How the French Reread Proust
There Are Three Types of People, and All of Them Reread Proust
Dante in Italy, Cervantes in Spain, Shakespeare in England, Goethe in Germany—each is almost unanimously considered his country’s greatest writer. But what about France? The answer is not so clear. As I surveyed dozens of authors, editors, translators, professors, and booksellers for my recent book, Relire, on the experience and practice of rereading, nearly a quarter of respondents opted for Proust. And for the French, it seems, rereading Proust is something akin to an addiction.
Throughout 2014, at the end of his weekly interview show, Des idées sous les platanes, Xavier de La Porte asked guests to name “a text reread again and again.” One in five answered “Proust.” The anthropologist and linguist Claire Herrenschmidt named Time Regained, and the writer Bernard Carvalho and the graphic designer Robert Massin said the entire Remembrance; the former claimed he had never finished it, the second had read it no less than seven times.
If the interviewer had pressed the question, he doubtlessly would have discovered that Remembrance of Things Past arouses addictions, behaviors, and peculiarities like no other work. We reread Alexandre Dumas the way we reread Jules Verne, we reread Balzac the way we reread Stendhal, or Claude Simon the way we reread Robbe-Grillet. Of course our practices and motivations are not always the same, but, on the whole, we feel as if we were using the same mental programs. With Proust, it’s as if we have to change hard drives, as if another language was being used and another adventure was just starting.
When Elisabeth Ladenson, the author of Proust’s Lesbianism (2004) was asked which book she had reread the most, she answered, calmly and much like André Gide: “Remembrance of Things Past, alas.” She continued:
Not only does this work lend itself to rereading, it practically calls for it. It’s not just an effect of the ouroboric structure, the twist of the end circling back to the beginning because the fundamental premise is the narrative of a massive writer’s block, retold and finally, potentially, overcome. There are also, I think, plenty of other reasons. I’ll try to enumerate them:
1. The size of it all. It is hard for a normal person (unable to focus wholly on reading the novel due to other activities) to read it all in one go; so, intermittent rereading.
2. The complexity of it all. You get the feeling that you haven’t caught everything; so, rereading.
3. The theme of rereading is visible in the novel itself. Because the narrator is constantly re-interrogating his original perceptions of everything he experiences, comprehensive rereading becomes a comprehensive, insistent theme and that can only spur the reader to do so.
4. The novel is infinitely rereadable because it contains too many themes for them all to be seen the first time around. As Barthes so elegantly put it, we never skip over the same passages, and it is particularly true that we never even read the same passages thoroughly. […]
5. Another element that contributes to the effect of prerereading, but which wasn’t intended by the author, would be the paratextual apparatus—index, summaries, concordances—that can be found by readers, rereaders, and especially prerereaders. Without them, it would be far harder to talk about the entire Remembrance at length without having actually read it in full. I can remember perfectly when I was consulting all those, a bit hysterically, while I was preparing a lecture on the theme of jealousy in the whole work even though I hadn’t really read much more than the first volume. I felt like I was being dishonest, but I would still recommend this course of action to students: otherwise, they’d feel paralyzed by the immensity of it all.
One other observation:
Michael Riffaterre liked to say (and say again) that the Remembrance is like the Bible in terms of how it could be opened at random for the answer to any question. A game of sortes Proustiannae, as it were. I think it’s true, but for it to work, you have to have read it already.
All these reasons make the Remembrance the single title to reread above all others. But what kind of rereading? My research shows at least three.
The first, which is the most common, consists of a full reading at the end of childhood or at the start of adulthood (between 16 and 25 years), then a partial reread over the years, whether by extracts (bits here or there, at random), by individual volumes, by themes (thanks to the summaries in Clarac’s edition, which enable navigation throughout the work), or in phases (often during crises, depression, or insomnia, as happened to Pierre Pachet). Such fragmentary rereadings have been done by such writers as François Bon, Dominique Noguez, Sylvie Granotier, Roger Grenier, Philippe Forest, Michel Onfray, François Noudelmann, Colette Kerber, Tiphaine Samoyault, or even René de Ceccatty, who adds: “The first time reading Proust made me feel as if I were drunk. I was very young (I was 16 . . .), but old enough or mature enough to understand the enormous literary stakes of this œuvre. And this drunkenness, which happened once, never recurred. Same thing for the drunkenness I’d felt when reading Jean Genet for the first time two years later. In both cases, my rereadings were far more intellectual, cerebral, tied to specific research (recently, for example, I reread part of the Remembrance for the book I just wrote about Greta Garbo who was supposed to play the Queen of Naples for a film Luchino Visconti ultimately never made). That drunkenness would never be replicated.”
The same thing, albeit in different circumstances, goes for François Bon. “I’ll never figure out how to regain the wrenching force or vertigo I underwent the first time I read the Remembrance, in total immersion, for five straight weeks in Bombay in 1980, for at least two years after then I resisted . . . Afterwards, depending on the subject of your work, for example if you were reading Simondon on technological objects, and wanted to get a better sense of player pianos or magic lanterns or the history of aviation, you would go back to Proust in a more precise, surgical way.”
The second type of rereading concerns the smallest group, the one that has read the full Remembrance several times and experiences, every time, an inebriation that is renewed, different, deepened. Genviève Brisac, Cécile Guilbert, Annie Ernaux, Christine Angot, Marianne Alphant, and Éric Aeschimann have gone back into the book two or three times, from the first sentence to the last, each one experiencing the same sensation: the book changes, and regenerates with every reading. Elisabeth Ladenson proposes this explanation: “The very best books give the impression of evolving, likely for the reason Proust mentioned when he compared novels to optical instruments designed so that the reader can better read himself. The worst ones change differently: they expose the truth of their uninterestingness.” Jacques DuBois, who is surprised by every rereading of Proust, as if passages had been surreptitiously added in, invokes Barthes and his defense of polysemic, “plural reading” that gives us this impression of continuous regeneration. The psychoanalyst Sabine Prokhoris sums up this phenomenon in a delightful phrase: “The best books never grow old, they transform. It’s the reader who grows old.”Even Jean-Yves Tadié, who oversaw the Pléiade edition and therefore remains a special case, insists today that he’s holding out against a sixth rereading—but concludes that there will always be something new to be found. Doubtless, he says, because “the Remembrance is one of those very rare books that touches on everything: death, time, but also extraordinarily specific things, such as botany. A recent study, for example, showed that Proust mentioned no less than 250 plants in Remembrance.”
These extensive and repeated rereadings of Proust’s grand cycle also correspond to the phases of a reader’s personal life and the preoccupations inherent in particular ages and times (although that is no surprise). “I read Remembrance all the way through twice,” Camille Laurens said. “At twenty, I was most sensitive to the psychological analyses; at forty, I saw most clearly the irony and humor.” Évelyne Bloch-Danos describes another trajectory: “The first time, I read it at 18, like a crime novel, a beach book. I went to Portugal with three friends and we read pocket editions, one at a time. I was the one who started, and after the second volume, I had to read each one very fast because the others were impatient to read what happened next. It was the comedy of it all that stood out at us. We repeated Cottard’s jokes and loved it. But more than anything, the Remembrance thoroughly altered the idea I’d had of love. It was a way for me to escape my romanticized notions. I reread the Remembrance around 35, more slowly and carefully this time. I was interested in how the novel was constructed, in the way characters came back, in the more formal elements. I reread it a third time, in a more focused way, about 15 years later, when I wrote the biography of Proust’s mother.”
Between these two types of rereading, there’s a third kind that I would call preliminary grazing. These (re)readers don’t always specify that they’ve read the Remembrance in full, but rather that they’ve reread specific passages again and again. And this is one of the particularities of Proust’s work: that it can be experienced via shortcuts and detours. I once heard Jean-Yves Tadié comparing this phenomenon to those scenes from Hollywood Westerns, where Indians can be seen encircling the Yankee forts, and keep on circling around endlessly. This strategy of stalling in front of the fortifications is likely due to a fear of getting to the heart of an intimidating corpus already overflowing with commentary, which ends up turning Proust into somewhat of a sacred cow. “The Remembrance has accompanied me since I was 25,” wrote Philippe Claudel (who is now 53), “but I still haven’t finished it, far from it, because I keep backsliding, more or less three steps forward, two steps back. I think I’ll die before finishing it. It actually seems like I have to die before finishing it. Any other way would be sacrilege for me.”
Jean Echenoz, in turn, highlights another relationship with the text: “I’ve spent four years wandering through the three-volume Pléiade edition, which I read in bits and pieces. Two or three years ago, I took the first volume and read the entire thing from start to finish for the first time. So I can certainly say that I read it after having reread it.” So, contrary to the commonly held notion, it’s rereading that leads to reading, and not the other way around. But only for Proust’s œuvre. No other author merits this paradoxical honor.
These three types of rereading are not, of course, exhaustive. It would be surprising not to come across an archetypal compulsive rereader, who rereads the Remembrance every summer. Pierre Assouline is the sole case among those interviewed. But this activity is a welcome counterpoint for those who are constantly forced to read the latest news: “Remembrance of Things Past is the only book I reread regularly. Rereading it only while on vacation brings me pure joy; I feel intelligent, which is a rare feeling; and it enables me to renew the breadth of my vocabulary. As for everything else, I only glance through here and there, haphazardly, when I’m looking for something.”
Alongside these general manners of rereading Proust, there are particularities. These are mainly centered on the book’s physical aspects, its edition, the series in which it’s published. Marike Gautier, who directs Éditions Le Passage, has read the Remembrance five times, each time in a different edition (in the Gallimard Blanche edition, the edition illustrated by Grau-Sala, both Pléiade editions, and a pocket edition). Some others insist, on the contrary, that they cannot read Proust in any edition other than their favorite one. For the critic Olivier Barrot, reading the Remembrance in Gallimard’s single-volume Quarto edition “is an experience every bit as physiological as intellectual,” one that he can’t deny himself. Évelyne Bloch-Dano, who usually doesn’t give much weight to such bibliophilic questions, acknowledges that she’s grown obsessed with the mass-market Livre de Poche editions. “Alas,” she confides even while smiling in apology for her semantic chiasmus, “one day, I lost Time Regained.” She had to settle for rereading the title in a Folio edition, but she was insistent: “it’s not as good.” Today, Évelyne Bloch-Dano has to make do with just the first volume from her favorite collection. Three months after she sent me her answers to the interview for my book on rereading, a fire destroyed part of her house and her library. All the volumes of the Remembrance perished, except for Swann’s Way, a remnant that was burnt but still usable. The Pléiade editions were saved both by their case and their plastic jackets. Let it be known that the fire happened while Évelyne Bloch-Dano was in the countryside watching a Proust Special on TV, in which she had taken part.
If I mention these details, it is because they strike me as symptomatic of the relationship that chance, coincidence, and the reader’s unconscious have with Proust’s œuvre. Évelyne Bloch-Dano is the author of a biography of Proust’s mother; as it happens, she is also the author of a piece about her own mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, which itself is another form of losing regained time. These parallels between Proust’s masterpiece and the lives of its (re)readers are far more frequent than might be expected. Another example: Geneviève Brisac had trouble understanding, when she was about 20 years old, that her boyfriend at the time was leaving for the summer not with her, but with “a friend” (who was in all likelihood his boyfriend). It was only many years later that she realized why, that summer, alone in Paris, she decided to read the Remembrance, starting rather atypically with Sodom and Gomorrah. Proust, or the unconscious revealed. An experience that mirrors Sabine Prokhoris’s: “One day, around the time I was about 37 right when I was ready to leave someone without quite having realized it, I began to reread The Fugitive in full. Two months later, I packed my bags and moved out.” As for the novelist and screenwriter Cécile Vargaftig, she started reading the Remembrance straight through, which she’d only read parts of before, during a hospital stay, where she had a very serious asthma attack—the most utterly Proustian of all maladies.
These little stories, anecdotal as they may seem, reveal what to me seems the most singular aspect of rereading Proust: symbolic identification. This brings to mind Lacan’s Seminar IX, where he distinguishes imaginary identification (by recognizing a body’s form in the mirror) from symbolic identification (which happens through the Other’s designation and through the “I,” which makes it possible to say: “I am So-and-So”). To read or reread Proust brings about this symbolic identification at every level. From the first example to the last, it has really only ever been a question of being named or naming oneself: from “I am a writer” to “I am asthmatic”(or both), the Remembrance systematically determines names given and names taken individually, thereby establishing a relationship between the reader-rereader, the author, and the book that has no other parallel in the accounts of rereading other texts I have gathered.
And now, in conclusion, I’d like to add one last account: my own. I come from a family where Proust was “the little reporter at the end of the table.” Throughout my adolescence, I’d heard about the characters in the Remembrance, convinced that they were uncles or cousins I hadn’t met yet, whose bon mots were repeated just like the witticisms uttered by real people at dinners in town, so that I could not distinguish them at all; I saw uneducated duchesses laughing in the face of Proust’s snobbishness and at his fascination with the aristocracy; I heard, in passing, anti-Semitic and homophobic words coming from the mouths of distinguished men who spent their time denouncing Madame Verdurin’s vulgarity and extolling the exquisite taste of “Oriane.” When I was 20, I finally read the Remembrance. And in doing so, I did not have the impression of rereading it, as if I had been fooled by these conversations which I had encountered before the book, but rather of rereading, in a new light, the reality surrounding me. Proust’s absolute superiority to an uncultivated and conceited social class made an unforgettable impression upon me, by revealing the most liberating of symbolic identifications, which proved to be true in all my rereadings: the people surrounding me didn’t exist; they were, stricto sensu, characters in Proust. And what finally convinced me of this was that they didn’t even realize it.
Adapted from Relire: Enquête sur une passion littéraire (Flammarion, 2015). Translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is the digital editor of Music & Literature Magazine. His translations from French include Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins (Deep Vellum, 2016) and Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus (Open Letter, 2017), as well as numerous texts by Marie Darrieussecq, Hervé Guibert, Régis Jauffret, and Kaija Saariaho, among others. A graduate of Yale University, his writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, The New Republic, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, and VICE.