“Are you just reading that to be snotty?”
I looked up from the book, current Within a Budding Grove. Contrary to what you might think, the voice was not from a family member, but it came from inside my head. (Yes, there are many of them, but let’s just tackle one thing at a time.)
The voice had a point, and a very valid one. Why would someone choose to read the 3,000 pages of In Search of Lost Time, outside of a college course? What would the purpose be, if only to show to friends and family how special and manly they are by reading this monstrous work? Manly may not be the right word, actually.
There are many reasons for reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and it does not involve trying to be snotty. Or manly. Last night I hit a part in the book where I discovered a little seedling Proust had planted long ago; that seedling burst into life and smacked me across the face. I know there are many more, since I’m only on Volume 2 of 7. But this scene gave me pause, and now I can reflect on why I am reading this thing.
It began about fifteen years ago, while I was browsing the literature section of our local Borders bookstore. The building is now home to Books-A-Million, and the storefront is deceiving—there are too many bare shelves now. It makes one cry. Anyway...
I had heard of Proust through Monty Python and their “Summarize Proust Competition,” and, after seeing this sketch, I did a minimal amount of research. Knowing only that the 3,000 page epic was considered one of the best pieces of literature of all time, I sought it out in the bookstore. The first thing I noticed when I opened up Swann’s Way?
The book smelled good. It was clean and crisp, and it felt like it had just come off the press. (This was the Vintage Press edition.)
Yes, I’m a book-sniffer. I also read in the bathroom.
I read the first page: “For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say ‘I’m going to sleep,’” and I was struck immediately by this line. Here was the beginning to a very long, drawn-out memory of time gone by. But there was the hint of recapture in there, also, the overpowering feeling that the author was trying to go back in time, freeze it, put it in a bottle, if only for a moment. This I could understand; if I let my mind wander back over the good times and the bad times, I felt a tugging at my heart, the brewing of a hope that I could also regain what was lost. But one can’t regain time. And so, as I read the book, sniffed it a few times, and read a few more pages, I could feel Proust calling to me: “Read this. But not now.”
Though I could understand the concept, the idea, the power of the opus, I was not mature enough for it. I still needed to cut my teeth on other literature. But yet, every week I would visit Border’s, seek out Proust, sniff, read, and put him away gently.
... And here we are, fifteen years later, 920 pages in, and fully addicted. Am I reading this to be snotty? No.
I’m reading this because I have tried to recapture the past, the lost memories, the emotions; smells that drift across my nostrils carry me at once to another time and place, and a thousand swirling memories rush through my head. The taste of a perfect steak carries me back to a road trip on Route 66, the smell of fat fryers in an alley to Germany, and the sound of a mourning dove to my childhood: A boy asking his dad why the bird is crying..... As with Proust, these memories are not linear. To and fro; forward and backward, time slips and dives.
There is also something to be said about the man who wrote all of this. In today’s world of 140-character conversation, there is no way a work of this length could be accepted by modern readers. Which is a shame, since we really can’t appreciate how taxing it was to write this novel.
Why not. It can change your life, and if you are able to see yourself within these pages, it will change your life. And not in a snotty way.