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A little help with reading the hardest books in the world? :)

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How Proust can Change your Life by Alain de Botton

So maybe that’s a slightly flippant title for a post – is Proust’s Remembrance of Times Past/In Search of Lost Time the hardest book in the world? I’m not sure – I’ve read many a ‘difficult’ book in my time, but so far I’ve only got through the first two volumes of Proust (after owning them for over 30 years). The problem for me is more with the structure of the book than anything else; they require long, uninterrupted periods of reading to do them justice, and frankly my life is so fragmented that I rarely get that. However, I *am* determined that I will one day finish the sequence.

That’s perhaps by the by; what I’m supposed to be writing about here is a book *about* Proust, and quite a famous one at that. I’ve been aware of de Botton’s book for some time (I’m sure I’ve seen reviews on blogs I follow) and so when I came across a copy in a charity shop the time seemed right to read it.

“How Proust Can Change Your Life” is structured in nine sections, each taking a different angle on the great author. So one will consider “How to Love Life Today” while another ponders on the problem of “How to Suffer Successfully” and yet another looks at “How to Express Your Emotions”. Each section is a scintillating mix of biographical snippets, philosophical musings and insights into the work of Proust, how it’s best read and what you’ll get out of the books.

One section I found particularly appealing was “How To Take Your Time”; I read fast, often too fast, and the whole point with Proust is to read slowly, appreciating the language and the detail. Plot isn’t necessarily all, it’s experiencing the moment in depth, in all its glory. In our modern, fast-paced, short attention span world that’s harder to do than it ever was, and I imagine I’ll return to de Botton’s book for guidance on this as I need to slow my reading if I can!

Interestingly, though, it’s not only to Proust that de Botton’s thoughts can be applied; they’re more like ideas for life in general, and indeed how Proust can change the way you treat the everyday. In many ways, this reads almost like a self-help book, taking advice from the great author and using this to improve ourselves; appreciating what we have and not coveting more; and being honest about our friendships and what they really are for.

The final chapter goes into territory that makes me twitch a little – “How to Put Books Down”! Are books the be-all and end-all, or should we be spending more of our time living instead of reading? I suppose there needs to be balance, but to honest I’ve always agreed with Morrissey that “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more”….!

So, a fascinating book which serves to make Proust approachable as well getting you thinking about your lot in life, and life in general. De Botton is not scared to point out flaws or make criticisms, even having a bit of a laugh at the expense of his subject at times. However, he portrays the Proust and his great work as approachable and essential which hopefully will help me to get onto the next volume!

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Reading Proust: Swann’s Way

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The reading of Marcel Proust’s epically long work, known variously as “Remembrance of Things Past” or “In Search of Lost Time”, depending which translation you read, has the reputation of being one of the most difficult things to do amongst bookish folks! And it’s true that I’ve been carrying around my three Penguin volumes for over three decades, thinking that one day I would read Proust. In fact, reading Proust is often spoken of with the same kind of trepidation as the reading of Joyce’s “Ulysses” although with the Frenchman it’s the length of the volumes (and the sentences!) which seems to be the most off-putting.

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Whatever – as I said here, I was moved to embark on Proust properly (after a couple of abortive attempts in the past) thanks to a fellow LibraryThinger, Laura, and I’m going to tackle it a novel at a time, with gaps in between. So the first one is in my volume entitled Swann’s Way, and that’s where I have begun.

First, a word on Proust himself, from Wikipedia: “Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922) was a French novelist, critic, and essayist best known for his monumental novel ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ (‘In Search of Lost Time’; earlier translated as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’). It was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927.”

Interestingly, he died before the work was fully completed and there have been different versions of the later books pieced together over the years. The first English translation was by C. K. S. Moncrieff, from what is now regarded as a non-definitive version, and he was actually working on it while Proust was still alive. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and was the standard for years, until a new French version was put together and so Moncrieff’s translation was updated to reflect this by Terence Kilmartin, and it’s this version I have; an omnibus in three volumes from Penguin in the 1980s.

More recently, there have been new English versions by a group of different translators. I confess I’m a little wary of the idea of the various volumes not being rendered in the same ‘translated voice’ so I’ve stuck with my older version and so we’ll see how I get on!

Book 1 is “Swann’s Way”, and it’s divided into four sections: Overture; Combray; Swann in Love and Place-Names: The Name. It’s 462 pages long, which is half the page length of some Russian chunksters I’ve read recently – but that doesn’t necessarily make it a quick read….

“Overture” introduces us to our unnamed narrator (I believe he later is given the name Marcel), a boy much occupied by love of his mother, and the need for her to come and tuck him in with a goodnight kiss; if family friend Charles Swann is visiting for dinner, then he doesn’t get his night-time visit. Here we first come across the character who will dominate much of the first book. Marcel is obviously a highly strung, perhaps sickly, boy; subject to dreams and night terrors, unreasonably anxious about things. This section ends with Proust’s most famous piece of writing, that of the ‘peitit madeleine’, the taste of which triggers memory.

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“Combray” tells of Marcel’s life when his family are visiting the country and staying with great-aunt Leonie, an invalid, and of the countryside around them and the ambience, sights, smells, sounds and people of the area. There are two country walks the family take, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, which are described in much detail; and Swann has become someone they cannot visit because his wife is staying locally and it transpires he has made an unfortunate marriage. Marcel catches a glimpse of Gilberte, the Swanns’ daughter, and is instantly smitten.

“Swann in Love” gets to the heart of the story, going back in years to tell the tale of Charles Swann’s great love: his passion for Odette, basically a high-class courtesan, and the effect on his life and his psyche. This section charts the course of their affair in detail: the ups and downs; the high emotions; the jealousy and betrayal; and the reversing of roles. Much of this takes place via the house of the Verdurins, proto-Bohemians, holding soirees and deploring ‘bores’. It’s a very intense tale, and a remarkable portrait of love in all its beauties and horrors.

The final part of the book, “Place-Names: The Name”, jumps forward again and takes us to Paris, where Marcel and his family have returned home from Combray. Marcel re-encounters Gilberte, and they become playmates in the Bois du Boulogne. The passion of Swann for Odette is replicated in a slightly watered-down, younger way by Marcel and his obsession with Gilberte. The book ends with the older Marcel revisiting the Bois and regretting the passing of time and the loss of an age of elegance.

That’s a really short summary to give some idea of what the book is about, but to be honest, events as such are not what Proust is about. For a start, there’s his prose and sentence structure – incredibly long and labyrinthine, they’re actually sometimes hard to follow, but his writing is really quite gorgeous and atmospheric. We’re reading about emotions and images and the landscape and the stars and what’s inside a human and what it sees outside of itself.

“It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.”

To be a little more specific, the book is dominated by Swann and his passion; and as a portrait of hopeless, doomed love, it’s unparalleled. Charles Swann is a stockbroker of Jewish extraction; well-known, well-connected, friends with many royals and a serial seducer. He seems to do little but chase women, collect art and occasionally scribble at an article on Vermeer. When he meets Odette de Crecy, he is initially unimpressed, as she is very much not his type. Odette, however, is making a play for Swann, and initially the seduction attempts are all from her. Odette attends the somewhat strange gatherings at the Verdurins’, and here Proust has a wonderful time mocking them and their pretensions. He’s very crushing, poking fun at them all, and you wonder initially why a woman like Odette would want to mix with them (unless it’s just to meet potential male protectors!) However, as the friendship between Swann and Odette continues, the balance shifts; finding her unattractive, he strives to make her appeal to him and eventually does by turning her into an illusion, a replica of a work of art loves. By turning his perception of her into the image of something he can love he unwittingly becomes the creator of his own doom.

“Among all the modes by which love is brought into being, among all the agents which disseminate that blessed bane, there are few so efficacious as this gust of feverish agitation that sweeps over us from time to time. For then the die is cast, the person whose company we enjoy at that moment is the person we shall henceforward love. It is not even necessary for that person to attracted us, up till then, more than or even as much as others. All that was needed was that our predilection should become exclusive. And that condition is fulfilled when – in this moment of deprivation – the quest for the pleasures we enjoyed in his or her company is suddenly replaced by an anxious, torturing need, whose object is the person alone, an absurd, irrational need which the laws of this world make it impossible to satisfy and difficult to assuage – the insensate, agonising need to possess exclusively.”

As Swann falls deeply in love, Odette moves away from him. I found myself, the more I read, coming to the conclusion that he was just a bit dim! He wilfully ignores the reality of Odette’s lifestyle and past, never questioning what kind of woman she really is, until it is far too late and he is utterly obsessed. Proust (and narrator Marcel, who interjects a little disconcertingly towards the end of this section) dissects Swann’s emotions and feeling, charting the course of an all-encompassing passion. As Swann’s love and jealously become more intense, he discovers more of Odette’s lifestyle and hinted-at perversions – none of which assuage his feelings or cool his ardour.

“I do feel it’s absurd that a man of his intelligence should let himself suffer for a woman of that sort, and one who isn’t even interesting, for they tell me she’s an absolute idiot!” she added, with the wisdom invariably shown by people who, not being in love themselves, feel that a clever man should only be unhappy about a person who is worth his while; which is rather like being astonished that anyone should condescend to die of cholera at the bidding of so insignificant a creature as the comma bacillus” Princess des Laumes,

And I did find myself wondering where my sympathies lay. I felt that Proust wanted us to take Swann’s side, empathising with his pain and the indignities he goes through in his pursuit of Odette. But as a 21st century woman, I found myself understanding something of Odette’s need to survive in what is a rigid, restricted, caste-bound society world; Swann has money and privilege, which he takes for granted, but Odette only has herself to use to obtain money and security. I questioned just a little bit, too, whether Swann would actually have fallen in love with Odette, as when we see him in high society, he is obviously so much at home, so much of that milieu that it’s hard to imagine him taking such a step outside it. However, there are no absolutes in human behaviour!

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Reflecting on this book, I realise that it covers so many types of love: that of Marcel for his mother; Swann for Odette; Marcel for Gilberte; but also the other friends and family, and the landscape and natural world. Proust, through his narrator Marcel, captures beautifully and poetically the confusion of youth, full of vague, unspecified but intense longings. As he wanders through Swann’s Way or the Guermantes Way, the imagery of nature, sky and land is stunning. Finishing the book I was left with a series of most vivid and beautiful images – embracing the hawthorns; a particular musical phrase played at gathering; ghastly soirees at Verdurins; and of course the evocative taste of the madeleines.

But if this book is about anything, it is about time – the consistent theme throughout. There are in effect two Marcels – the older version who is looking back to the child; and even the young narrator is bound up in the effects of time upon his life. Time is the thing humans have the hardest job coming to terms with – how it passes, how to speed up or slow down that passing, the effect time has on us, the loss and regret at what has passed. For all of us, our past continues to resonate throughout our lives (more than we might like to admit), particularly our childhood; and Proust captures this so brilliantly in his sensuous, dreamlike prose.

“Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries which we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be.”

I’ve been asked if Proust is difficult to read, and the answer is actually no, not really. Logically enough, for a book so focussed on time, that’s the one thing you have to be prepared to give it. There is absolutely no way you can read “ROTP” quickly; I’m a fast reader, but I slowed right down here and I found the best way to enjoy the experience was to let the gorgeous prose just wash over me. Yes, sometimes you get a little lost and have to go back over a sentence or two; yes, sometimes the lush, lyrical description and the complex sentence structure *can* appear off-putting; but the effort is most definitely worth it. I thought I would be clever and read some Proust every day alongside another book, but I found it impossible – I was so engrossed in the stories of Swann and Marcel that I was drawn back in, having the experience of almost being absorbed into the book to the exclusion of everything else (which is not good when you’re supposed to be working, but you’re wanting to read your book!). The writing was so vivid and involving that it many ways the book became a kind of alternative reality that I was living through.

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This book (only the first of the sequence!) will continue to reverberate with me for a long time to come; my head is full of images of the country round Combray; of Marcel embracing the beautiful hawthorn blossom; of the Bois du Boulogne in autumn; of young Marcel’s nightlight; of the profile of Odette and her beautiful, elegant clothes. What I can put into a blog post is inevitably going to be limited – after all, people have written books and books analysing Proust and I’ve only scratched the surface here. But I will continue to give my impressions, my response to the wonderful prose of Proust. This will definitely be the year that I read “Remembrance of Things Past”!

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