It’s been a big couple of years for Marcel Proust fans. Today marks 100 years since his death, which comes on the heels of the 150th anniversary of his birth, celebrated last year. It’s been an even better year or two for people who like to criticise Proust fans for being ‘snobs’ and ‘masochists.’ Guilty on both counts. That is, if you accept that reading literary classics is a sign of snobbery. As for masochism, I don’t know why I tackle some of the tomes that I do, especially in French, or even worse for me in Italian.
So, what is it like to read Proust? According to the Proust Society of America, Proust’s longest sentence was 958 words. Why not break this sentence up into other sentences? I ask, wearing my editor’s hat. I’m sure Proust had his reasons. I suspect it had to do with the many thoughts that operate in our minds at the same time, a sense of time collapsing on itself. That is one of the things I enjoy about reading his fiction – it often challenges our sense of space and time in the context of day-to-day life without entering fantasy, sci-fi or magical realism (not that there’s anything wrong with this genres).
Remembrance of Things Past (La Recherche, as the French call it), Proust’s highly autobiographical masterpiece, has a dream-like quality of a broken narrative that reconnects at the will of its narrator trying to figure out his life. I’m re-reading the first book of this 7-volume, 3,000 + page magnum opus– this time in French – snob, masochist.
Proust’s writing and life are intertwined, and I suspect that is a part of the fascination and cult-like following that Proust has garnered. He lived during the scintillating times of the Belle Epoch and hobnobbed with artists, writers and socialites of the day, including Andre Gide, James Joyce and Sarah Bernhardt. Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux, who is also a masterful practitioner of autofiction, says of Proust:
‘He is the total writer. One has the impression that Proust, as a person, does not exist. He is entirely in La Recherche. That’s what I admire so deeply. He is the total work- he cannot be compared with another.’
Although he never publicly admitted to being gay, his relationships with men are well known and included in nearly every biography. According to William Carter, one of Proust’s many biographers, “Proust was the first novelist to explore the entire spectrum of human sexuality.” Carter adds, “Characters could be homosexual in the first part of their lives and heterosexual later, or the reverse.” Proust was ahead of his time as a philosopher and sociologist of sorts on matters of sexuality and gender. While I’m reading La Recherche in order – that is, beginning to end – I dip into it to read a few pages at a time, and sometimes before bed, a few long paragraphs before nodding off. I find myself leaving it for a couple of weeks to read some other novel by a completely different type of writer and then returning to Proust, not always remembering all the details of characters or events. But strangely, that doesn’t matter as the language and sentiments soon draw me back in. According to Alice Jacquelin, literature lecturer at Nanterre University and Proust specialist, “There’s no sacrilege in dipping into it.” The book lends itself to that. The reader can experience snippets of a life and still feel immersed in Proust’s world, a world cherished by us literary snobs and masochists.