How to Read a Hard Book
How to read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
By Marcelle Clements
Alas, many readers never get past the first 50 pages. They drift away, perhaps persuading themselves that they have read Proust. But you can't understand the beginning of In Search of Lost Time if you haven't read the end. And every volume is different from the last. The spirit of the work seems to change, expand, even to mutate as we ourselves evolve, if only because it takes us so long to finish it that we are no longer the person we were when we began. Certainly, we are no longer the same reader. We are seized with a strange, deep affection for long sentences, for precisely articulated aesthetic judgments, for witty illuminations about cruel duchesses and crazy barons, for portraits of divine, self-deceiving men and the deliciously ambiguous women who torment them, and we probably no longer even remember our original reason for beginning In Search of Lost Time.
This—how all is ephemeral in ourselves, especially desire—is one of the great themes of Marcel Proust's masterpiece. Indeed, if you make it to the end, you may well find yourself picking up the first volume and rereading the opening pages with something resembling bliss—your biggest regret that you no longer have the whole experience ahead of you—and thereby demonstrating once again how right Proust is when he declares that the only true paradise is paradise lost.
If you want to finish Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, here is the secret: Read fast. Read for plot—though you won't understand what the plot is until the end. Don't be frightened by the size of the novel. Critics scare readers off by talking of it as a cathedral. Everything about it is big: its size and reputation, its ambition, the chunk of history it encompasses. But 4,500 pages isn't much, considering its prodigious cast of characters; its unparalleled metaphors, allusions, digressions (an army of parenthetical remarks); its sinuous paragraphs; its unbelievable sentences (sometimes several pages long)—profuse, infinitesimally detailed descriptions alternating with bald statements of huge ideas—that sum up the previously unarticulated, ineffable relationship we have to love, loss, death, truth, nobility, vulgarity, culture, prejudice, ideals, art, women's fashion and military fashion, flowers, smells, names, words, places and the idea of place, memory, desire, and regret.
All you need to know to start is that this is, in Proust's words, a story told by "a man who says 'I.'" This narrator, an educated man with a great memory, has trouble sleeping. In the opening pages, in the dark, we are bobbing about on the surface of his consciousness. Soon he is remembering, as a little boy, yearning upstairs in bed for his mamma's good-night kiss while, down in the garden, his parents, grandparents, and two zany maiden aunts converse with the wonderfully elegant Monsieur Swann, a family friend. Night deepens. The blooming hawthorn bush releases its bittersweet scent. And now is when you, the reader, inexorably drawn into Proust's beautiful sentences, are mightily tempted to pause and admire the metaphors, the music of the language. No! Don't stop reading! Don't lie down in the snow! You can read Proust for the poetry of his prose, but not if you want to read all of In Search of Lost Time. You must do violence to yourself and keep going. Don't forget: You can always return. If you do as I suggest, before too long the narrator's recollections are so intimately connected with yours that you can't always distinguish between them. Then you're truly on your way.
Marcelle Clements teaches In Search of Lost Time at New York University. Her most recent novel is Midsummer.