Last year I amended one of my bucket list items. “Read Proust in French” was downgraded to “Read Proust.”
After all, it seemed the prudent thing to do. More than half a century into this life and I still find menus in French restaurants taxing if they delve too far from the classics. It seems doubtful I will ever work up enough competence at reading French to tackle one of the languages literary masterworks.
So, if age doesn’t always bring wisdom, it does bring the willingness to compromise. Or at least it should, so I will read Proust in translation. Hence, the bucket list amendment.
So now I don’t have to learn a foreign language in order to read a seven volume novel. I just have to wade through a seven volume novel. I hear it’s slow going even if it is considered by many to be the finest novel ever written. Proust can take 30 pages to drop off to sleep. I imagine a great many of his readers require far less.
I made it almost to the end of the novella-length introduction and paused for a little reinforcement to read a slim volume entitled “How Proust Can Change Your Life.” I hope so. This is going to be a lot of work and it doesn’t hurt to be promised a life-changing experience. “How Proust Can Change Your Life” was a little vague on specifics, but I hope that by the time I turn the last page of Proust’s life’s work, I will be transformed by culture and refinement. Maybe enlightenment, but I suppose that’s a longshot.
There are any number of holes in my Wilkes County education. Not least of which is that when I graduated from East Wilkes High School in 1976, I had never heard of Marcel Proust.
I’m not saying that the Great State of Wilkes should have required me to read him. We didn’t even have a French class back then so that was clearly impossible. It was probably a balancing act for the folks who put the curriculum together.
Should we read the greatest novel ever written or should we pass on it because it’s too freaking long? It’s okay that they chose to pass. That was probably a toughie for them. But shouldn’t they have mentioned its existence at some point? And explained its importance? Maybe assign us an excerpt. I think that wouldn’t have been too much to ask.
I didn’t hear of Proust and his epic novel until after I graduated from high school and was attending design school. The early hero of my chosen profession, Yves Saint Laurent, claimed in an interview that he read Proust every day. That intrigued me.
Especially after I found out that Proust only wrote one book. Monsieur Saint Laurent may have been the greatest fashion designer of his time but he was clearly a very, very slow reader.
Even after I found out that the novel was seven volumes long, I still thought old Yves and his dogged persistence should have finished it by now.
Then I realized that he probably had finished it. And just started over again each time he finished it. And maybe by this point was just reading random passages as the mood suited. At that moment, it occurred to me that Saint Laurent’s diligence was akin to religious folk who read the Bible every day. The objective isn’t to finish it but just to read it every day. And to talk about reading it every day.
That’s a concept that eludes me. When I finish a book, I may be sad that it’s over if it was particularly good but not so sad that I read it again rather than moving on to the next one. Same with the Bible. I read it one summer when I was about 12 or 13. Started at the front and slogged through to the end. I was too young to be concerned that I was reading in translation because I certainly don’t read Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. Even reading in English, it took a couple of weeks.
It was some years before I found out how unusual that was. It turned out that a lot of Bible readers are fond of reading bits and pieces here and there. A lot of them don’t even know if they’ve read the whole thing or not, even if they’ve been at it for years and years. And some, like me with Proust, spend more time reading books about their book of choice than the book itself.
Not too long ago, I found out that Proust readers are the same way. There are a fair number of pretentious folk out there who have not read nearly as much of “In Search of Lost Time” as they would have you believe. They talk about Proust and yammer on about reading him continuously and his importance and their importance because they are knowledgeable on the subject but ultimately it becomes clear, they have no idea what they’re talking about and are just making stuff up.
A few months ago, a good friend just said out loud, “I don’t like Proust.” She was met with silence by her artsy comrades. Then she said, “But I like people who like Proust.” The silence became friendlier. Then she went for the coup de grâce. “I just don’t like people who pretend to like Proust.”
I couldn’t agree more. Regardless of what one pretends to read.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.