Thursday, February 03, 2011

swann's way out

I recently mail off my copy of Remembrance of Things Past, Volume I: Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust.

Unfinished. About 400 pages worth of unfinished.

I'd heard about Proust from a number of sources, spoken with a reverence reserved for the likes of James Joyce and Dostoevsky.

I didn't finish Ulysses either though I loved Crime and Punishment.

So when I brought home Swann's Way it was with a token solemnity that I climbed into bed to read it, cup of tea by my side. I hunkered down hoping to love this book, with those many volumes and thousands of pages to look forward to.


I wasn't all that certain at first. I'm still not. After many nights and many dutiful attempts to read a multitude of paragraphs, filled with endless compound and run on sentences covering a period of time that could have lasted no more than five minutes, five seconds, perhaps, devoted to a glimpse into the stream of consciousness of one man as he lie awake in bed, moments after snuffing out his candle, remembereing his youth, a childhood of inconsolable angst, a childhood of yearnings and dread combined into a dull, relentless ache of loneliness, when he would lie awake then, in just such a bed, in just such a way as this, a boy, waiting for his dear, sweet mother to climb the steps and come to his room and deliver a good night kiss, a kiss he anticipated with unbearable fervor, after which he felt an intensity of disappointment that it was over and that he would not see his mother again for many hours yet to come, knowing that his father would ridicule him for his clinging emotionality, I decided that reading pleasure was not to be had at the prolific hand of Proust.

In short, reading left me feeling really annoyed. Was it Proust's writing style? Or was it a function of the translation? Whichever, it writing bounced and skipped like a beaded bracelet that breaks open and scatters across concrete. Where is it all going? Will it ever come together again, into one coherent idea? Too much repetitive detail. Too little notice before a topic change. My mind was ringing with, "Alright, already!" Throughout the one hundred or so pages I read, I wasn't sure if, during the entire narrative, he was still in bed.

For several nights I gave it another try. I thought maybe I'd finally get into his rhythm, start to follow his train of long, obsessive thought. Determined to appreciate it.

Didn't happen.

Instead I started to wonder if the One Hundred Greatest Novels of All Time list was penned by none other than Ellsworth Toohey, playing a trick on the masses, trying to make us feel small and guilty for failing to comprehend the magnitude of Proust's style.

But in the end, I let it go. Life is too short to feel annoyed. Too many good books out there waiting.

I'm curious though. Any readers think I made a mistake, loved the book, think I should have persevered?


slow panic said...

I tried Proust and James Joyce. Fail. Or at least I felt I had failed. I want to find all that wonder and beauty others find. But I don't.

I also tried to wade through Don Quixote -- cuz it was the #1 book on the 100 Greatest Books list I got a hold of.

Couldn't stand that one either....

shrink on the couch said...

And how about Voltaire's Candide? WTF was that about? I've read reviews and see it's a parody but I was miserable trying to wade my way through it.

Magpie said...

You know, I've never read Proust or James Joyce. And Don Q was a slog and I didn't finish it. And I still haven't finished Godel, Escher, Bach.

But Candide? Do you know the Bernstein musical/opera? It's awesome and I think it's why I was able to read the book.

Angeliki said...

Same here. I’ve tried Proust and Joyce and failed! I tried so hard to like Proust but I couldn’t. The writing style is awful and all these details, so boring! I couldn’t stand it. Instead, I read the “How Proust can change your Life” by Alain De Botton and I liked it. Marcel Proust was such an odd, quirky character. For example, he never left his bed, he was writing his novel lying down, he only eat grapes because he was allergic to all other foods, he was a hypochondriac and he drunk insane amounts of tea (or coffee I can’t remember). It’s a smart book and I recommend it.

BTW, I love Dostoevsky and I’ve read and loved all of his books including his silly short stories. So, it’s not me, it’s Proust.

apathy lounge said...

I don't know. When you read to learn I guess it's good to perservere, but I'm okay with deciding that life is too short to agonize over a book that isn't going anywhere for you. Hope you're staying warm.

apathy lounge said...

I read "Candide" and liked it, but I never finished "Crime and Punishment".

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

As you said--life is too short.

Nulaanne said...

Proust no, Joyce some of his stuff is good others not so much.

Loved Don Quixote.

Mental P Mama said...

Some Joyce is good. Proust? Not. I never understood how some of those made the list....

The Girl Next Door said...

WHo made that list anyway? Shakespeare's brother? Bah. Life is short. Read what you love. I have discovered a whole group of incredibly bright female partners in my office who share....really bad romance novels. Hilarious.

JCK said...

I used to force myself to read a book until the end, rarely letting myself off the hook.

Now it is true freedome, isn't it?

Time to move on.

The book Angeliki mentioned sounds like more fun. :)

Fantastic Forrest said...

Really? You loved Crime and Punishment? So did my son. I tried, I really tried.... Well, actually, didn't try all that hard. As you said, life is short.

Still, I'm off to check out the 100 books list. Will let you know if I find one I love.

Susan said...

I tried Swann's Way, too - never finished. I admit to never getting through most of the classics like Joyce, etc. Though I loved Candide.

I agree, life is short and there are a lot of book for people like me - the English majors can love those Greatest Books and I'll stick with the lesser books, I guess!

Tammy said...

I've read and loved a few books on that list. I've also stopped reading a few books on the list because I just didn't like them. I haven't read Proust. There are too many great books out there to spend time on one that's not enjoyable!