How to read Proust
A guide to getting through Remembrance of Things Past
One of the few worthwhile things to have come out of lockdowns is the reminder that, in the same humble way as our grandparents, who spent goodness knows how much money on Time Life boxed sets of Wagner LPs and all those volumes of the Harvard Classics, many of us still take an old-fashioned aspirational interest in highbrow culture. While the reality of pandemic reading has doubtless fallen short of these ambitions, it is heartening to know that thousands of people last April at least thought to themselves, "This is my chance to read Proust."
Remembrance of Things Past (as I prefer to think of it) is probably the least read of all "Great Books," with the obvious exception of Finnegans Wake, which is neither great nor a book. Why this is the case is not entirely clear. It cannot be a simple question of length. At a few thousand pages and around 1,250,000 words, Proust is only slightly longer than Harry Potter, which has been read by millions of children, and A Song of Ice and Fire, a novel cycle about hobbits who have sex, stands unfinished at more than 5,000 pages. Both of these have sold many millions of copies. (The latter has also taken much longer to write than Remembrance.)
If I had to guess, I would say that in the vast majority of cases the same handful of things prevent the average reader who is otherwise inclined to sit down with Proust from getting on. To begin at the beginning, the Combray overture at the outset of the first volume, Swann's Way, ("For a long time I used to go to bed early") is the most pleasant description of sleepiness ever written. It is also more or less the only feeling most people associate with the author who, they would be astonished to learn, wrote equally well about love, family, religion, art, music, politics, fashion, the beauty of the natural world, anti-Semitism, and the weather.
For this reason, my first piece of advice for aspiring Proustians is not to read the book at night, which is when most people tend to enjoy novels. Instead, begin your reading in the morning, with a cup of coffee and a clear head. For most people this will be the only path to the undiscovered country beyond Combray.
It follows from here that Proust should be read slowly, 20 or so pages at a time. (When you are a thousand or so pages in and cannot help yourself from pressing on to learn what Brichot has to say about the death of Swann, you will have reached the stage at which it is probably acceptable to lie down with Proust.) Sooner or later readers will discover that the novel unfolds not slowly per se but at something that approximates the pace of life itself — or, better yet, that "real life" is blissfully Proustian.
Another pitfall is the assumption (based, again, as far as I can tell on the fact that most would-be readers have not made it past the first eight or so pages of Swann's Way) that Proust is a very dour and introspective writer who is far more interested in what his narrator is feeling and thinking than what, if anything, happens in the world around him. Nancy Mitford told Evelyn Waugh more than half a century ago that English speakers have always misunderstood Proust, whereas to the French he might as well be P.G. Wodehouse. This is an exaggeration, but not a very gross.
This brings me to my next point, which is that one should try to read Proust alongside at least one other person, preferably an experienced Proustian who is making his way through for the second or third or tenth time. Remembrance is the most complete portrait of a society in all of modern literature, one that is impossibly remote from the world of 60 years ago, much less today. It is a lonely place to visit without a guide or at least a fellow tourist.
My final suggestion is about the edition one chooses. Leaving aside those fluent readers of French in my audience, I can say without hesitation that the first translation by C.K. Scott Moncriefff — the original, mind you, minus the revisions by Terrence Kilmartin and later D.J. Enright — is not only the best version in our language but one of the finest specimens of English prose in the 20th century.
In some ways it is unfortunate that Scott Moncrieff is in the public domain. Most of the editions that have appeared in the last half century might have been designed by a committee whose goal was to prevent the public from reading Proust. (Such committees did more or less exist in the Soviet Union, where he and Joyce were proscribed as "carriers of decadence.") Instead of the hulking gray door stoppers we have all seen in second-hand bookshops, the best way to experience Remembrance of Things Past is in the old pocket-sized octavos published by Chatto & Windus many decades ago, which split several thousand pages of prose into 12 manageable-looking volumes of around 300 pages. While these sets (with their gorgeous robin's egg blue boards and chalk-white dust jackets) are not always easy to track down, they are also a worthwhile investment. Readers who doubt that a couple hundred dollars is a reasonable price for a year's worth of entertainment should consider how much they are paying monthly for the privilege of streaming films that they or their parents had already purchased in at least two physical mediums.
Unlike the proprietors of Blue Apron, I cannot guarantee my recipe for reading Proust. It is entirely possible that even when enjoyed under the ideal conditions he will not be to the taste of many who think of themselves as the kind of "bookish" people inclined to appreciate million-word novel cycles about turn-of-the-century French life. But I cannot escape the feeling that it will be because he has somehow failed to meet their narrow expectations rather than because there is something lacking in him. As Justice Breyer once put it, "It's all there in Proust — all mankind!"