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Proust: Can You Convince Me to Continue?


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#1 Christian

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Posted 16 December 2003 - 09:10 PM

So I finally waded into Marcel Proust's multi-part "Remembrance of Things Past," choosing, as I often do, to listen to the audiobook version of the novel. It's abridged, but it's on the Naxos label, which is well regarded by at least one Pulitzer Prize-winning critic.

Trouble is, the first part of "Remembrance," titled "Swann's Way," begins with the narrator's account of his childhood and his, ummmm, how should we say this ... deep affection for his mother. Long passages describing the young boy's desire for his mother's "warm" kisses. It's very descriptive, loaded with sensual phrases.

I'm not making this up.

Can anybody help me out here? Can somebody tell me why I shouldn't be completely put off by the story?

I did press on with the first section, and I now have the second chunk of "Remembrance" to listen to. But I'm reluctant to invest more time in it. The first portion had some vivid stories, but my mind wandered at least as often as it focused in on the material -- not entirely the fault of the source material, no doubt, but the failure of the audio book to hold my full attention throughout is a mark against continuing with it, I think.

However, I'm willing to be persuaded that I'm completely wrong, that Proust is revered for a reason, that there's more to "Remembrance" than Freudian hang-ups.

So, Proust fans, if you're out there, identify yourself, and state your case. You just might recruit me. Otherwise, I'll simply dismiss Proust -- and I'll feel good about my decision.

But if you care, you won't let that happen.

#2 BethR

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Posted 17 December 2003 - 12:11 PM

I'm sorry, I can't help you. I've always suspected that Proust's tome is one of those that everyone is supposed to know about but almost no one has actually read, and who cares.

And me a literature professor.

I suspect you've discovered one reason for its enormous reputation--the extremely obvious Freudian psychological issues. At the time it was first published, Freud was Big News. Now, not so much.

Other books people pretend they've read: Finnegans Wake. War and Peace. Gravity's Rainbow. Maybe even The Origin of Species :wink:

I believe there's a new translation that's supposed to be more accurate and moves along a bit more quickly. The title of the new version is not "Remembrance of Things Past," though...it's--um--well, something similar. You can tell I really paid attention, can't you? smile.gif I don't know if it's available as an audiobook, though.

Good luck!

#3 Christian

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Posted 18 December 2003 - 03:22 PM

Thanks, Beth. I suspected as much, even though I wanted to be told something more positive and encouraging about “Remembrance.”

To that end, I put my question to Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda today during an online chat. My question and his response follow:

Tysons Corner, Va.: I hope you have time to take my question.
I'm stalled out on Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." "Swann's Way" was vivid in spots, but I couldn't get past the narrators, ummm, "affection" for his mother and her kisses.
Why shouldn't I be put off by those passages?

Michael Dirda: Hey, the narrator is a bit smarmy about his mother's kisses, but it's not like incest or anything. And you need to get into "Swann in Love"--if you don't like that you won't like Proust. It's all about the growth of an irrational passion, based on jealousy, that ends in an unhappy marriage. What could be more true to life than that?

--Ahhh. So is his affection for his mother the “irrational passion,” or is that something else? I’m guessing it’s the latter, but either way, I would like to find out. And I have no alternative audiobook right now. My “Return of the King” dramatization is dull going. So I think I’ll press ahead with Proust for now. I can always bail out if need be – and the need may be soon, after I get some hoped-for music CDs (new Eva Cassidy, reissued Thelonius Monk and Lee Konitz) Christmas morning.

Although, come to think of it, we just bought a used car (Volvo 850 Turbo) with a 6-CD changer, so maybe there’s room for all! Then again, that’s more my wife’s car than my car. Drat.

#4 Christian

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Posted 06 January 2004 - 10:41 PM

Update: I checked out Part 3 of "Remembrance" today, thinking I'd plug along with several more installments. But early into the first disc, I found my mind wandering and decided to just stop with "Remembrance of Things Past."

Maybe next year. Or the year after.

In the meantime, I've got Ron Hansen's unabridged "Hitler's Niece" to listen to.

#5 Russell Lucas (unregistered)

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 04:05 PM

Christian, I know you're an Atlantic reader. It's probably too late now, but Hitchens had that engaging piece on the new translation of Swann's Way in the January issue. Apart from discussing some of the subtleties of literary translation (which I appreciated), it made me want to dive into Proust for the first time in my life. I'm heartened, though, by his mention that one's forties is perhaps the best time to read Proust.

#6 Christian

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Posted 14 February 2004 - 09:54 PM

Thanks, Russell. Ya know, I tried to read that article but I quickly lost patience with it. I said to my wife, "This article is more boring than Proust's book!"

Which is an immature statement that reflects poorly on me. But there you have it.

I did just manage to recently complete Jonathan Letham's 511-page "The Fortress of Solitude," which left me unmoved. I had thought about giving up on it after 300 pages, but I pressed on through the story's main transition, in hopes of a payoff. My bad. I mention this to show that I can be underwhelmed by highly acclaimed contemporary books as well as classics from an earlier era.

Meanwhile, I read the introduction to Peter Biskind's "Down and Dirty Pictures" -- derided as too "gossipy" by some reviewers -- and I loved it! Just goes to show you my level of taste.

And, it turns out that after much fretting and indecisiveness, I decided to go ahead and take "Isaiah-Malachi" at the seminary. I made the call two hours before the first class began. I mention this because it means I'll have no time for Biskind's book, or any others (beside class books), until early summer.

I will have time for audiobooks, but instead of investing my time in Proust, I'm moving on to a 2-disc book on Gettysburg by James McPherson. I've wanted to try out some McPherson, and a 2-disc audiobook is unusually brief -- a nice respite after the 8-disc Updike I just finished.

#7 gigi

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Posted 20 January 2011 - 06:02 PM

OK - super old thread, I know. I started reading this a few weeks ago and am completely enamoured. Partly due to the passages described above - I didn't see them as at all problematic. The child he describes is just that, a child, and his dependence on & love for his mother is partly a consequence of the seeming lack of affection from other corners but also a touching depiction of childhood. I think the other aspects of this section do quite a good job of establishing the child's youth and naivety, and also his imaginative life - for example, the description of the lamp that is left on to reassure him but actually causes an almost existential anxiety. His dependence on his mother, I think, is quite true to life. Children create a whole world of fears based around one thing - that not being kissed goodnight might mean you don't wake up, for example. Especially if you think about shyer, more introverted children. I didn't read anything Freudian into it so far. Proust's descriptions of childhood read in isolation of the rest of the six volumes so far stand as a paean to the true and unrefined joys of childhood experience. What makes it so special, to me, is that there is already, in the language, a sense of the pain of loss that makes some of the passages bristle with expectation.

Anyway. I'm reading this at the moment. If anyone else wishes to read along, I'm on about page 90 of volume one. Would be good to have a forum with ongoing discussion.

Edited by gigi, 20 January 2011 - 06:02 PM.


#8 Andrew

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 09:14 PM

I've decided I want to give Proust a go - my copy of Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis, arrived in the mail today.

#9 NBooth

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 08:02 AM

A schedule to read In Search of Lost Time in a year. I'm almost persuaded.

#10 Justin Hanvey

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 04:46 PM

Just a thought, but I own Gravity's Rainbow, and I've stopped and started it many times. Thinking of it I should give it a try again.

#11 NBooth

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 09:23 PM

Just a thought, but I own Gravity's Rainbow, and I've stopped and started it many times. Thinking of it I should give it a try again.


I need to get my hands on that one....

#12 Josie

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Posted 02 December 2012 - 12:19 AM

So, Proust fans, if you're out there, identify yourself, and state your case. You just might recruit me. Otherwise, I'll simply dismiss Proust -- and I'll feel good about my decision.


I'm going to answer a question you didn't exactly ask, a decade late: No!!
Don't persevere, don't grit your teeth and slog through a book whose sexuality is abhorrent to you. Above all don't do it in abridged, translated, audio form.
Unless you need Proust for some reason - like to claim expertise in the history of the novel and modernity - don't choose to be bored and repelled. Fiction oughtn't to be so medicinal and between the novels you feel you should read and those you actually love, you're spoiled for choice.

I'm not making this up.

Can anybody help me out here? Can somebody tell me why I shouldn't be completely put off by the story?


No, you're not and no, I'm not sure I can. I've read Remembrance of Things Past only once - enough to understand the reverence and its place in literary canons, private and large. I admire it greatly from a certain cool distance (very like how I feel about some of Freud's more beautiful and mystical writing, since you bring him up). But I'm not sure I really like it . . . or Proust. I could talk about how differently I perceive the child's longing for his mother. . . more Portrait of the Artist than Freudian hang-up, closer to what gigi talks about. I could but I won't, because I think your aversion is operating at some important level beyond mine to reason it out of existence.

So is his affection for his mother the �irrational passion,� or is that something else? I�m guessing it�s the latter, but either way, I would like to find out.


I don't think so.I think the irrational passion your critic refers to is Swann's. But I suspect that as Marcel moves through adolescence and adulthood, the sensuality (and homoeroticism and lesbianism) would only bother you more. Much, much more.

I admire the way people here set out to read difficult, acclaimed books (as I graze library/bookstore aisles, picking books not quite at random, but because I like the author - or an author I like does - or the title and the jacket description and the first few pages - and a few more in the middle - really appeal to me)
But being a discriminating, mature reader doesn't mean preferring Letham to Biskind. It means knowing when you don't - and possibly being able to articulate why.
It could also mean listening to your inner alert (or whatever it is that warns you off certain books).
I did, in another thread: your distaste for Norwegian Wood reminded me why I stopped reading Murakami in 2001. Substitute violence for sex & that is kind of how I felt about Wind up Bird Chronicle. (Mesmerized and intrigued but held at bay, looking to crack its emotional code. Until the torture/flaying section, which I found so alienating and viscerally repellant - so inscrutable, oddly- that it became the cypher to everything else I didn't understand. That's when I gave up on Murakami.)

I've always suspected that Proust's tome is one of those that everyone is supposed to know about but almost no one has actually read, and who cares

Other books people pretend they've read: Finnegans Wake. War and Peace. Gravity's Rainbow. Maybe even The Origin of Species :wink:


Unless you're a French or Russian lit professor, or an upper level student, in which case Proust and Tolstoy still show up and still matter. . . . or a modernist . . . or a Joyce scholar . . . Really, I thinkall these books have fans, often the same fans in the case of F.W. and G. R. and not only in academia.
But if you dislike them, they'd be horrible to have to read!

#13 Christian

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Posted 02 December 2012 - 12:43 AM

My day is made, and it's only 12:38 a.m.! Thanks, Josie. I don't know that I agree with everything I wrote a decade ago about Proust, but I haven't revisited him since and don't regret it.

Today I downloaded three e-books for my new Nook and transferred three others I'd downloaded to my laptop but had never read, because I never felt like using an app to read a book on my laptop. Maybe the books will work better now that they're on my Nook. But I realize I'm hoping for some form of magic that makes me read more. I hear e-readers have that effect on some people. Wouldn't it be nice if I were one of those people?

I reassure myself that I at least remain curious. I want to keep reading books, even if I download, or check out, or purchase more titles than I actually finish -- or even start.

Why am I justifying reading habits of mine that weren't part of this discussion? Who, or what, is to blame for such self-absorption?

Let's blame Proust.

Edited by Christian, 02 December 2012 - 12:44 AM.


#14 Andrew

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Posted 03 December 2012 - 05:30 PM

I feel better about having put Proust down, too. About 120 pages into Swann's Way, and I was bored witless.

#15 Christian

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Posted 03 May 2013 - 01:22 PM

The Slate Book Club, on Swann's Way (on its 100th anniversary).

Edited by Christian, 03 May 2013 - 01:22 PM.