When reading any text from the 19th century, it is hard to put oneself in the appropriate context, making it difficult to fully appreciate or even understand what the author is saying. When reading fiction, this lack of context means that, for example, imagining two people sitting in a parlor talking, the reader may not realize that, at the time, this could mean that they were cold (if it were winter), or very hot (if it were summer). That women were very uncomfortable in their corsets, and men in their stiff collars. Or that there were social issues that regulated how members of the opposite sex could meet and converse, and that these subtle contextual elements had a subconscious presence in the minds of contemporary readers.
With non-fiction – a term not used at the time – such as Emerson’s essays, the context covers a very broad political, social and religious spectrum. Words have meanings beyond their simple dictionary definitions (their connotations), and we readers, more than 150 years after the fact, are unaware of these.
On an extreme level, you can look back at Shakespeare’s works. Very few readers of Hamlet, King Lear or Much Ado about Nothing (do you know what “nothing” meant in Elizabethan slang?) would approach these texts without notes, and even those notes and annotations – along with definitions of words whose meanings were different at the time – cannot fully put the reader in the context of these works.
Scholar Jeffrey Cramer has published several volumes of Henry David Thoreau’s works annotated (such as this Walden), and I had long wondered why no one had done the same for Emerson.
Well, now we have such a volume, The Annotated Emerson, by David Mikics. This large book – 9.7 x 9.3 inches, on heavy paper – takes a selection of Emerson’s works and adds notes. Some of these notes merely define words, or explain their usage in Emerson’s time; some explain who certain people mentioned in Emerson’s essays are; and others make links with different works by Emerson, either essays, lectures, or even journal entries.
This is not an exhaustive work; it does not annotate all of Emerson’s essays, nor even a specific collection of them. Rather it chooses some of his most famous works, the ones people will be most likely to read. These include Nature, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, Circles, The Poet, Experience and New England Reformers. Two of his essays from Representative Men – those on Montaigne and Shakespeare, perhaps the two writers that Emerson most appreciated – are included. But there are also political writings: Emerson’s letter to president Martin van Buren about the plight of the Cherokees and his essay on John Brown from 1860, after Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Emerson’s laudatory essay on his friend Henry David Thoreau is included, as are a number of poems. In more than 500 pages, this collection is a fine overview of Emerson’s varied writings, though it contains nothing from his journals.
In addition to the textual notes – it’s worth pointing out the excellent layout, with the notes in the outside margins of the pages – there are dozens of illustrations, many in color, giving more contextual background, and also showing some of the people mentioned in the writings, as well as Emerson himself.
In addition to being a fine text, this is also an attractive book, and its size is more that of a coffee-table book than a collection of essays. (This does make it a trifle harder to read, of course, as it is fairly heavy.)
I can think of no better book for those interested in Emerson to understand more about his writings and his times. Learning more about what Emerson was referring to gives a much richer picture of the extent of his writing, and a better feeling of where he came from.
As regular readers of Kirkville probably know, I’m a fan of Marcel Proust. I recently started re-reading A la recherche du temps perdu, but was sidetracked by moving house. Some time ago, I listened to the entire work, on a French audio recording. But not all Proustians are French speakers. Proust actually has quite a following in the US and England, and his popularity is such that Naxos Audiobooks has recently released the first part of a complete, unabridged recording of Remembrance of Things Past (also know as In Search of Lost Time).
The narrator, Neville Jason, has one of those smooth, soft English accents that lulls and entrances you. His reading is leisurely and relaxed. He takes his time, allowing you to absorb the work comfortably, without speaking too slowly, as is sometimes the case on older audiobook readings. Jason’s reading is a performance, but it also sounds like he’s sitting by your side, reading from the book, like a friend. In addition, his French accent is quite good, and when he speaks the names of French people or towns, it sounds as it should.
Swann’s Way is more than 21 hours long, and is only the first of seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Naxos will be releasing each volume individually, and will most likely offer a box set with the entire text – which will be more than 120 hours – when all the titles have been released.
If you want to listen to Proust, and don’t speak French, Neville Jason’s recordings are excellent. For now, this is the only complete recording in the works. Simon Vance, who is also another wonderful narrator, has recorded Swann’s Way, but it doesn’t look like this will be a complete recording of all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, as this recording was released in September, 2010, and no follow-up has yet been released.
Neil Young was interviewed by Walt Mossberg about digital music, and made a number of statements where he expressed a desire to see more high-resolution audio files. He claims that only “5 percent of the data present in the original recording” is present in MP3 files – though he doesn’t specify what bit rate. He also suggests that vinyl LPs or cassette tapes reproduce nearly all of the 24-bit, 192 kHz files used to master recordings.
Well, I take exception to these claims, which are a bit off the cuff. First, comparing 24/192 files to anything is ludicrous. In order to get all of the “data” from those files, you need very high-end stereo equipment. Even if you do have a standalone DAC (digital audio converter) between your source and amplifier, the majority of these devices only go up to 96 kHz. Next, recording artists listen to their recordings in studios on equipment that is even better than what most obsessive audiophiles have in their homes. I’m sure there is a difference in sound in a recording studio: not only do you have the best studio monitors, but you also have acoustically perfect rooms in which to listen.
But suggesting that LPs, with their clicks and scratches, or tapes, which are notably known for problems at high frequencies (remember Dolby noise reduction on cassettes?) is just disingenuous.
It’s interesting that Neil Young became famous during the time of AM radios. Even those with stereos had equipment that was light years behind the average stereo today. He got famous because of his music: his songs, his lyrics and his voice, not the quality of the sound. Yet he says “we have 5% of what we had in 1978,” which is just a lie. Analog recordings did not approach the 24/192 benchmark that he cites, and the sound quality of the average stereo then was crappy compared to today’s iPods. (It’s worth noting that Neil Young suffers from tinnitus, or at least he did in 1995 – it generally never goes away – so how much of that 24/192 does he actually hear?)
He wants people to be able to buy high-resolution files more easily. There are many vendors who sell these files, and he seems to not realize that this is possible. He calls for a “device” that can play high-resolution files, but says that it takes 30 minutes per song to download these files. (I don’t know what he means by this; with my Internet connection, I can download a high-resolution “song” – a file just a few minutes long – in just a few minutes.)
Young claims that he and Steve Jobs were “working on” such a solution, but I think this is not true; if they were discussing it, it was most likely just an idea in the air. There were rumors of Apple offering 24-bit files via iTunes last year, but the source of this was never clear. My sources have told me that this is very unlikely, at least in the near term, for a number of reasons: bandwidth, price, playback, etc. The audiophile market is too small for Apple to provide high-resolution files for all the music they sell. It is entirely possible that, in the future, they offer high-resolution files for a limited selection of music, but even that seems unlikely, as it would confuse average users.
Neil Young does say that he looks at the Internet, and piracy, “as the new radio.” “That’s how music gets around.” It doesn’t bother him that people download his music, saying “it’s acceptable.” It allows people to discover music, and for him this is a good thing. Of course, he makes enough money on royalties and back catalog that he doesn’t need to worry about income…
While I understand Mr. Young’s desire to have better quality music files, you must remember that this idea comes from someone who can afford the hardware to listen to them. The 99% of music listeners who don’t have that hardware simply don’t care. They buy music for music, not for audio quality.
A number of people have found that iTunes Match sometimes matches incorrect tracks; not that the songs are wrong, but that the versions might be wrong. This seems to happen especially with music that has been remastered. iTunes may match either an original or remastered track, and the user who matched the track may have tho one that iTunes doesn’t have. This can be a problem, if, say, you prefer an original album over a remastered version, or vice versa.
But I today I found, for the first time, a bad track coming from iTunes Match, one with an audible problem. It’s one of an excellent set of Bill Evans recordings, The Last Waltz, from the summer of 1980, just before his death, made at the Keystone Korner; the song is Your Story, While iTunes matched these tracks, I was listening to some of this music today, and found a bad track. There’s a gap of about a half-second at one point in the track. Looking at it with Rogue Amoeba’s Fission, you can clearly see the missing chunk of music:
If this happens, you’re basically screwed. Who can you complain to? Contact the iTunes Store? I doubt anything will happen. The only way to have a good copy of the track is to take your original and make sure it stays in your library; if you ever have to download it again, you’ll get the track with the gap. It’s worth noting that this track is not available on the iTunes Store. This makes me wonder exactly how they match such tracks; do they match them to tracks that other people have uploaded?
I don’t expect this will happen a lot, but the fact that it happens at all shows the weakness of this system. iTunes Match clearly needs an option for tracks that you don’t want matched, ones that you want uploaded, because the matched version may not be the same as yours.
Has anyone else found matched tracks that have similar problems?
(As an aside: if you like Bill Evans, there are two box sets of this run at the Keystone Korner, in San Francisco, between August 31 and September 8, 1980. The Last Waltz is music from the first sets, and Consecration has tracks from the second sets. Just a week before his death, Evans was playing some of his finest performances. These two box sets, together with Turn Out the Stars, recorded at the Village Vanguard in June, 1980, comprise 22 discs of astounding piano music.)
Update: my son came across a bad track today. It’s a match of Philip Glass’s Witchita Vortex Sutra, from the Minimal Piano Collection box set. There are clicks throughout the track, with one big dropout at 4:25:
Dogen’s Shobogenzo is the most profound and perplexing work of the Zen canon. Written in the 13th century by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, the Shobogenzo is a collection of texts written over a long period of time that examine the concepts and practices of Zen.
This edition is a milestone, representing a complete English translation of the Shobogenzo, in an extremely attractive set of books. The two volumes are, while a bit expensive, very well produced. The paper is thick and opaque, the font is very readable, and the binding will last one or more lifetimes. Volume one has introductory matter about Dogen’s life and the composition of the Shobogenzo, and the first part of the texts (fascicles 1-47). (For a more thorough discussion of Dogen’s life and career, as well as an analysis of his thought, see Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, by Hee-Jin Kim.) The second volume contains the remainder of the texts (fascicles 48-95 plus a 96th fascicle not included in the original edition of the Shobogenzo), and an extensive glossary explaining the terms used in the books.
This glossary in volume two is essential to the reading and study of this work. Readers will need to look up terms to get a better understanding of what they really mean. Often a single word, or a short phrase, may seem obscure when reading, but the glossary goes into detail to explain it better. In addition, the glossary serves as an index, with references to where the terms are used.
But the glossary is a bit problematic. At more than 200 pages, this is a big chunk of the text, and it is, of course, only available in the second volume. If you are reading the first volume, you still need to have this glossary handy, so you’ll need to have both books. I wish that Shambhala had included the glossary as a separate volume – perhaps a paperback – so it could be more easily consulted. Or, if they could provide an e-book version, popping it on an iPad would make reading and consulting it more practical.
This doesn’t detract from the overall work, which is, I must say, an amazing feat of translation that has taken decades. The text is beautifully rendered, and, while just one interpretation, it certainly has the weight of experience both of the translators as translators and as practitioners. This set is a monument to the work of Dogen.
Note: the original two-volume edition is out of print, but there is a one-volume edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) that has replaced it. I haven’t seen it, but it apparently has much thinner paper. There’s also a Kindle edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) which is great for reading on the go, since the book is so heavy, but the glossary is essentially unusable on the Kindle.
Hyperion Records has released a 99-disc box set of the long-running series they have been publishing of all of Franz Liszt’s piano music. Recorded by Leslie Howard, with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra for the concertos, this series has been a labor of love for some 25 years (the first disc was recorded in 1985, and was an early digital recording). Hyperion claims that it holds the Guinness world record for the world’s largest recording series by a solo artist; I don’t know of any that even come close.
Liszt’s music is an acquired taste; I’ve been listening to bits and pieces from this set since I got it nearly a year ago, and while some of the music is too over-the-top for my taste, much of it is very interesting. It contains 7,266 minutes of music, enough to keep anyone busy for a very long time. Discovering an oeuvre like this is a long-term process, and having all the music available in one set makes it possible to flip around from period to period to hear how Liszt grew.
A large number of these discs are transcriptions: of music from operas, of songs by Franz Schubert (11 hours’ worth), of Beethoven’s symphonies (masterful transcriptions indeed). The one set of works that has held me spellbound is the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a series of “mystical” keyboard works. This set is full of surprises, and I have barely scratched the surface so far.
It’s currently listed at 186 at Amazon FR, £228 at Amazon UK, and $302 at Amazon.com, with marketplace sellers offering it for less. Hyperion – one of my sponsors – also has it available for download, in MP3, FLAC and Apple Lossless formats, with impeccable metadata, and full notes embedded in each track. They sell it for £200, but you get an immediate 25% “bulk buy” discount, making it £150. And you don’t have to rip the CDs.
Yesterday, I received a copy of Naxos’ Deutsche Schubert-Lied-Edition, their 38-disc set of Schubert’s lieder, or art songs. Schubert’s lieder is one of my favorite parts of the classical repertoire, and I have many recordings by different singers. Yet, there are only two complete sets of his songs: the Naxos set, and Hyperion’s 40-disc set, which contains 37 discs of Schubert’s songs, together 3 discs of songs by his friends and contemporaries (which is a valuable addition to the set, putting Schubert’s songs in the broader context of his time).
This music is quite popular; singers regularly release new collections of Schubert’s lieder, and perform recitals of this music around the world. Yet only two complete sets of these songs exist. There are other monoliths of classical music that cover as many discs, or even more, and are better represented in the catalog. Take Bach’s cantatas, for example (another of my favorites). There are at least six complete sets of these works (either completed or in progress), and they cover around 60 CDs. Or Haydn’s symphonies: there are four complete sets of these, and they cover from 33 to 37 discs.
It’s worth noting that the two existing Schubert sets were all “organized” or “overseen” by accompanists, rather than singers: Graham Johnson for the Hyperion edition, and Ulrich Eisenlohr for the Naxos. For the former, Johnson chose the best lieder singers of the time, over the many years it took to record the series. For the Naxos series, a focus was made on young German singers, rather than having singers whose native tongue was not German. (It’s worth noting that Johnson plays piano on all the Hyperion discs; Eisenlohr plays on 31 of the 38 Naxos discs.)
No one singer could record all of Schubert’s lieder. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did record all of the songs for solo male voice, or more than half of them, on 21 CDs (my favorite Schubert lieder recordings), but he did not record those written for soprano, or part-songs, with multiple singers. So while an individual singer might oversee such a project, they couldn’t perform all the works. Also, this is a long project to realize, and no singer today could devote themselves to just Schubert’s music for that long. The total time of the Hyperion set is just under 43 hours (not counting the three discs of friends and contemporaries); the Naxos set is a bit over 40 hours. The amount of time it takes to record that much music is monumental.
There are many excellent lieder singers today, and, while it’s interesting to have a handful of discs from them, it would be nice to see more attention paid to these songs. The Hyperion and Naxos sets are both excellent, in different ways, and are complimentary, to those who really appreciate this music. But I’d love to see one or two more sets. Are any labels out there willing to take up the gauntlet? I could imagine Harmonia Mundi or Bis doing such a series; the former has already released several volumes of Schubert’s lieder by Matthias Goerne, and, while he couldn’t sing everything, perhaps they’ll continue with other singers.
A note on the Naxos box set: this comes with a 429-page book, which includes track listings, notes on the music, for each disc, artist information, and indexes. It does not, however, contain song texts, either in the original German or in translation, though the song titles are translated on each disc’s sleeve. (You can download PDFs with sung texts for each volume of the series from this web page. The book is entirely in English, which is the “international version” of the set; there is also a “German version,” which presumably has this book in German. This book is impressive, and useful, but, frankly, I’d very much like to have it in PDF format. It’s hard to read CD liner notes with their small print, and a book this thick is a bit unwieldy. Nevertheless, it’s good that it’s included.
Also, flipping through the notes as I started listening to this set, I spotted a mention that six of the discs feature the fortepiano, the type of instrument that Schubert used, which is different from today’s piano. This is interesting, and I’m looking forward to hearing how these discs sound. This makes me think that if there were another complete set to be made, it would be nice if it were on fortepiano…
I recently pointed out that the Apple Lossless codec has gone open source, meaning that this lossless codec can now be freely used in both hardware and software. The Apple Lossless codec (also known as ALAC) is similar to FLAC, and offers the same advantages. When you compress files in a lossless format, you lose absolutely none of the original data. Just as when you compress a text file using zip compression, decompressing returns all the original letters and characters, lossless music compression provides the full fidelity of the original audio you compressed.
It’s interesting to look at the sizes of files compressed in Apple Lossless format. (These file sizes are similar for other lossless formats, such as FLAC, SHN and APE.) I took a handful of CDs, and ripped some tracks to show how the amount of compression can vary.
When comparing file sizes, the easiest way is to look at the bit rate that displays in iTunes. (Comparing file size is more difficult, as the different files used would have to be the same length for this to be valid.) This is an average bit rate, but it gives an idea as to the amount of compression that was achieved. Different types of music, notably with different instruments, result in compression rates that vary widely. Compare the bit rates below to the bit rate of uncompressed music on a CD, which is 1411 kbps.
Here are some examples:
A solo harpsichord work by Johann Sebastian Bach: 902 kbps
A solo piano work by Johann Sebastian Bach: 554 kbps
A movement of a string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven: 565 kbps
A choral work by Johann Sebastian Bach: 690 kbps
A piece for jazz piano trio by the Brad Mehldau Trio: 687 kbps
A live recording of a song by the Grateful Dead: 796 kbps
An excerpt from Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians: 597 kbps
A movement of a symphony by Franz Schubert: 645 kbps
A song for male voice and piano by Robert Schumann: 446 kbps
Again, these figures are in no way absolute, and for each piece of music, the resulting level of compression could be different if the tempo, volume or instrumentation varied. But what they do show is that some types of music – notably solo harpsichord, which has a high level of harmonics at high frequencies – compress less well than, say, solo piano or voice and piano. The range of compression for these examples is from 36% to 68%, with the majority of the examples clustering around the 50% level.
Note that I haven’t tested much rock music, and especially not much recently recorded rock or popular music. With many recent recordings having high volume and using compression (not the type that reduces data size, but the kind that reduces the dynamic range of music), file sizes can be much larger. If you listen to recent recordings of such music, you’ve probably noticed that they are often very loud, compared with, say, recordings from a couple of decades ago, and these will result in higher overall bit rates when using lossless compression.
In the music industry’s never-ending quest to get us to pony up our money for the same music over and over, the standard method is to re-issue some music with bonus tracks, hoping that we’ll re-buy the same CD, or, even better, a whole slew of CDs in a box set. This trick is often combined with another one, that of remastering. Sometimes remasters can be good, but other times not. So bands that have been around a long time can re-purpose their material for those die-hard fans who have to own everything they’ve recorded.
The problem is that the real fans are the ones who get suckered into such tricks. Take, for instance, this forthcoming box set of the Brad Mehldau Trio’s Art of the Trio Recordings: 1996-2001. This box set not only brings together the five volumes (six discs) of Art of the Trio recordings that the trio issued, but adds, lo and behold, a seventh disc of “previously unreleased material from shows at the Village Vanguard” that “completes the box.” So, if you have all five original releases, you just have to buy the box set to get the bonus tracks.
Well, to be fair to Nonesuch Records, the box set is fairly priced: it’s currently listed at $38 on Amazon; I paid much more than that for the original releases. But do they really think that I’m going to spend another $38 for that additional disc of music (which is only 44 minutes long)? Ha!
I’m a big fan of Brad Mehldau, and own every one of his releases. But the scam of record companies to get people to buy the same material again, or to, in essence, pay a high price for some bonus tracks, is just too reprehensible for me to accede to. I can certainly find this music elsewhere, and I will do so. As much as I want to support artists, I simply can’t justify the greed of trying to get people to buy the same music over and over. The music industry managed to get us to do that when we shifted from vinyl to CDs, and I accept that the change was positive: better sound, no pops and clicks, and, in many cases, much longer timings on CDs than on LPs. But when they come out and scam fans with a few extra tracks on a re-issue, well, that’s just a swindle.
Alas, I am sure a lot of people will buy this set; mostly people who don’t have more than one or two of the original releases, or even none at all. This sort of budget release is a great thing for artists who have moved on and who don’t sell a lot of back catalog, and for fans who discover artists later in their careers. If Nonesuch sold this box simply with the original releases, I would applaud. But by adding “bonus” tracks, they’re just scamming their customers, as most record labels do.
In 1981, when a revised English translation of Remembrance of Things Past was published in hardcover in the United States, I bought a massive, three-volume set of what was said to be the greatest novel ever written. (And also the longest.) A friend of mine had been reading it in an older edition around that time, and I was tempted to discover this work that so enthralled him. I remember lugging the huge, black-bound volumes, each of more than 1,000 pages, with me to and from work, and reading on the subway and bus. I had a long subway ride – from 179th St. in Queens to midtown Manhattan – and to come home I would sometimes take an express bus, which took a bit longer, but at least let me read by daylight. It took a very long time to read the entire work – I don’t remember exactly how long – but since the work’s theme is time, this was fitting.
Reading Proust got me interested in French culture. I had already read a number of French authors, such as Camus and Sartre, and Beckett (if you count him as French), and I decided that I wanted to learn French to read them in the original. (I had studied French in high school, so I had some background.) Proust’s writing is more complex than that of many other French authors, so while, at the time, I thought I wanted learn French to read Proust in the original, I never thought that would actually come true. I took some French lessons, then, a few years later, saved up enough money to move to France for a year, and ended up staying.
I came to France in the fall of 1984, where I had rented a house for a year, in the southwest of the country, with the same friend who had introduced me to Proust, and with two others would would come and go during the year. Stopping by Paris first, I visited some bookstores, and my first purchase was the three-volume Pléiade edition of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. (The Pléiade editions are unique. They are small, pocket-sized leather-bound books printed on bible paper, which generally contain complete works of great authors, often in multiple volumes, with from 1,000 to 2,000 pages each. Published by Gallimard, this series is considered to be a pantheon of great writers.) This was the then definitive edition of the novel, published in 1954, and given its compact size, you could have probably fit a half-dozen of them in the huge box that held the English translation.
I would repeat my initial Proustian experience a couple of years later in Paris, when my French, and my vocabulary, did, indeed, reach the level required to read the novel. (I recall reading a book about Proust at some point, in a Paris library, which said that Proust used 18,322 different words in his long novel. Vocabulary was therefore essential.) I carried these smaller volumes with me on the metro and busses in Paris as I went to and from work. At the time, I was teaching English to French executives, and I would always have a book handy to read during my commutes, and when waiting for classes to begin. As I look at these well-worn volumes now, I recall that period with a certain nostalgia; one could say a Proustian nostalgia.
I read La recherche a few more times after that. In the late 1980s, a new Pléiade edition was issued – it contains four volumes, costs more than twice as much as the old edition, and has twice as many pages, as each volume contains huge swaths of “variants,” or drafts that Proust wrote. I haven’t read these variants, in part because they are in tiny type (the Pléiade volumes already use a small font, but the back-of-the-book material is even smaller), and in part because there’s enough to read without going into the variants. I listened to the work once in an audiobook recording of 128 hours, which is a magnificent way to discover Proust. And I’ve just started reading this work again.
Proust has a reputation for being difficult. The novel is long – initially published in seven volumes, it comes to 3,000 to 4,000 pages, depending on the edition and font size. His writing can be hard to follow at times; Proust is known for writing long sentences, one of which is 847 words long. (I append that sentence, in French, at the end of this article for the curious.) And his work contains dozens of major characters and hundreds of minor characters, which can be hard to follow. Nevertheless, his writing is easy to read, not hard. He’s no James Joyce, and he’s no proponent of the nouveau roman. Proust’s writing flows smoothly, lyrically, as if he was speaking to the reader. (All but the Swann in Love – Un amour de Swann – section is written in the first person, so he is actually speaking to you and me.) The important discovery I made about Proust’s style occurred, in fact, when I listened to an audiobook version of La recherche in French. It became immediately apparent that Proust’s style was simply spoken French written down on paper. His long, sinuous, rambling sentences were simply the way people spoke when they went on and digressed. With this understanding, Proust’s style became nearly transparent. (I say “nearly,” because you still have to pay attention when a sentence goes on for a long time; however, if you get lost, just start over and read it out loud.)
Proust’s novel is about time. The first English title, Remembrance of Things Past, was chosen by the translator who had only read the first volume, and who didn’t know where the work was going. It was taken from a sonnet by Shakespeare, and, while it does wax poetic, it is far from the simplicity of the actual title of the work: In Search of Lost Time, or A la recherche du temps perdu. (It’s important to note that, in French, this title is slightly more ambiguous than in English; “temps perdu” is both lost time and wasted time. (An aside: French toast, in French, is “pain perdu,” or lost/wasted bread.)) The first book begins with the word “Longtemps,” or “For a long time,” and the last book ends with the word “temps,” or “time.” The entire story is about the changes that time causes on people, how people react to the passage of time, and the desire, sometimes, to get back the time that has passed.
Readers today have a much easier time with Proust than I did at first, as there are a number of books that can help you on your journey. Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life is a sometimes serious, sometimes humorous look at Proust, his work, and his way of viewing the world; this is a good introduction to the work. William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life, sadly out of print, is the best English-language biography of Proust, who famously claimed that one shouldn’t concern oneself with an author’s life when reading their works. Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time is another useful guidebook, as is Malcolm Bowie’s Proust Among the Stars. Offering less analysis than the previous books, Patrick Alexander’s Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past is a cheat-sheet for readers: it contains a plot summary, a cast of characters, and more useful information to keep you from getting lost. Finally, a wonderful series of video lectures by William C. Carter, Proust scholar and biographer, provides an excellent “course” in Proust. This web site, available on a one-payment lifetime subscription basis, includes lectures and regular Q&A sessions via webcam, as well as a forum. (If you join, you’ll see me on the forum; I’ve volunteered to help moderate and administer it.)
So, where do you begin if you want to read Proust? You should simply dive in and start with the first volume, Swann’s Way, in a recent translation, or Du côté de chez Swann, in the Folio paperback edition, if you read French. The nice leather-bound Pléiade edition is attractive, but the books are too long, in my opinion (much longer than the older edition that I carried around in my Paris days), and at that price, I don’t want to read them in the bathtub. But there are a number of different editions in French: there’s a 2,400-page one-volume edition, which is too bulky to read comfortably, and another edition in two 1,500-page volumes, which is a bit easier to handle. Other French publishers have released their own editions in paperback, since the work went into the public domain.
Reading Proust is a long process; one that never ends. If you “get” Proust, you’ll realize that when you get to the end of the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, you’ll want to start over. Not right away, of course, but the aftertaste of lost time will linger, and a few years later, you’ll get the itch to read it again. For me, this itch sneaks up on me every five years or so, and with each reading I understand more of the vision of this unique author who managed to write in such a way as the reader can learn to see the world differently. It’s the voyage of a lifetime, and you can start any time.