The Year of Reading about Proust
Exactly this combination of stasis and density is, famously, what Proust is most often celebrated for; and overall, he fares well among Amazon reviewers, averaging 4.5 stars. Nevertheless, his sales lag. Swann's Way is #63,722, while, to name one example, Alain de Botton's cheeky guidebook How Proust Can Change Your Life rates a handsome #7,918. Even Phyllis Rose's cloying memoir, The Year of Reading Proust, beats the source text at #34,855.
De Botton and Rose are practitioners of a newly popular but perennial variety of travel writing: the voyage into difficult books. Intrigued by the exotic locales such authors as Proust promise, yet wary of the hardship involved in getting there, armchair literati have, for centuries, journeyed via the recollections of bolder travelers -- hardier, smarter, trained critics -- who've made the trip and brought us back the prize. (Chair-holding über-critic Roger Shattuck has even prepared a guidebook, specifying what parts of Remembrance of Things Past you should skip if you decide to make the dangerous journey yourself.) And so, just as legions of Brits and Americans now come to know Provence intimately through the eyes of Peter Mayles (without ever having to deal with bad plumbing, unpredictable mistrals, or all of those disagreeable French), we can now experience Proust without the "difficulty" of reading him.
I love reading -- in a sick, self-serving, and misanthropic kind of way. I'd like nothing more than to make up some gruesome excuse, cancel my dinner plans with you, then sit at home and read. So I really have no complaints about these travel writers, whose company I prefer any night of the week to the prospect of tedious chitchat with my actual friends. I even enjoyed the exasperating evening I spent with Phyllis Rose and her self-obsessed memoir. Granted, I finally bailed out after chapter three, and went back to Proust whose work I find -- unlike Anna of Fort Collins, Colorado -- about as difficult as falling off a cliff. I don't mean that I am an especially skilled or hardworking reader; I am not. I am in fact poorly prepared, self-indulgent, and lazy. Rather, to fall into Proust's work is a trackless, opiated pleasure -- a surrender -- which only becomes "difficult" when approached as a kind of self-improving challenge for the intellectual athlete.
Reading is too often regarded as a hardship to be endured for the rewards that attend any hard work -- betterment, learning, whatever. The difficulty posed is usually put as the challenge of "getting through" a book. As Rose confesses, "For a long time I used to try to read Proust. At first I could not... . The opening section of Swann's Way seemed so slow, so static, so filled with tedious description and irritating embellishment, I was always so fatigued by the immense work of reading that lay ahead of me..." -- until the day she "made Proust the central business of my life, the work I turned to when I first got up in the morning." Voilà! Now "Proust was solving my problems...by functioning as a source book, the Whole Earth Catalogue of Human Emotions." Here, protracted yet depressingly clear, is the pathology of the "difficult" book: Through the hardship of reading, we are promised all the virtues of self-betterment.
And so, with Rose twining her hardworking, sinewy arm about mine at the outset of our journey into Proust, I felt the kind of sickening claustrophobia one must feel aboard a three-week "educational" cruise of, say, the Dead Sea, on a ship full of nattering amateur scholars with no bar in sight. Worse, we were traveling to a locale whose virtues I knew and feared I would see obliterated by my guide.
But what if reading involves a dissipation into languor and ease, rather than any kind of mounted effort toward victory? What if the book is our final and only destination, a place we live in rather than "get through"? To complain that a book is "difficult" is like complaining that mornings are difficult. One cannot simply strike them from the day or refigure them as a kind of therapeutic exercise (though, tellingly, this is what many of us do with that part of the day, or those particular friends, or that season of life that we term "difficult"; rather than indulge in the fine texture of the time we spend there, we try and "work through it" -- find the lessons such hardships teach us). It is undoubtedly my failing, and not a strength, but I learn nothing through struggle; I can hardly even concentrate under any kind of duress. Adrift within Proust, I cannot keep my eyes on the prize of getting through. I am lazy and, so, can only surrender to the infinite nuance of time spent reading. How could anyone possibly resolve to "get through," for example, this:
"The sunlight fell so implacably from a motionless sky that one longed to escape its attentions, and even the slumbering water, whose repose was perpetually disturbed by the insects that swarmed above its surface, dreaming no doubt of some imaginary maelstrom, intensified the uneasiness which the sight of that floating cork had wrought in me by appearing to draw it at full speed across the silent reaches of a mirrored firmament; now almost vertical, it seemed on the point of plunging down out of sight, and I had begun to wonder whether, setting aside the longing and the terror that I had of making her acquaintance, it was not actually my duty to warn Mlle. Swann that the fish was biting -- when I was obliged to run after my father and grandfather who were calling me, surprised that I had not followed them along the little path leading up to the open fields into which they had already turned."
How much easier to simply dwell there, for however long, flitting about the sentence's disturbed surface like imagining insects, back and forth across its mirrored structure, the mind of young Marcel dancing in the latter half, the sight of the river in motion across the first, until its dashed-off end pulls us away, together with the boy, to rejoin the walk, and encounter this -- "I found the whole path throbbing with the fragrance of hawthorn-blossom" -- our next dwelling place, so measured and shy beside its voluble predecessor. Get through Proust? About as difficult as getting through life.
Phyllis Rose was decidedly the wrong traveling companion. I prefer someone who forgets the time, gossips a little, enjoys failure, and digresses from planned itineraries. Such a man is Alain de Botton, whose compact, fascinating guidebook, How Proust Can Change Your Life, was a refreshing tonic after Phyllis Rose's bitter health drink. De Botton places Proust at eye level, not far above our own station, and takes pleasure in the countless, ridiculous side trips to which Proust's labyrinthine sentences oblige us. And he recognizes the near-comic horror of looking to a madman like Proust for any kind of sane advice for the living. As he carefully puts it, "While it is clear why someone might be interested in developing a Proustian approach to life, the sane would never harbor a desire to lead a life like Proust's." In order to complete so taxing a body of work, Proust lived an invalid's life of almost total isolation and unceasing physical pain, punctuated by habitual -- ultimately life-threatening -- duty to the obligations of a social life. He was impractical and duplicitous and unsparing in the sacrifices he made to his work.
Which isn't to say he was an unkind or unpleasant man. De Botton renders a pleasing portrait by freely mixing this biographical, unexemplary Proust with the refined, insightful narrator (of Remembrance of Things Past) Marcel, setting up a clever double-valance that relieves this ambitious traveler's quest of any portentousness. The result is a kind of amusing, cautionary tale about the hazardous traverse from life into literature, marked by a skepticism that de Botton sums up best by citing Proust: "We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, and effort which no one can spare us."
While de Botton's strategy of mixing the biographical and textual Proust delivers a nimble, wry pleasure -- the pleasure of traveling with a knowledgeable gossip, an impious pilgrim, a relaxed and cosmopolitan mind -- it also leaves us stranded in a kind of compromised middle ground, the familiar territory of the colonial traveler who packs all his native manners, habits, and concerns with him and lives a very familiar life, albeit abroad. In de Botton, as in Rose, the armchair traveler is simply made privy to gossip from the overseas home office (pleasingly wry insights from the former, and ponderous hand-wringing from the latter).
Such an intermixing of worlds is perfectly apt in this case. Proust himself freely mixed elements of biography into the fictional fabric of his novel (as many authors do); but it is also made dangerous for exactly this reason. Oxford scholar Malcolm Bowie makes this point at the outset of his marvelous account, Proust among the Stars, a book he began after a pilgrimage to the Normandy seaport of Cabourg (the main model for Proust's enchanted fictional seaside resort of Balbec). In Cabourg, with "the huge hump of its Grand Hotel looming up through the autumn mist," Bowie found "perdition indeed for any serious admirer of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Here was a world of would-be Proustian experience that seemed not to require that the novel be read, a universe parallel to that of Proust's text and maintained in being by the combined forces of gossip, travelogue, and voyeuristic biographical speculation." And here, he encounters a fear de Botton and Rose would both rather skirt or obscure: "...the fear that I might lose a supreme work of literature and never get it back; that I would resign myself to a non-reading knowledge of the novel, a Proust of tea-parties and table-talk, of selected short quotations and haunting images that had long ago drifted free of their textual moorings." In short, the Proust of de Botton and Rose.
In Proust among the Stars, Bowie abjures the familiar territory of gossip and biography, and commits himself to simply chronicling his travels "on the far shore of literary invention... the only place where Albertine and the others [of Proust's characters] could live out their Protean and Mephistophelian lives." While such a devotion to the isolated book -- in the hands of, say, a latter-day disciple of Northrop Frye's New Criticism -- could yield up a dry dissection of the captured, killed, and sterile text, Bowie infuses his own investigation with a kind of carnal hunger for the heat and feel of Proust's language; further, his own constructions are elegant and disturbing, vis. "A proposition belonging to one time-world nests inside a proposition belonging to another, and between them a galvanic spasm passes." Bowie's prying inquiry into the fine nuance and texture of Proust's remarkable paragraphs displays an obscene degree of covetousness and devotion. He is an obsessive, immoderate traveler, a madman like T. E. Lawrence, and to accompany him into Proust is rather like encountering Lawrence after a PBS special on Arabia (Rose) and a gossipy afternoon with Peter Theroux (de Botton).
A reader's thoughts and neuroses or an author's biographical history can tell intriguing stories, by no means irrelevant to the complex intersection of circumstances that conjure meaning from out of a dormant text. Nevertheless, the armchair traveler is best served by a companion who has the humility and talent to drop away and place the reader face to face with the substance of the text they are visiting. Only Bowie is entirely satisfying in this regard, and further, I see his book has the decency to trail its subject on Amazon's scoreboard, checking in at #79,428 -- exactly where such a travel guide should stand in relation to the "difficult" book it praises.