I’m assuming this isn’t going to seem weird to some of you: I spent a good deal of time in libraries growing up. I would just sit there for hours after school, during breaks, or sometimes on Saturdays, totally avoiding the sun and just picking whatever random books seemed interesting on that particular day. I read anything I could get, but there were times I’d get more into books than others, and either check them out or hope they’d be there the next time so I could just pick up where I left off. In those days I skimmed through books about far away countries; collected letters of poets and politicians; biographies; and just about everything else you can imagine.
Around my junior year of high school, when I was a little older and trying to refine my tastes, I started a list of books I thought were important to read, thanks a great deal to an English teacher I had in high school who served as something of a literary spirit guide. She suggested books by dead French and Russian guys that I never would have thought to pick up, told me I had to re-read Moby-Dick, and also told me I had to read her favorite novel ever, In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. And to my credit, I did try and tackle it on my summer vacation one year, only to realize that the one book I had checked out from my local library was part of a seven volume series that would have probably taken me well into my next summer break to read. Dismayed by the fact that Proust would cut in on time I wanted to spend as a new legal driver and trying to get girls to talk to me, I put his massive masterwork down about 100 pages in. It would take me over a decade to pick it up again, and, while reading that first book remains one of my favorite experiences as a reader, I still haven’t finished reading all of In Search of Lost Time.
When we talk about Proust, normally two things come up: the insane length of In Search of Lost Time and madeleines. Obviously, since the collected volumes of the book go past 4000 pages, it’s easy to understand why that is the case. It’s a serious climb to finish the entirety of the book, but once a reader does, they wear it like a badge. Finishing all of In Search of Lost Time is the equivalent of mountain climbing.
So here we are in 2013. Swann’s Way is 100 years old, and there is still nothing like it. And thanks to this being the book’s centennial, there has been a renewed interest in the French writer’s work, including an exhibit at the Morgan in Manhattan, a flurry of blog posts, and new books that should help get more people reading Proust. The most interesting of these is The Collected Poems (Penguin Classics). Introduced by Harold Augenbraum, the founder of the Proust Society of America, and translated by Lydia Davis, Richard Howard, Susan Stewart, and many others, the poems show us a witty Proust, dedicating many of the works to people in his circle of friends.
While Proust’s poetry is a better way to get to know the writer, Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library (Other Press), which was released last autumn, is a better way to read his work. Like Augenbraum, Muhlstein is a Proust scholar, and her book serves as both a primer for those not totally familiar with his work, and as a way for those who have made the trek through his masterwork to better understand him.
I finished reading both of these books just as the sun started to shine and the flowers started to bloom. I felt good getting to know Monsieur Proust a tad bit better than I previously had, but I realized I was still missing something huge: I needed to finish In Search of Lost Time. And I didn’t just need to pick up where I left off, I needed to read the entire thing. So in the spirit of reading projects like Infinite Summer, and to celebrate the 100th year of Swann’s Way, I’ve decided to call May through whenever the Summer of Proust, and I plan to take however long to finish the entire 4000+ page masterpiece.
Please let me know if you’d like to join me, and maybe we can have a support group or some huge party with champagne and cake when it is all finished. But if not, wish me luck on the Summer of Proust.
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By all means, read it! Proust’s illumination — his insight into the nature of consciousness that allowed him to “capture” lost time — is in the seventh volume — and hardly anyone ever gets there, so they miss the most important thing.
I had the good fortune when I was young to have a teacher whose life was dedicated to Proust and who turned me on to him. I recently re-read that section of the seventh volume, inspired by quotations from Proust in Ruth Ozeki’s A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING. You can read my ruminations here: