Six Reasons Why You Must Read Proust
Happy Birthday, Marcel
July, 2006: At the corner of 114th and Broadway, Linda the bookseller held court in a deck chair that seemed somehow aggrieved by the role it played. It sagged and creaked and scraped against the concrete. Linda was large, pale, and managed to look perennially exasperated. I’d never heard her speak. There were tables of books, all in pristine condition and all for $5—exotic, colorful and inviting. But I hadn’t yet felt the significant pull that one can only experience when having discovered what to read next. I reached for something, and then I heard a girlish voice say, “This is the one for you.”
I put down $5, squeaked out a “thank you” and walked away with a bright-red cloth-covered volume of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. I’d heard of Proust, but aside from nominal recognition, I had little else. But if it got Linda talking, I was intrigued. I got on the downtown 1 at 110th and flipped the book open. “For a long time, I used to go to bed early…” That was it. I was hooked.
Now we have less a shelf of Proust than a bookcase devoted to him. There are three different translations of In Search of Lost Time, four different biographies, collections of letters and several works of literary criticism. Consider this a call-to-arms. You, yes, you, must read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It’s the book of life and the book of a lifetime.
What is it about Proust’s masterwork that people find so daunting? So few actually read it or even take a stab at it compared to other modernist classics. Since 1998, two translations of In Search of Lost Time have been published. There is Lydia Davis’s astounding edition, which has sold approximately 80,000 copies since its 2004 trade paper publication. There’s also the updated Moncrieff translation published in 1998, which clocks in at around 40,000 copies. All told, about 100,000 copies sold over nearly 20 years. This is compared to the nearly 60,000 copies of Finnegans Wake sold since 1999, the 613,000 copies of Mrs. Dalloway sold since 1990, or the 370,000 copies of The Sound and The Fury since 1990. Since 2006 alone, Infinite Jest has sold 354,000 copies. To put it in in really haunting perspective, Atlas Shrugged has sold nearly two million paperbacks since 1996.
Before you say, well, those are each only one book, I say pah! There are plenty of other multi-volume series doing terrifically. Plenty of people, including a Gilmore Girl and a First Lady, are tackling the 1,700 pages of Ferrante. And then there are the 3,600 pages of Knausgaard—which outstrips Proust by 300. This is why considering the seven volumes of Swann’s Way separately would be of value.
When you look at the other great works of modernism (or Atlas Shrugged), Swann’s Way, and In Search of Lost Time to a larger extent, are far more accessible, inspiring, aesthetically pleasing and of greater resonance in today’s society.
If you still aren’t sure what to make of Kanye West’s Famous, then this is the book for you.
Better even than James or Wharton, Proust is the consummate social novelist. He offers portraits of varied social classes that are psychologically resonant in ways other authors can’t even begin to replicate. For Proust, the duchess and the seamstress are of equal interest, their desires and shortcomings treated with the same deftness. That’s what makes the work so important and viable. It isn’t, as culturally assumed, an elitist, inaccessible collection of memories concerning aristocracy written by a weak, if not outright, invalid aristocrat. That is a reductionist viewpoint that couldn’t be further from the truth.
However, In Search of Lost Time is more than the transposition of people to page, an incisive look at the social lives, minds, foibles and aspirations of people you end up knowing more about than most family members. At root, it’s about the decisions people make or the customs they adhere to in the name of social customs. Whether you’ve ever flirted with an attempt at social ascendency, suffered from loneliness, or love to gossip: you, or someone like you but more French, is in this book.
If you or anyone you know is Jewish, you must read Proust.
At the beginning of Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer says, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” This resonates with In Search of Lost Time in the same way its considerations of religion, ethnicity, and discrimination resonate with our time. Proust was half-Jewish, and one wonders about the amount of Rothian self-loathing he suffered from given the depiction of Jews throughout In Search of Lost Time. Instances of discrimination and anti-Semitism, specifically the Dreyfus affair, are prevalent. As a historical record, it’s fascinating and offers ringside seats to the anti-Semitic hysteria that seized France in the late 19th century. Most famously, and irritatingly, there is Bloch, narrator Marcel’s friend from childhood. As the novel progresses, we are introduced to Bloch’s family and the myriad ways in which they are discriminated against by characters (see: Marcel’s grandfather) or distrusted by society at large (Bloch’s uncle, M. Nissim Bernard, is portrayed as one of the novel’s most untrustworthy characters. A better protracted consideration of Judaism, anti-Semitism and the danger of breeding it is impossible to find. The motivations for this kind of discrimination, and its social acceptance are all the more frightening while reading Proust in this Trumpian era.
If you have ever been in love, you must read Proust.
Each section of Ulysses corresponds to a different organ, while the entirety of In Search of Lost Time corresponds to one organ. No, not that one. It’s the heart. Whether requited or otherwise, In Search of Lost Time is a novel dedicated thoroughly and deeply to love. In a sense, it serves as a compendium of the different ways we can love, do love, and should love. Of course, one of its central insights is into the ways that we shouldn’t love—whether that means loving the wrong person or in the wrong way. Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You is Wrong” would be the opening track on a Proustian Playlist.
If you have ever had your heart broken, you must read Proust.
I have often wondered whether this novel is more about love or heartbreak. But then it hit me: you can’t cleanly separate the two. Proust routinely explores the very specific strain of sadness that can only occur in romance. This extends from a minimal snub that feels significant to the complete dissolution of relationships. Each stop along the route of amorous pilgrimage is treated with the same forensic interest as the social customs mentioned above. One could picture Marcel listening to Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood and nodding along knowingly.
If you spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make sense of your parents, you must read Proust.
You do, I do, and Proust does too; there’s no shame in it. Our first association in life remains one of the most baffling. In Swann’s Way, young Marcel very famously bemoans the prospect of a night without his mother’s goodnight kiss. He hatches a plan to get it and, upon doing so, is devastated by the air of pity and yielding to despair incumbent in the giving of it. Proust is willing to keenly illustrate the disappointment, frustration, tenderness, confusion, irritation and lack of understanding that is intrinsic to the parent-child relationship because it is also underscored by love.
If you are or are considered a human, you must and you can read Proust.
Above all, I must reiterate that In Search of Lost Time isn’t merely the greatest reading experience available but is also, contrarily to popular belief, one of the most accessible. It’s magic is extraordinary for it works with whatever you bring to it. If you haven’t yet experienced what Marcel is remembering, then he prepares you for it. If you have, then he enlightens the experience, provides insight and understanding in a way those closest to us cannot. There are too many reasons to be hesitant. If it’s a matter of translation, just read the first two pages of each and pick the one that feels best. You don’t need to read each volume back to back, though who can blame you if you want to? He shapes the world for you. You can’t shake loose of what he shows you and you wouldn’t want to.
Yesterday, July 10th, was Proust’s birthday. There isn’t a Bloomsday-like celebration. Instead, there’s confusion about cork-lined rooms, madeleines, eyeliner, fur coats and whether or not he and Joyce spoke to each other. I urge you to celebrate Proust by giving his work the chance it deserves. Who knows what can happen or where you’ll go if you take the chance? For as Proust says, “reality, even if it is inevitable, is not completely predictable.” Neither are we. You think you may know about Proust, but you have no idea.