Century Bernie Madoff. Plus, his political novels will teach you more about how present day Washington works than CNN will. (I’m a big fan of Trollope as you’ll find from this post and this post.)
Yup. That’s about all I’m going to say about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. But you know what? At least I’ve read it. Which must be like finishing a Marathon. It feels so good when it’s over.
Note: Can we give honorable mention to the terriers? Since I listened to my audio version of Proust in the car while I commuted on Bay Area freeways, the terriers in their crates listened to him, too. I also tried to listen to Proust for at least an hour a night. The terriers, in perhaps the only canine critique of Proust, usually tunneled under the covers — perhaps to shield themselves from Proust’s prose.