Cherwell

Proust: A simple guide

So what’s your literary New Year’s resolution? If you don’t read Proust now, in your youth, it will be all the more sad when you come to it late on in life – retired, tired, in search of lost time. Far better to invest now for future reward. And obviously, don’t waste time with books about Proust, that’s just putting it off. This short guide is all you need.

First, practical tips. Don’t read every volume one after the other. Spread them out, a year should do it. This book is a whole life, don’t rush. Also, don’t fret about which translation you read, whatever your library has will do. Not having French is no excuse. What you will get from this, and keep, is not the words themselves, but a set of experiences, attitudes, and feelings.

Everyone knows memory is what it is about. This is too deep for you. It rises to the surface only when you look back, like a ship’s wake. Then you’ll see it easily. The way to read Proust is precisely to ignore this what it is about and ask, what else? So much that I can only offer here a ‘summary of key themes.’

As in Jane Austen, you’ll appreciate more of the humour if you read for themes of class, money, and status. One of the best tricks of (our hero, the narrator) Marcel’s introspective alienation is that it gives him a platform to mock everyone else, from his servants to the grandest grandees. And with most vitriol, of course, the upward-moving bourgeoisie, the nouveaux riches – his own kind, by most reckonings.

Onto the next comparison. Neurosis, self-doubt crossed with an artistic arrogance and scathing criticism of the personalities of others, and a dose of young-girl fantasy. That’s right, it’s Woody Allen. Love and trust are held, for Proust, in a corrupting web, both from within and from without. Society, psychology: both are to blame for the impossibility of true love. Our emotions cannot but be self-destructive. ‘Everything that seems to us imperishable tends towards decay.’

But what about a third theme: art, culture, mimesis? The truly beautiful things Proust creates are works of art. Vinteuil’s “little sonata”; the paintings of Elstir; the church at Combray. These are the icons of a radical subjectivist philosophy. Vinteuil’s sonata moves us only through Swann; Elstir’s art, loved by Marcel, goes out of fashion; the church finds its beauty in the shifting sunlight. And all three exist nowhere but in words, in this book.

How you experience them, how you read Proust, is quite in your own hands. As he writes, ‘in reality, each reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.’