On Proust

Because I feel like quoting Allan Massie:

There are people who can’t get enough of Proust, and those for whom any is too much. This year marked 100 years since Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, was published, and it is firmly established as one of the greatest novels, even if it remains for many one of the greatest Unread.

Actually, Proust had difficulty in getting it published. When he sent the manuscript to the Nouvelle Revue Française, it was returned without the parcel having been opened; his devoted housekeeper, Céleste Albaret, recognised the peculiar knots she had tied in the string. It seems that André Gide had thought it ridiculous to suppose that a little socialite like M Proust could have written a novel of any interest. Eventually Proust paid for the publication himself, and the publisher got himself a bargain, because the book he had accepted so doubtfully was soon being acclaimed as a masterpiece.

It is that, but there are still those who cannot get on with it. It’s not a novel you can nibble at, not first time round anyway. I recommend total immersion. That was how, urged on by a friend who was in thrall to it, I first read it, in the Scott-Moncrieff translation, in my last year at Cambridge; one of the most marvellous fortnights of my life. Since that first reading I have returned to it again and again.

Yet even devoted Proustians recognise, or should recognise, why others have a problem. The book goes on and on. Many of the sentences are labyrinthine. There are long introspective passages, long passages of analysis, equally long passages of description. Exquisite no doubt, but calling to mind Robert Louis Stevenson’s remark that nobody speaks about a beautiful view for five minutes; so why write about such things at length? Yet Alain de Botton once declared that the best bits of Proust are the descriptions and passages of analysis – just what I now tend to skip. This merely shows that different people discover different riches in the book.

Evelyn Waugh – surprisingly – found Proust a bore: “Nobody told me he was a mental defective. He has no sense of time.” (A joke, perhaps, in view of the novel’s title.) “And as for the jokes – the boredom of Bloch and Cottard.” This was in a letter to Nancy Mitford, and may have been intended as a tease. She rose to the bait, splendidly, commiserating with him on having to read it in English: “There is not one joke in all the 16 of S-Moncrieff’s volumes.” (Not true.) “In French, one laughs from the stomach.” She thought Proust was as funny as Wodehouse. That may be an exaggeration, but it hits the right note.

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