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Reading Proust or Proust Reading You?
May 27, 2008 9:30 AM   Subscribe

Waggish Reads Proust Reading In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past, is quite the daunting task. Whether you've read Proust, or are considering reading Proust for the first time, a helpful summary & guide, that examines significant passages for your own discussion.
posted by Fizz (46 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Allll right. Proust has been on the 'need to read' list for too long. Remembrance of Things Past comes up a lot on the blue, sometimes in odd places, and a quick search yields these helpful and interesting comments, but I'm sure there's much more nestled away in the green and blue. This AskMe should help, of course. Anyone interested in a Mefi reading group, maybe starting in a few months?
posted by farishta at 9:40 AM on May 27, 2008


I own the entire set in a nice hardcover collection but I've only managed to get through the first 100 pages, just a few crumbs in the giant lemon cake that is Proust.
posted by Fizz at 9:44 AM on May 27, 2008


Fine. I never considered reading Proust in English. Why not ?
posted by nicolin at 9:50 AM on May 27, 2008


I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Waggish gave up at "Marcel and Albertine 1" (October 02, 2004). I was excited when I happened on his series back when I was reading Proust, but was pretty pissed when I discovered he dropped it in the middle. You'd think, given the importance of Proust and the number of people who have started Remembrance or always meant to get around to it, someone would have done a better job.
posted by languagehat at 10:27 AM on May 27, 2008


I too am a guy who began the book(s) and put it down after some 60 pages. I did this two times. On my third try I could not stop reading it and was sorry to see it end. It is not everyone's cup of tea. But you can say the same thing about computers, girls, and your favorite baseball team.
posted by Postroad at 10:38 AM on May 27, 2008


Can one actually read Proust in one (virtual) sitting? I've gotten through the first two, and am a couple hundred pages into "The Guermantes Way", and I've never been able to do it all in one shot. At best I got half way through a book before I put it down for a rest, and came back later to finish it.
posted by hwestiii at 10:55 AM on May 27, 2008


Apparently Larry McMurtry read it all the way through while spending a few months recuperating from open heart surgery. That seems about ideal. The few times I've tried to read it before -- reading on lunch breaks, on the subway, etc., like I would any other novel -- I've found it extremely slow-going and frankly pretty tedious. But I could see how a long, langorous reading while on an extended vacation might prove rewarding.
posted by decoherence at 11:00 AM on May 27, 2008


I tried reading Proust first several years ago, when some online friends were having a sort of online reading group on Salon.com. I made it through most of "Swann's Way" but it was a fight - I was terribly frustrated that he never "gets to the point" and that he digresses even in the middle of digressions... I just didn't get it.

But I was curious. I had this need to understand what the "big deal" is. So a while later I found this book, Proust's Way by Roger Shattuck. Reading his summaries of major themes and ideas, I kept thinking "huh, this sounds like exactly the sort of thing I should love." I understand and relate to all of this - the complications of social circles and positions, the longing for an artistic, creative life coupled with frustration at finding one's own artistic voice, etc.

So a couple months ago I decided to give it another try, and to my surprise, I totally "get" it now. I understand the digressions, because I've realized how I actually think that way myself sometimes...when I start to remember some story or incident and in thinking through the "plot" of the memory some detail requires fuller thinking and becomes its own little story and so on until I come back and think "wait, how did I get to thinking about this?"

Anyway, so I'm about 200 pages into the second volume now, and still enjoying it. Though at times he gets dry, I don't think a page goes by where there isn't some sentence or thought that I can pull out and enjoy relating to my life. In some ways I think maybe I just needed to live for a few more years after that first attempt, in order to have more life experience of my own to bring to the books.
posted by dnash at 11:02 AM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


I enjoy reading about people trying to read Proust. I've never tried myself but get a kick out of it. His reputation seems very "meta", or postmodern, more about form and function than content. I don't want to open the box and spoil it.
posted by stbalbach at 12:08 PM on May 27, 2008


I'm in no real hurry to finish Proust. I take a few lines each day, and just enjoy them on their own. Proust is about soaking up every word and just the way he plays with language.
posted by Fizz at 12:13 PM on May 27, 2008




My French is competent but not fluent. I've read lots of novels in French (mostly 19th-century stuff, especially plot-heavy goodness like Balzac or Zola that doesn't strain my comprehension) but have yet to get around to tackling Proust in French or English. Again, my French is good, but not great.

Should I try to read Proust in the original French or in an English translation? How much does the novel lose in translation? Fizz, above, mentions the way Proust plays with language. How much of this relies on idiosyncracies of the language in which he wrote?

It's basically a question of the pain of trying to puzzle through it in French vs. the opportunity cost of losing some of the nuance in English.

Suggestions?
posted by spacewaitress at 12:21 PM on May 27, 2008


Is any book that you have no compulsion to read more than a few lines from each day really any good? That sounds like some foul-tasting health tonic you take because you think it'll "do you some good" rather than a truly great novel.
posted by decoherence at 12:22 PM on May 27, 2008


I am currently in the last book and it has been a long journey, some of which is spent in bored disinterest, dozing off after few pages, some of it very excited. The size of the project makes the difference, you live with these books processing in the background. I never remember anything exactly and I am terrible as discussing books and movies because of that vagueness of exact wording and names of things. With Proust this vagueness gets pronounced: I cannot say what are the important parts, only what I recall. I'm not sure where there was that famous Madeleine cake although I've read about it in so many times that I know what was big deal with it, but it was not a big deal in my experience of the book. It all has been filtered or enhanced by my general attention state when reading a certain part. It certainly has changed the way I experience, by slowly mixing book's descriptions to my own recollections - because there are tons of descriptions in that book, spanning so long time in my reading process, they dilute to my general memory of life. There have been moments where I've felt that something I feel has been put to words for the first time, like often felt when reading as a teenager and which is rare and precious (or banal) when you get older. It is boring most of the time, just like a long journeys are, but it leaves great memories, although I still cannot tell what they are. Something has changed, something has opened inside and is flowing more freely.
posted by Free word order! at 12:22 PM on May 27, 2008 [3 favorites]


Hehe, reading the series also provides some snooty cultural capital as people who see you reading the book will always ask, "What's that?" And when you tell them what it's about they are either really impressed or frightened.
posted by Fizz at 12:27 PM on May 27, 2008


The only person I've known who's ever read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time was an 24-year-old virgin film student. The conversation went something like this:



Me: So what'd you do over the summer?

Him: I rented a cabin in Amsterdam and did some waitering.

Me: Wow, that sounds. . .interesting.

Him: Yeah, worked on my screenplay, did a little reading.

Me: (sees In Search of Lost Time volume) Oh, how far did you get?

Him: What? Oh, I finished.

Me: Which volume?

Him: Oh no, I finished the whole thing.

Me: ...what?! The whole thing? All 80000 pages?

Him: Yeah, I kinda liked it.

Me: You read In Search of Lost Time for fun.

Him: Yeah.

Me: Wow.
posted by Ndwright at 12:36 PM on May 27, 2008


Free word order!, that's exactly how I feel about having read it. Some things I've gotten from it have only become apparent now, a year after I finished. They filter through, gradually.
posted by nasreddin at 12:37 PM on May 27, 2008


I love ISoLT. It's different each time I read it. It is a journey, as free word order says. You live with a book (books, really) and they become part of you. They're not books that you can read in a sitting, I wouldn't think. I put it down several times to mull over what I'd read.

The books are not difficult to read, they're difficult to get into. The important pieces don't leap out at you - their significance evolves with the process of reading. And each time the important pieces can change, depending on how you read it.
posted by winna at 12:39 PM on May 27, 2008


Bugger, I've managed to avoid reading Remembrance of Things Past for half my life, but now, since this post popped up while Amazon was open in another tab, I've gone and bought the bloody thing. There goes my 'two books a week minimum' New Year's resolution.

Crotalus wrote: In Search of Lost Time is the greatest work of literature ever penned!

What d'you call that, a Hansroll?
posted by jack_mo at 12:40 PM on May 27, 2008


If all this is too complex, here is a summary.
posted by DreamerFi at 12:48 PM on May 27, 2008


There was this awesome moment when I first started reading Proust. I read the first 50 pages leading up to that infamous scene where he nibbles on that lemon cookie sending him tumbling back into his childhood. I read further on for about maybe 40 more pages and then I had this "AHA!!!" moment. I started thinking, the action that is taking place, the story of his childhood, the fear of his father, the guilt he has in wanting his mother to tuck him into bed, all of these things....they're occurring within his mind. He's still in bed, nibbling on a cookie, he hasn't moved. I love that, it just fascinates me.
posted by Fizz at 12:48 PM on May 27, 2008


Also, I've never heard it referred to as In Search of Lost Time before, only Remembrance of Things Past or the original title; the former seems a rather clunky translation, and lacks the Shakespeare nod. (That's why I just bought the Moncrieff translation rather than the new one - have I made a terrible mistake?!)
posted by jack_mo at 12:49 PM on May 27, 2008


The Marcel Proust Support Group (I think I saw this somewhere in MeFi)

You get a pretty good idea of Proust by reading just one tome, but it's interesting to see how he deals with different subjects or the way things play out. Each new "shock", like Marcel's (the narrator's) changing position in society, his perceiving homosexuality for the first time, his relationships -especially the Albertine drama-, the Dreyfus Affair or World War 1 transform his environment and influence his opinions.

And then there's the last volume, where he finally understands and consolidates his theory of time and art, while his life and his era -his friends in society and the very nature of the society he knew- are coming to an end. Celine's Journey to the end of the night makes for good contrast against the WW1 chapters of Proust. It's a pity that many people won't reach the last tome, for it's worth it.
posted by ersatz at 1:00 PM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


on preview: Proust wearing no clothes? It's easier to make the case he's got too many clothes on.

jack_mo, the Moncrieff translation supposedly is a bit more purple. I think there was a MeFi post somewhere, discussing the difference between the various English translations. FWIW, without being able to compare them with the original, I'm quite pleased with the last two tomes of ISoLT.

posted by ersatz at 1:10 PM on May 27, 2008


> There was this awesome moment.

Yes! And it happens again and again!

I imagine that it would be impossible to film.

Here's a critique of the original English title.

Scott-Moncrieff's French was far from perfect and he had a tendency to over-elaborate. The general title - Remembrance of Things Past - is typical of his cucumber-sandwich prose. Proust hated it, and no wonder: his active "quest" was replaced with daydreaming and commemoration. The titles of the individual volumes were prissy euphemisms: Within a Budding Grove, The Sweet Cheat Gone and The Cities of the Plain for A l'Ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, La Fugitive and Sodome et Gomorrhe.
posted by winna at 1:18 PM on May 27, 2008


jack_mo: - "In Search of Lost Time" does sound a little awkward when one is used to the "Remembrance " version of the title, but it is more accurate. And somewhere in Roger Shattuck's book (I think) he mentions that Proust himself disliked the "Remembrance" version because it lacks the sense of an active search as opposed to a passive memory.

Now, which Moncrieff translation did you get, because there are at least three. One is the original version published starting in the 1920's. Sometime around 1980 it was revised by Terrance Kilmartin - this is the version that was most common for a long time, usually seen in a three-volume set from Vintage books with silver covers. Then in 1992, when Random House re-launched the Modern Library imprint, they put out a further revision of the Moncrieff/Kilmartin version, with revisions by D.J. Enright. I think this is considered the "standard" English version for now, at least in the U.S. where it's the only edition currently in print domestically. (The newer translations by Lydia Davis et.al. that Penguin Books has put out - only four are available in the U.S. due to change in copyright law during the publishing process. To get all six of those volumes you'd have to import two from the U.K.)

Anyway. I'm reading the Modern Library paperback set, Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright, and I like it just fine. There are moments where I'm aware of a certain old-fashionedness to some phrases, but I don't mind that because it's an old book, describing events even older. To me, some old-fashioned words or phrases are to be expected, help keep the feel of the period, and I'm perfectly capable of sort of mentally comparing them to what the bits of slang might sound like today.
posted by dnash at 1:23 PM on May 27, 2008


"The Sweet Cheat Gone" is well nigh unforgivable, whatever else you might think of Scott Moncreiff.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:34 PM on May 27, 2008


For what it's worth, I've only read the Montcrieff-Enright version, but I've talked to a professor who studies Proust for a living and he says not to read the newer Lydia Davis et al books. The problem, he says, is that none of the translators, however good they may be, make an effort to maintain continuity of style across volumes, and this really impairs the reading experience.
posted by nasreddin at 1:40 PM on May 27, 2008


You get a pretty good idea of Proust by reading just one tome

That's just not true. Proust is the farthest thing imaginable from, say, Finnegans Wake or the Koran, which could be called "fractal literature" because each segment contains many of the important elements of the whole; you don't really have any idea of Proust unless you've read the whole thing. I'm not saying this to be snobby; for years I had only read the first volume and thought I "had the basic idea." I didn't. (Pity the poor reviewers who had to try to make sense of the thing as the volumes were coming out one by one!)

That's why I just bought the Moncrieff translation rather than the new one - have I made a terrible mistake?!


No—assuming you bought the 1992 revision dnash mentions, you won't regret it. It's well written and the notes are extremely helpful (plus you can get the companion volume to keep track of the characters and incidents if you want). There are all sorts of arguments about the value of the various Penguin translators versus the old standby, but that's inside baseball; you can't go wrong with the one you've got. (It's the one I read to my wife in the evenings for a year and a half, so I've read every word, sometimes twice!)

Should I try to read Proust in the original French or in an English translation? How much does the novel lose in translation?

This is a tough one. It's definitely better in French; I read the first volume in French and was thrilled with the prose. But. I then went years without getting any farther; it was just enough extra work that I couldn't make myself dive into the remaining six. When my wife and I decided to read it together, the decision was made for me, because she doesn't know French, so I got the Random House set and off we went. I have vague feelings of guilt about not having read it all in the original (though I did reread sections in French as we went along, if I thought they'd be particularly impressive), but they're far outweighed by my pleasure at having read the whole novel. My brother, who started reading it in French around the same time I did (a decade or so ago), has still not gotten beyond the second volume, and between you and me I don't think he's going to finish it. So I'd say read it in translation and tell yourself you'll get to the French one day.

After I finished it, I posted some reactions (mostly complaints) here (there's an earlier complaint about the endless etymologies here); I'd love to discuss this stuff with anyone who's made it all the way through!
posted by languagehat at 1:41 PM on May 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


you don't really have any idea of Proust unless you've read the whole thing.

I was thinking of his writing style, which you more or less get after a point (with the exception of certain scenes like the description of Venice in The Fugitive). It's true that you miss out on the subjects and themes he slowly introduces, which are a vital part of the novel and play a big part in a reader's enjoyment and in understanding the book's cultural -or literary- relevancy. After all, most of my first comment wasn't about Proust's writing style ;)
posted by ersatz at 2:42 PM on May 27, 2008


tldr
posted by Giant luck at 2:51 PM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


So I'm a volume and a half into A la récherche, and I'm. Pissed. Off. Not at the book, at all the people who sold me this total bill of goods for decades about Proust being "daunting" and "dense" and "intimidating" and "tedious," which, oddly enough, put me right off of reading him until I was 46, for god's sake. So I crack open Swann's Way last fall, all full of trepidation, and it's, like, perfectly easy, smooth, elegant reading, with these beautifully constructed sentences, nothing at all taxing -- and that rich sense of atmosphere and leisure and character and place. Who the fuck cares if it meanders and digresses? Some of the most funnest books and movies and people do. But then, the scary reputation of many Monolithic Landmark Books is nothing but lies lies lies.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:19 PM on May 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


Reading the entirety of Proust in the original is one of my major life goals, along with learning Chinese and circumnavigating Africa. I'm giving myself twenty years to do it.
I joking set myself the goal back when I could barely get through an Asterix book in French, and I though I'm a good deal times closer to starting now, it's still looking like a fairly Himalayan challenge.
The first volume sits almost untouched on my shelf, mocking me as I write this.
posted by greytape at 3:28 PM on May 27, 2008


You may find that Alain De Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life piques your interest somewhat.

I keep telling myself that when I am done with Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, at maybe a page a night, I will turn my attention to Proust, but it's likely I won't - there's just too much else out there.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:37 PM on May 27, 2008


Oh, yes, this is the quote I was looking for, I knew I had it scribbled somewhere:

“A man should read as his fancy takes him. For what he reads as a chore will do him little good.” - Johnson (I don't remember which one)
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:44 PM on May 27, 2008


"you don't really have any idea of Proust unless you've read the whole thing."

I was thinking of his writing style, which you more or less get after a point (with the exception of certain scenes like the description of Venice in The Fugitive).

This is totally true, as far as it goes: you can read as little as a few pages of Proust and have a perfectly fine sense of how the sentences will sound three thousand pages later (as opposed to, say, Molly Bloom's soliloquy, whose form you can't possibly anticipate until you're in the thick of it). But Proust's style also gains a lot of its force through repetition and accumulation, in its cadences, by the drowsy alertness (or is it alert drowsiness?) it so seductively induces. And the long sentences, for all their self-contained rhetorical splendor, always manage to suggest an incompleteness that requires a vastly larger structure to remedy. A 250-page novel written in the exact same style would either have a completely different set of effects or just not make much sense at all.
posted by dyoneo at 3:46 PM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


So I'm a volume and a half into A la récherche, and I'm. Pissed. Off. Not at the book, at all the people who sold me this total bill of goods for decades about Proust being "daunting" and "dense" and "intimidating" and "tedious," which, oddly enough, put me right off of reading him until I was 46, for god's sake. So I crack open Swann's Way last fall, all full of trepidation, and it's, like, perfectly easy, smooth, elegant reading, with these beautifully constructed sentences, nothing at all taxing...

Heh. I would have said the same thing at the same point. Let's see how you feel by the time you've gotten to Albertine disparue!
posted by languagehat at 3:57 PM on May 27, 2008


I'm trying to decide whether a grade school friend was given his name in deliberate reference to the first translator of Proust into English. But probably not.

I'll have to ask him at our HS reunion next year ...
posted by Araucaria at 4:21 PM on May 27, 2008


Hi. Thanks for the attention, and I'm glad some of you enjoyed my reflections. I did finish the book, but personal and occupational issues distracted me away from finishing the blog, and by the time I was free again, the moment had passed. (The Movable Type installation had also broken in the meantime.) I did write a final entry on the main blog which I have now crossposted: A la Fin du Temps Perdu.

For what it's worth...in my opinion, the thing is worth finishing and pays dividends for it. Proust was smart enough to write the (incredibly brilliant) ending before writing a good chunk of the middle, so there is no letdown.

I agree with ersatz and others that the book has a massive cumulative effect, but there's certainly a lot to be gained from reading the first volume or two alone. Things are revisited and ironized further in the later volumes, particularly in The Captive, but no one should avoid Swann's Way if they think they won't read all seven. The hardest volume for me to get through was Sodom and Gomorrah, as it felt the most diffuse and aimless.

As for translations, I read the first revision of the Moncrieff (sans Enright) and Davis's first volume of the new translation, and thought them comparable. Several people boost Davis, but after a bit of comparison with the French, I don't think the difference is so striking as to give one or the other a decisive edge. Davis is more precise and concise, while Moncrieff/Kilmartin has a better flow. I started on the second volume of the new translation but found the translation inferior to Moncrieff/Kilmartin (I'll take Within a Budding Grove over In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower any day), and stuck with Moncrieff/Kilmartin.
posted by waggish at 8:44 PM on May 27, 2008


Decoherence: Just before I read your comment about Larry McMurtry, I was thinking about his novel, "Duane's Depressed," in which Duane Moore's psychiatrist has him read "Remembrance of Things Past."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:56 AM on May 28, 2008


Reading is subtle act of trust, allowing one's self to drift into a hypnotic trance. Marcel Proust wanders through one's open mind in velvet slippers.
posted by tgyg at 8:54 AM on May 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hiya, waggish!
posted by cortex at 9:16 AM on May 28, 2008


Hi, waggish! Thanks for the link to your wrap-up (though I'm not sure why you felt the need to avoid spoilers in a discussion of a book almost a century old); I see you wound up with a pretty much completely favorable impression:
Is it, in the words of an old professor, the greatest thing ever written? I can't say that it is, because part of me feels that admitting that would be to narrow the scope of my world to that of Proust's. But is it the greatest success ever written, a book that sets out very specific terms and fulfills them beyond any expectation, comparable to Joyce or Kant? Possibly.
I take it, then, you have no problem with the long, long Albertine sections or the many other longueurs? I felt that it was a great novel that would have benefited from being pruned.
posted by languagehat at 9:44 AM on May 28, 2008


I suppose I give Proust a pass because he didn't fully revise the later sections (except for the end) before dying, and Proust was such an obsessive rewriter that I think the middle sections would have greatly improved even without being trimmed. I didn't find the Albertine sections too draggy, though, perhaps because those sections are (a) comparatively focused, and (b) very reflexive on earlier parts of the book (Swann, for instance).

I read that the original plan was for it to be about 500,000 words, but Proust expanded it to its current 1.5M word length fairly early on. It seems that the 500,000 words would have been the earlier parts of the book more or less as they are, with far less in books 4, 5, and 6 and the first half of 7.

Somewhat analogously, Joyce followed this sort of development with Finnegans Wake: the main structure of the book was written by the mid-20s, and much of the last decade of work on it was bulking up the number of allusions and puns. (I'm not sure, but I believe the infamous Oxen of the Sun chapter of Ulysses was written late in the game as well, it being the most gratuitously pyrotechnic and allusive of the book.)

Lesson: write your brilliant endings first!
posted by waggish at 1:33 PM on May 28, 2008


Heh. I would have said the same thing at the same point. Let's see how you feel by the time you've gotten to Albertine disparue!

Ha, a double-dog dare from le chapeau de la langue! That (and this thread) is enough to motivate me to purchase volumes 3-6. Of course, I'm also reading The Raj Quartet and A Dance to the Music of Time, rotating volumes of all these massive tomes with bunches of other books, so it'll be some time yet before I reach the end of Marcel. However, as one of the few people who've survived multiple readings of, god help me, Pound's Cantos, I'm confident that I can outlast these prolix pricks.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:45 PM on June 3, 2008


I'm also reading The Raj Quartet and A Dance to the Music of Time, rotating volumes of all these massive tomes with bunches of other books, so it'll be some time yet before I reach the end of Marcel. However, as one of the few people who've survived multiple readings of, god help me, Pound's Cantos, I'm confident that I can outlast these prolix pricks.

Wow. I will never again vaunt my own prolixity-vanquishing powers; I doff my chapeau in awe. Please MeMail me when you have further things to say about le grand Marcel! But have you read The Man Without Qualities? Huh? No, me neither.
posted by languagehat at 6:36 PM on June 3, 2008


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