La Belle Époque
I just received Volume 4 in the mail…
On the occasion of—well, on the occasion of a bunch of things, but for starters—learning of Penguin’s publication (in 2002) of a new translation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (an edition featuring different translators for each of the seven volumes of this colossal novel), I began reading Proust, for real, this year. My goal, and anyone who has tackled this book will understand where I’m coming from here, was to force myself—perchance to learn—to read slowly for a change. For Proust utterly resists the way in which I have always read novels: I typically read for plot, I read to find out what happens next, and you simply can’t read Proust like that; rather, you must immerse yourself slowly in his long, meandering sentences, and trust that they will support your weight, sustain you through the time it takes to make sense of them, and edify you sufficiently that you want to continue reading. Indeed, the fact that I can refer to a “new” edition from 2002 speaks to the kind of approach to time required here. This is slow food for readers.
I had tackled Proust before. There was an old Terence Kilmartin/Scott Montcrieff-translated paperback hanging around the house that I’d picked up a number of times, made it through the first hundred pages, and put down again. There’s a nice photo of me and my then-baby son James, in which he’s slumped against me, dead asleep, and me with this thick tome on my lap; I’d been reading it aloud. But I didn’t have the patience to follow through, back then.
Everyone knows this story: young Marcel takes a bite of the madeleine dipped in a cup of tea and is suddenly transported by “involuntary memory” to scenes from his childhood. Many people are under the impression that this is actually what the novel is about. And yes, this episode does happen, in the first volume, Swann’s Way, and it does account for much of the next hundred-odd pages of the book. But this doesn’t even scratch the surface of what this book is about, or the places is takes you. I am saying this only partway through my fourth volume of seven, not yet clear where exactly this vast slow ship is taking me but having seen enough already to know that it’s a long voyage with many splendours. Volume One, Swann’s Way, was indeed about reminiscence of childhood; Proust’s method is an extreme version of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description”: in order to understand what happens here, I’m going to have to tell you about this other thing, and in order to understand that, you’re going to have to hear about this earlier thing, and so on… Volume One gives us a solid dose of little Marcel’s interior landscape and his key touchstones, which lay the foundation for everything to come. There is also, within the first volume, a novella, “Swann in Love,” which covers in third-person narration things that happened before Marcel was born, but which are key to understanding huge swaths of what comes later.
Volume Two, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, is as the title suggests, Marcel’s coming-of-age story. It isn’t told in the hazy reminiscence of the first volume, but rather in the clear summer light (see e.g., early Claude Monet) of his adventures at Balbec, a fictional seaside resort town in Brittany. Here, Marcel is awkward and embarrassing and all the things that complicate what would otherwise be a story of young love. But all of that lays the groundwork for what comes next: Volume Three, The Guermantes Way, gives us Marcel as a young man, finding his way into Parisian high society, at first awkward and unsure of himself, but gradually developing an eye and a sensibility—about the foibles and the tangled interdependency of the aristocracy and the upper middle class in fin de siècle Paris. Yes, there are still delirious reveries of atmospheric remembrance and reflection, but the bulk of this novel is formed by a pair of colossal set pieces: detailed tellings of a society salon and a high-end dinner party, in which Proust’s fine scalpel dissects the layers of intrigue, ambition, and vanity in what is both fly-on-the-wall depiction and biting satire.
Volume Four—Sodom and Gomorrah—is, famously, where Proust discovers and shows us the gay underbelly of Parisian high society. From a chance witnessing of an “encounter” between two characters introduced previously, Proust (suddenly) displays a rich knowledge and understanding of how gay society—as he puts it, the parallel world of “inverts”—operates. The whole first chunk of this volume is an explication of what today we would call gaydar, which has been suddenly switched on for (the ostensibly straight) Marcel, and so his society set-pieces now gain an extra, often comical, layer, partly because Proust repeatedly appeals to this biological analogy of insects and the flowers that are made to attract them and them alone—a metaphor that is just over-the-top enough, especially after repeated references, to make the whole thing pretty funny. Marcel, once tuned to them, starts noticing these signals being exchanged everywhere.
I’ve been reading these books (clocking i at roughly 700 pages per volume) at a rate of about one per month, taking it slow, reading mostly in the late afternoon, and trying to keep myself attentive to these amazing sentences that he casts, each one a little world unto itself, some of them half-a-page or more in length. Due to the shift of translator from volume to volume, I find that it takes a bit of slow, deliberate reading for the first few pages to find the rhythms and allow myself to sink into the prose. But it’s tremendously rewarding.
And yet I remind myself, roughly halfway through this epic, that it’s not going to end well, I know. On the Wikipedia page for the novel, I found a quote from Larry McMurtry, posing Proust’s novel as “the greatest catalogue of the varieties of disappointment human beings feel.” But then, novels in my experience very rarely end well or satisfyingly. Perhaps that’s an indictment of the novel, or of novelists, or perhaps that says more about my usual mode of reading, reading for plot, reading to get to what happens next. So perhaps this descent into Proust’s endlessly rich and languorous sentences will, in the end, make this journey a satisfying one.
If nothing else, reading Proust’s long and winding prose—and especially, I think, his runaway reveries on landscape and childhood memory—I find has a durable effect on my own perceptions: when Proust waxes poetic about the quality of light, I find myself more attentive to the quality of light; when he digs in to the nuances of characters’ affectations, I begin to notice such things in the people around me; and truly, Proust’s loving descriptions of hawthorns in flower have completely altered hawthorn trees for me: sure, I’ve seen them with their white or pink foliage before, but I’ll never see them the same again after reading Swann’s Way.
* That Belle Epoch pedal, by the way, is my own. I acquired that, entirely coincidentally, around the time I started reading Volume Three. The Belle Epoch is an absolutely gorgeous-sounding delay pedal that emulates a 1970s-era tape echo unit: tape echos provide the distinctive sound of Sam Phillips’ rockabilly guitars, Lee Scratch Perry’s dub reggae; Led Zeppelin’s more psychedelic moments—all those hazy fading echoes, like a childhood reminiscence. It’s the kind of thing you’ll notice everywhere once you know to listen for it.