So I’ve now finished the first volume of Proust’s novel (and I’m counting each volume as a separate book!). It’s taken me about two months to read the entire thing; I’ve been reading in small chunks of about 10 pages or so, and read about 50 pages a week. For me, that’s the perfect way to read it; regularly enough to keep the story and ideas fresh in my mind, but at a slow enough pace to absorb it and to keep from feeling bogged down. This is most definitely not a book to rush.
And I’ve found it so very rewarding. Proust’s sentences are beautiful, long and digressive and convoluted, but they do yield their meaning, even if I have to read them a couple of times and turn the pages back and forth and back and forth to piece everything together. The book has sections that read quickly as well, particularly in the long middle section that tells the story of Swann and Odette. Here I found myself getting caught up in the story and the pages flew by. But best of all are Proust’s insights into consciousness, into what it’s like to be a young boy, for example, a very intense, intelligent, yearning young boy. We see him as both a little ridiculous – one of the things I liked was how I could imagine exactly why his parents found him exasperating – and as completely sympathetic and awe-inspiring and wonderful. His longing for his mother, and later for Gilberte, is moving; we know that such an intense, emotional child is bound to experience much struggle and pain.
This volume does have a carefully-wrought structure, although one entirely of Proust’s own devising; we begin with the unnamed narrator and a story of longing, and we end with that same narrator, a little older, longing still. All through the novel, Proust explores the way the mind mediates our experiences, shaping them through memory or desire; he considers how art affects his characters – the crucial role music and painting play in Swann’s love affair with Odette, for example. The novel is very much about reading; we learn a little about the narrator’s reading habits and desires in the first section, but also characters attempt to read one another, Swann desperately trying to understand Odette, the narrator reading much into everything his mother says, and then at the end turning the same attention toward Gilberte. The book trains readers to pay close attention, to their own minds and to other people and to the world. It contains some of most beautiful, detailed descriptions of nature I’ve read.
And the novel’s length strikes me as necessary, and not only because Proust needs the length to say what he wants to say about his characters and his ideas; there is something about living with this book for a long time, in much the same way that in reading Clarissa we come to feel like she is a companion, that we live with her, that we know her and she is a part of our lives. In Proust, we spend many, many hours luxuriating in the complexity of the mind and of emotion. We are forced – if we read carefully – to experience things slowly and to pay attention, to dig deeply into life.
And the way the narrative moves around in time, from the narrator as an older man describing himself as he is now, to the narrator telling stories from his childhood, to the narrator telling Swann’s story which took place before he was born, forces us to consider how our experience of time differs from “regular” clock time. In our minds, we move through time, back and forth, from past to present to future, easily and quickly. Proust’s central theme is memory, that capacity that holds us together and gives us a coherent identity. Except that our memories are not ours to control. A coherent identity may be an illusion, one fostered by memory, our ability to hold together disparate chunks of time, and undermined by memory too, since we can remember and forget involuntarily.
I’m looking forward to the other volumes; I’m curious about what Proust does with plot, oddly enough, perhaps. What will happen to these characters? Or will we even stay with these characters, or move on to others? But most of all, I’m looking forward to the company of Proust’s prose and his mind.