Loving the tome that is In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust is at once a fairly alienating pursuit and also one of empathy and connection.
It’s alienating because, quite frankly, next to nobody wants to hear you talk about what’s going on in the quest for Remembrance of Things Past, unless they’ve read it too (I’ve been reading on and off for over a year and I’ve only ever met one person who has read past the first volume).
Especially once you get past volume one. With volume one you have the element of novelty on your side, your friends aren’t bored of hearing you talk about Marcel describing a nice set of trees he saw and what that made him think of, yet. Volume one feels like a long time ago. I’ve just finished volume three and before I even finish the monosyllable that is “Proust” eyes are rolling and already half glazed over.
It’s also a task of empathy because I feel like choosing to read Proust has enriched my life greatly. It’s beautiful, funny, and thought provoking. I feel as though Proust has been very contributory to my development and ongoing attempts to be a “thoughtful” human being; his ideas, themes and fascinations occupying my thoughts frequently since I started reading, shaping the way I think about my life and the people, places and things I’m around.
It’s hard to create a digestible reason why I love the novel so much and why I’d encourage people to pick up Swann’s Way. I just got out all the volumes I’ve read so far and put them in a pile. This was both to read some quotes from my notes and to feel a bit smug about having made it so far.
When I picked up Within A Budding Grove (part one, volume two) a postcard fell out. It’s of a Lowry painting from the exhibition the Tate Britain hosted last summer. Like Proust’s madeleine, the postcard brought me back to summer time last year and reading that particular volume. On the reverse of the postcard is a note I had made.
“PAGE 106 – RE: GILBERTE’S HAIR
“To a section of them, even infinitely minute, what celestial herbary would I not have given as a reliquary.””
Oh yeah. That’s the bit about where the narrator is bloody obsessed with Gilberte. I flicked to page 106 and read the full quote:
“… Gilberte’s plaits used to brush my cheek. They seemed to me, in the fineness of their grain, at once natural and supernatural, and in the strength of their constructed tracery, a matchless work of art, in the composition of which had been used the very grass of paradise. To a section of them, even infinitely minute, what celestial herbary would I not have given as a reliquary. But since I never hoped to obtain an actual fragment of those plaits, if at least I had been able to have their photograph, how far more precious than one sheet of flowers traced by Vinci’s pencil!”
And that is exactly why I love reading Proust.