Swans Commentary » swans.com June 18, 2012  



How To Read Marcel Proust


by Raju Peddada





"... the secret of truth and beauty, things half-felt by me, half-incomprehensible, the full understanding of which was the vague but permanent object of my thoughts."
—Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Swann's Way

"Most books that live, live in spite of the author's laying it on thick"
—D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)


(Swans - June 18, 2012)   You cannot read Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust while picking your nose. Why? Because, you'll need both of your nostrils to take in as much air as possible so the fresh supply of oxygen will keep your brain bristled and cued to the task at hand, which is to grasp the finely-nuanced resonating memories of an artist who simply is the paragon of contagiously contiguous prose, and a minister at meandering in melancholy in the art of the memoir.

I am a connoisseur of writing, for both the art of brevity and simplicity, as exercised deftly by Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Salinger, and for the pursuit of exoticism in personal expression: art for art's sake, with great exponents like Joyce, Mann, Proust, and Pynchon. As an arbiter of the latter form, I would submit that I am occasionally exasperated by importunate writing gurus, on keeping the sentences short and sweet. And, about using words and sentences that even a baboon would understand. I wonder, why we do have the dictionaries, and the thesauruses, with two hundred thousand words? I am sure Bryan A. Garner and William Safire would dig my indignation. It's like having a mansion, but choosing to live in a tent, or like having a Murciélago in the garage, while you go around on a Huffy. These analogies would at least push back the warped writs on writing. This was before we became a Twitter society, full of twits, with devolved attention spans of early primates, fielding a vocabulary no more than their fingers and toes put together. In the age of Twitter and hand-held entertainment devices, we have morphed into dyslexic sparrows, incapable of grasping anything that is bigger than our brain.

In a world where sentences are no bigger than the length of the editors' middle finger, I doubt that Proust would be published, and imagine what we, or at least I, would have missed. Many critics from the last century as well as this have claimed Proust's work to be unreadable. This has basically excised his work out of circulation, especially from the academic settings, ironically where writing is taught. For that matter, most writers hatched at these workshops, and creative writing MFAs, with aspirations to become the next J. K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, are pure, undiluted bromide. Writing on and about three-headed fire-breathing dragons, with six eyes and legs, ridden by a bio-luminescent vampiric mermaid, is far easier than describing the movements of a curtain in the breeze in ten thousand words. Unfortunately, a substantial amount of contemporary writing is on magnetic levitation that has become good friends with gravity.

I am not about to eviscerate my spleen over this problem, but to enjoy with you, especially those who cannot stomach contemporary predictability, sentences by Proust that actually are like strings of diamonds that need to be sensed and dwelt on, like passionate geologists, or like women at the receiving end.

We are, for the most part, impatient readers. We don't adjust our game plan for the book we're about to read; rather, most of us approach every book with the same cookie-cutter playbook -- big mistake, and consequently, we give up on great books simply because they are aesthetically esoteric and unusual, needing more than our cursory attention, and low on cheap thrills. And that is the problem: we are nurtured on cheap thrills, low on art and high on tarts. Also, we read fast -- so fast that we skim the surface, till someone like Proust morphs into Hades, whose powerful surf rolls over and swallows us, drowning us out on profound beauty. How about strolling in someone else's thoughts? Meandering, as Proust often did, inducing us to take a walk with him into the memory lanes of his life, and into his bucolic and melancholic bidding.

I am not an authority on Marcel Proust, but by trial and error, reading and rereading, I have stumbled onto a methodology to access and transport myself into Proust's labyrinthine psyche, to enjoy his Combray. The way to read Proust is rather simple: absolute silence is necessary, breathe deeply, reset your attitude, as well as your altitude... think about what Proust must have gone through, reliving all those details, drenched in melancholy, that he conveys in his cathartic prose. Patience becomes an imperative if we are to enjoy the beauty in those long strings of diamonds: his sentences in his emotively resplendent Remembrance of Things Past.

Read every word deliberately, linger on his syntactical idiosyncrasies, pausing at every comma or semicolon to digest the phrase before, one phrase at a time. This way, we could read his hundred-word sentences without losing the essence of what he is attempting to convey. While reading his work, you can almost feel Proust's racing heart, his thoughts, interwoven with emotions, pouring forth through his fountain pen, in one breath, before he loses the train. Without patience and deliberation, we would usually lose the first part of the sentence, his thought there, which then, meanders in several phrases down the line, connecting his thoughts in a sequence to complete the picture. We have to stick with that concatenation, word to word, and phrase to phrase, if we are to enjoy his masterpiece.

Proust, in his long sentences, actually induces deep reading, persuades us to slow down, senses our surroundings, inundates us in evocative details, and nurtures our concentration... that is, if you allow him. He makes you deeper. Proust can deliciously dwell on the dancing flame of a candle by the window for almost six pages, or muse on a door handle for almost three pages. Boring? Wrong! It's the kind of observation and lingering that few contemporary writers can muster, especially those addicted to the escapist gadgets that induce spasmodic contemplation.

Thankfully, Proust came from the bourgeoisie class that could afford to coddle this asthmatic author, who would while away days in his room, imagining the subtle colors of the hawthorn bloom, the fragrance of the water lilies over a meadow, the golden dusk stealing between the curtain and the window frame, or his housekeeper's emotional vicissitudes, putting to paper the most miniscule and mundane nuances in a manner that has never been attempted or done since. The only exponent that has arrived in the vicinity of Proust's literary fragrance is Orhan Pamuk. Proust, over the generations, seems to admonish us mildly: "... if you are patient, and give me your time and attention, I will transport you into a world that had vanished long ago, with me ..."

I have this conviction that Proust did not have an audience in mind when he poured out his memories; rather, it was an ongoing personal catharsis, as a result of being stuffed with so many memories of his boyhood. It was almost a curse, which he wanted to unburden desperately as if these memories were suffocating him, and you can feel that "pouring out" as a relief, resulting in ultra-long sentences that grace his monumental work. You don't have to wait long; it begins right away in the author's overture prefacing his first book, Swann's Way. I have culled some long sentences from his first three books -- let's enjoy them.

"I would ask myself what o'clock it could be; I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, shewed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveler would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing the unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath and unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again at home." (117-word sentence from the Overture, Swann's Way)

* * * * *
"As for the agony through which I had just passed, I imagined that Swann would have laughed heartily at it if he had read my letter and had guessed its purpose; whereas, on the contrary, as I was to learn in due course, a similar anguish had been the bane of his life for many years, and no one perhaps could have understood my feelings at that moment so well as himself; to him, that anguish which lies in knowing that the creature one adores is in some place of enjoyment where oneself is not and cannot follow -- to him that anguish came through love, to which it is in a sense predestined, by which it must be equipped and adapted; but when, as had befallen me, such anguish possesses one's soul before love has yet entered one's life, then it must drift, awaiting Love's coming, vague and free, without precise attachment, at the disposal of one sentiment to-day, of another to-morrow, of filial piety or affection for a comrade." (171-word sentence from the Overture, Swann's Way)

* * * * *
"Somewhere in one of the tall trees, making a stage in its height, an invisible bird, desperately attempting to make the day seem shorter, was exploring with a long, continuous note the solitude that pressed it on every side, but it received at once so unanimous an answer, so powerful a repercussion of silence and of immobility that, one would have said, it had arrested for all eternity the moment which it had been trying to make pass more quickly. The sunlight fell so implacably from a fixed sky that one was naturally inclined to slip away out of reach of its attentions, and even the slumbering water, whose repose was perpetually being invaded by the insects that swarmed above its surface, while it dreamed, no doubt, of some imaginary maelstrom, intensified the uneasiness which the sight of that floating cork had wrought in me, by appearing to draw it at full speed across the silent reaches of a mirrored firmament; and I had begun to ask myself whether, setting aside the longing and the terror that I had of making her accquaintance, it was not actually my duty to warn Mlle. Swann that the fish was biting--when I was obliged to run after my father and grandfather, who were calling me, and were surprised that I had not followed them along the little path, climbing up hill towards the open fields, into which they had already turned; I found the whole path throbbing with the fragrance of hawthorn-blossom." (249-words in 2 sentences, from chapter "Combray," Swann's Way)

* * * * *
"Similarly the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is most brilliant or their culture broadest, but those who have had the power, ceasing in a moment to live only for themselves, to make use of their personality as a mirror, in such a way that their life, however unimportant it may be socially, and even, in a sense, intellectually speaking, is reflected by it, genius consisting in the reflective power of the writer and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected." (95-word sentence from chapter "Madame Swann At Home," Within A Budding Grove)

* * * * *
"I had heard of the famous tapestries of Guermantes, I could see them, mediaeval and blue, a trifle coarse, detach themselves like a floating cloud from the legendary, amaranthine name at the foot of the ancient forest in which Childebert went so often hunting; and this delicate, mysterious background of their lands, this vista of the ages, it seemed to me that, as effectively as by journeying to see them, I might penetrate all their secrets simply by coming in contact for a moment in Paris with Mme. de Guermantes, the princess paramount of the place and lady of the lake, as if her face, her speech must possess the local charm of forest groves and streams, and the same secular peculiarities as the old customs recorded in her archives." (130-word sentence from chapter" The Duchesse De Guermantes," The Guermantes Way)


It would be appropriate, would it not, with this punning request to my sanguine editors, to acquiesce and allow your author to go beyond the imposed two-thousand-word limit, as the most worthy salutation to Marcel Proust, who exenterated the rules of syntax and diction, providing us with an exemplary exposition in the art of condescension of the predictable and the familiar -- for the "mere" purpose of living permanently in the consciousness of connoisseurs like me.

In conclusion, I would like to postulate and propose that sublimity resides in the disproportionate and the distended syntax of Proust's art, as in the pottery of Tsujimura Shiro from Japan -- the subtle joy of finding beauty in distortion. And, if you are to enjoy his art, you must "linger." Yes! The operative word is linger. Linger on Proust's lines, as you would in the aroma of a Baron Otard cognac, or around the majestic form of the 1941 Indian in-line-four, on a work of Seurat, or under that orange-violet sunset in Molokai. Linger on the wavering images and that fragrance evoked by his prose strokes, long enough so it coalesces, and becomes manifest -- then, linger some more.


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 18, 2012