How (Not) to Read Proust

Since I first discovered Proust in my early twenties, I’ve been a huge fan of his massive novel À la recherche du temps perdu (the English titles for the work are Remembrance of Things Past or in Search of Lost Time). I’ve read the novel many times, and have recently started reading it again.

Every now and then, there is a Proust wave: someone writes a new book about Proust, and this inspires book critics to suggest that people pick up the book. Or some author decides to (finally) read Proust, and writes about it. Hannah Gersen did that recently on The Millions. Her Proust Book Club was inspired by a new biography of the author, and by previous failed attempts to get through the long work.

In my late 20s, I finally made good on my promise and read Proust daily for about four months. […] But my enthusiasm must have waned, because I stopped reading somewhere in volume four. I don’t remember when I gave up, or why; I don’t even remember feeling bored with the project. Looking back through my journal entries from that year, it seems that a new iPod shuffle was the culprit. Maybe the weather also played a part. I began my grand rereading project in January, when it was cozy to stay indoors and read during my lunch hour. But then spring and my iPod arrived and I started to use my lunch break to go for walks set to a soundtrack of my own design. I have to wonder what albums could have been better than Proust. And at the same time, I think that Proust, who briefly subscribed to “Théâtrophone,” a service that allowed him to listen to live opera performances via telephone, would have understood the temptation.

Recently, in a Facebook group about Proust I belong to, someone posted that, for him, reading Proust was “a struggle.” I was surprised by this. As if this is not reading for pleasure, but out of some sense of duty. As if someone has assigned the novel as required reading.

Ms Gersen explains, in her article, that:

Almost everyone I know who has completed In Search of Lost Time (and to be clear, most of these “known” people are those who have written about the experience, not anyone I’ve met personally) did it slowly, reading just 10 to 20 pages a day, usually in the morning. At a pace of 10 pages a day, it will take me about a year and two months to finish, a period of time that doesn’t seem as long as it did 10 years ago.

This sort of New Year’s resolution approach seems to me the wrong way to read a great work of literature. In my experience, the only way to read Proust is just to read him, the same way you’d read any other author.

But there is a stumbling block when reading Proust: it’s his long, sinuous sentences. Many people find these difficult, and spend a lot of time reading them and re-reading them, mentally diagramming them to figure out what they mean.

I figured out the key to reading Proust some years ago, when listening to an audiobook version of the work in French. When you hear Proust’s sentences spoken, you realize that his style – which seems complex and modernist – is essentially a reproduction of spoken French. The digressions, the explanations, and the amplifications he piles on match the way people speak. If you can read Proust with this in mind, you can let the words flow, without them tripping you up. It may be more difficult in the English translations to follow these sentences, because no English translation really gets it right. But try reading Proust with this in mind, and you’ll get a better appreciation of the author’s fluid style.

The first time one reads Proust should be like writing a first draft of something; read to enjoy the text, to follow the plot, and don’t try and pick up every detail. You’ll have time to go back and read the novel again. (You’d be surprised how many people who do finish the novel read it again, maybe ten or twenty years later.) But, as you read, you’ll find elements that stand out, that are reflections of your own thoughts or experiences. Read the second installment of Ms Gersen’s Proust Book ClubThe View From Age 38 to see how she compares the narrator’s childhood memories to her own. Proust’s writing contains multitudes, and everyone can find resonance in this novel.

So read Proust, but don’t make it a chore. Enjoy the experience. If you see it as a struggle, then you probably shouldn’t read it. Reading should be a pleasure.

(Read other articles I’ve written about Marcel Proust. )