Saturday, July 10, 2010

Scaling Mount Proust

Today, July 10, is Marcel Proust’s birthday. The master of long, complex, sensuous sentences and paragraphs, his pages rich with metaphor and the astonishingly lucid rendering of perceptions of unprecedented subtlety and nuance, Proust represents the antithesis of our contemporary short attention span, and what he offers is needed now more than ever.

Reading his multi-volume masterpiece In Search of Lost Time will change you. It is thousands of pages long, but the only way to read it is to slow down rather than speed up. To begin reading it is to begin climbing a mountain. One must acclimate to the author’s unusual style, which for many readers requires reading each long, elaborate sentence or paragraph twice in order to process it. The rewards are not always immediate—and like a climber out of breath one will experience moments of exhaustion, and exasperation, and doubt—but the discoveries and pleasures are sublime; and each phase of the journey is marked by new vistas. One returns with a vision that could never have been obtained by any other means, and with one’s mental apparatus and perceptual abilities expanded—not temporarily but for life.

Many never even begin, daunted by those enormous sentences. Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, notes Proust’s “tendency to fill in and stretch out a sentence to its utmost breadth and length, to cram into the stocking of the sentence a miraculous number of clauses, parenthetic phrases, subordinate clauses, sub-subordinate clauses. Indeed, in verbal generosity he is a veritable Santa.” [Emphasis mine.] Yes, you read that right: Santa! Many readers starting their ascent of Mount Proust may find it difficult to see that the seemingly overwhelming quantity of words before them, the seemingly unwieldy length of sentences, is, as Professor Nabokov nonchalantly pointed out to his students, a bounty, an abundance of brilliant goodies, not a burden. VN’s witty evocation of an overstuffed stocking should be kept in mind.

At the same time, however, it also helps to think of reading Proust as a bracing challenge, the literary equivalent of a daily workout at the gym. Mentally deconstructing and reconstructing those sentences in order to interpret them is an invigorating intellectual exercise that yields results as real as any muscle tone. On this process E. M. Forster, in Abinger Harvest, proves even wittier than Nabokov:
A sentence begins quite simply, then it undulates and expands, parentheses intervene like quick-set hedges, the flowers of comparison bloom, and three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb, making one wonder as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, and such expensive dogs, and what, after all, is its relation to the main subject, potted so gaily half a page back, and proving finally to have been in the accusative case. These, however, are the disciplines of Proust. No earnest sportsman would forgo them.
Here Forster captures the initial encounter with Proust’s style with precision and humor, and more than a touch of parodic Proustian structure. He sees the reader of Proust as an earnest sportsman, who may occasionally be baffled or bemused yet proceeds undeterred, whereas Nabokov implies we are kids treated to a bounty from Santa. Both are correct. Add to these my thought that the reader of Proust might be like a mountain climber and the seeker of a disciplined mental workout. All of these suggestions, and many more, are apt.

Let me confess without further delay that it took me many years to “scale Mount Proust” because I did it piecemeal, letting a great deal of time go by between volumes. This probably isn’t the best approach and I don’t particularly recommend it, but in my own meandering way I finally reached the peak and now I love to pull a volume off the shelf and dive in at random, to revel in a paragraph or a few pages, which is one of the great pleasures open to the person who has read the entire work. And like most confirmed Proustians, I too want to read the whole thing again someday.

So, find your way in. The very first sentence of the first volume is uncharacteristically short, and not at all intimidating. Start there, and be drawn into the mind of a genius:

For a long time I would go to bed early.