Not Everyone Loves Proust
Crushingly dull. Rather infantile. A mental defective?
Lots of people love Marcel Proust. Most writers, probably. These six writers, definitely. He is frequently heralded as one of the greatest writers of all time—but not everyone is on board. Even Proust is not without his detractors, and in his case, some of them are pretty notable detractors indeed, including at least one Nobel Prize winner, a Gothic novelist, a couple of modernist masters, and a currently questionable but still important second-wave feminist. Below, indulge in some of their withering commentary on the French writer and his ecstatically interminable and ultra-famous novel, and if you’re so moved, let us know where your allegiances lie in the comments.
Kazuo Ishiguro, in an interview with HuffPo:
To be absolutely honest, apart from the opening volume of Proust, I find him crushingly dull. The trouble with Proust is that sometimes you go through an absolutely wonderful passage, but then you have to go about 200 pages of intense French snobbery, high-society maneuverings and pure self-indulgence. It goes on and on and on and on. But every now and again, I suppose around memory, he can be beautiful.
Evelyn Waugh, in a 1948 letter to Nancy Mitford:
I am reading Proust for the first time—in English of course—and am surprised to find him a mental defective. No one warned me of that. He has absolutely no sense of time. He can’t remember anyone’s age. In the same summer as Gilberte gives him a marble & Francoise takes him to the public lavatory in the Champs-Elysees, Bloch takes him to a brothel. And as for the jokes—the boredom of Bloch and Cottard.
D. H. Lawrence, in his essay “The Future of the Novel”:
Let us just for the moment feel the pulses of Ulysses and of Miss Dorothy Richardson and M. Marcel Proust . . . Is Ulysses in his cradle? Oh, dear! What a grey face! . . . And M. Proust? Alas! You can hear the death-rattle in their throats. They can hear it themselves. They are listening to it with acute interest, trying to discover whether the intervals are minor thirds of major fourths. Which is rather infantile, really.
So there you have the “serious” novel, dying in a very long-drawn-out fourteen-volume death-agony, and absorbedly, childishly interested in the phenomenon “Did I feel a twinge in my little toe, or didn’t I?” asks every character of Mr. Joyce or of Miss Richardson or M. Proust. Is my aura a blend of frankincense and orange pekoe and boot-blacking, or is it myrrh and bacon-fat and Shetland tweed? The audience round the death-bed gapes for the answer. And when, in a sepulchral tone, the answer comes and length, after hundreds of pages: “It is none of these, it is abysmal chloro-coryambasis,” the audience quivers all over, and murmurs: “That’s just how I feel myself.”
Which is the dismal, long-drawn-out comedy of the death-bed of the serious novel. It is self-consciousness picked into such fine bits that the bits are most of them invisible, and you have to go by smell.
Germaine Greer, writing in The Guardian:
If you haven’t read Proust, don’t worry. This lacuna in your cultural development you do not need to fill. On the other hand, if you have read all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, you should be very worried about yourself. As Proust very well knew, reading his work for as long as it takes is temps perdu, time wasted, time that would be better spent visiting a demented relative, meditating, walking the dog or learning ancient Greek.
Susan Hill, writing in The Spectator:
Since I was 18 I have been told I should read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu by people who knew all seven volumes by heart and loved every line. You cannot, it seems, be lukewarm about Proust. Knowing that love of it is a badge of honour, and mark of a finely attuned and appreciative literary mind, I have tried eversomany times to get beyond Book One. Indeed, I have probably read Book One more often than I have read Great Expectations, which is saying something. I have even plucked Volume Three or Seven, off the shelf and tried to start there, so please don’t judge me, or tell me I haven’t given it a chance. It’s no good. I find the endless sentences distancing, the people without interest. I cannot care about upper-class French people of the 19th century. Mea culpa, of course. My loss too. But if I have not managed to find the key by the age of 70, I guess I never will. I am denied any enjoyment of Proust’s great novel and there it is. I tried to find one word to sum up how it seems to me. The word is “anaemic.”
Candace Bushnell, in her “By the Book” interview with The New York Times:
I’m too old to be embarrassed by books I haven’t read, people I haven’t slept with and parties I haven’t gone to. However, the one writer I’ve never been able to tolerate is Proust.
James Joyce, in a 1920 letter to Frank Budgen:
I have read some pages of his. I cannot see any special talent but I am a bad critic.
Anatole France, famously (but probably apocryphally):
Life is too short, and Proust is too long.