In Search of Lost Time

Look at this saucy Frenchman.


I finished reading In Search of Lost Time a few weeks ago, and now it’s over, there is a peculiar Proust-shaped hole in my life.

Reading it was a rigorous undertaking, and I now understand why it is considered to be so difficult. Many readers that possess the ability and tenacity to get through it – and it is demanding in a way that very few books I’ve encountered is – simply won’t have the time to devote.   

I am reasonably aware of my intellectual limitations, and knew that I wouldn’t be able to sit down and read it for fun. I was going to have to commit to regular sessions, or intervals, as I would if I was training for a fight. 

Proust is a different kind of book to what is generally published in the ‘modern’ era, and reading things of this nature is actually a skill that is beginning to disappear outside of universities.

My friend Rodney Hall says there are two kinds of books; those that want to get you off the page, and those that want to keep you there.  

A thriller, or what is commonly referred to as a page turner, is a book that gratifies you through completion of a pattern. The speed and momentum of the reading experience is derived from being able to assemble what you’re reading in your head.

On the other hand, there are books that don’t have driving plots, or puzzles, or patterns and they aim to keep you on the page. The action is in the language; what happens from page to page. These are books you read slowly, and require a measure of patience.

When I started out, I set myself a discipline of ten pages a day, which is how I read War and Peace for the first time. I also gave up on the notion of finishing it. Apparently, the average person who ‘reads’ Proust does so in about six months, but I put that out of my mind and just set about staying on the page.

Eleven months later, I had finished. It was like having a well-meaning yet annoying, eccentric older relative living with you. They lived on their own schedule and did weird things around the house, even rearranging the furniture when you were out.

But every night, they took you onto the balcony and opened the night sky up to you until it was like a lake and you could actually feel the air parting against your face as he supported you swimming through it.

Once he was gone, nothing seemed right. Nothing could go back to the simple, comfortable way it was before.

Bereft of the man himself, I started listening to Alain De Botton’s audiobook, How Proust Can Change Your Life. I’d always avoided it: why read about Proust when you can actually read him yourself?

While De Botton regales his reader with funny stories and anecdotes about Proust, a strategy De Botton has built a career on, I don’t think his book really prepares you to read In Search of Lost Time.  

In fact, I think De Botton is somewhat misleading, because once you open Proust and begin to read, the prose will rear up in front of you like a brick wall. If you’re hoping to find the jewels De Botton discusses, you’ll soon be alienated and lose heart.

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