Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 18, 2009

Proust, and bragging…

img_0945I like Jane Sullivan.  She writes interesting stuff in her Turning Pages column in the Saturday Age (A2).  But today I am very cross with her.

She hasn’t read Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, (variously translated as Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time as my Penguin set is).  She ‘has hiked around the foothills but …never attempted the big climb’  – but she has written a wry article about how to tackle it.  (Lose yourself in the times of Proust, The Age A2, p28)

Some heroic Proust readers go it alone, but I suspect many need a team’ she says, and then goes on to consider Jane Smiley’s advice ( about reading it for an hour a day, and tells us about Antoni Jach’s Proust evenings at a restaurant in Melbourne.  He suggests beginning with The Fugitive, which seems very odd to me, because Swann’s Way (or the clumsier Penguin The Way by Swann’s) is surely the most enchanting introduction to French literature there could be?

But that is not why I am cross.  To each his own, and Antoni Jach is an erudite man.  He wrote Napoleon’s Double, a very fine book, which we at ANZLL read and enjoyed last year.  Jach would know more about Proust than I ever will.  He’s a lecturer at RMIT, in Creative Media. (I wonder if that’s what we used to call ‘Literature’ at Melbourne University??)

No, the reason I’m cross is because of Sullivan’s inane suggestion that reading Proust is in some way more to do with wanting to achieve status than with enjoying reading one of the great works of world literature.

Why read Proust at all, apart from a desire to brag that you’ve done it? Readers talk about falling asleep and waking as the book drops with a thud, which doesn’t sound much fun to me. Yet those who have made it to the end make ecstatic and profound claims, as if Marcel is an addictive drug of deferred gratification.

Why go to Proust evenings if you’re not going to read the book, Jane?

It’s hard enough to be a serious reader of literature in this sport-and-celebrity obsessed country, to be someone who loves books and reading, without people who ought to know better pouring scorn on our motives.   I read Proust in the privacy of my bedroom over many, many months and contemporaneously with reading other books, because I wanted to.  I have read most of the other great classics of 19th century literature and loved them.  I felt confident I would love Proust too, and I did.  I wrote page after page about it in my reading journal, and I feel a great fondness for the six volumes that are now back on my shelves.

But brag about reading it?  In Melbourne?  Is there a better conversation stopper or means of making oneself the target of mockery?  Those of us who read, and read seriously, know better than to talk about Proust.   Perhaps in France it might be possible to do so, to share with another the pleasure of reading great works, but here, unless at university, forget it.  It could be very lonely indeed, if not for online book-groups of like-minded souls…


  1. Hilarious! – Proust, a secret pleasure, provoking strange looks from people you mention it to – that’s my experience. I have the same set at you, and the titles are enough to make people question your morality – In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Sodom and Gomorrah. So far I have only got through The Way By Swanns, but floundered badly in The Guermantes Way. I prefer Thomas Mann! Thanks for commenting on mine


  2. Hi Tom
    I’ve never read any Thomas Mann – what would you recommend?
    PS I’ve added you to my blogroll; I like your reviews:)


  3. Thanks for visiting my blog today Lisa. We don’t look as if we have much reading DNA in common though, except for a love of reading.


  4. Thanks for putting me in touch with your blog Lisa and I read your comments on my Proust column with interest.
    But I wasn’t being serious! I don’t believe for one minute that people read Proust in order to brag about it. I greatly admire anyone with the commitment to read the whole thing and I fully intend to join them… one day.


  5. Wonderful post. You echo my feelings exactly.

    I myself have been reading since February, and have just today finished _Within a Budding Grove_. When I finish the final volume, probably six months from now, it will feel like a great accomplishment. But not the kind you boast about; rather, the kind that secretly slowly swells inside and permeates and maybe even actually transforms your being, especially as you think back on it, in years to come.


    • HI Jason
      Maybe we could set up a secret society, like the Masons, with a sign known only to readers of Proust LOL


  6. Hello. 250 pages to go. Started November 28, 2008. I can never adequately describe the pleasure I get from reading Proust, it always sounds pretentious and exaggerated, but profound pleasure it is, like never before for me . . . One weird thing is how the Viking two-voume edition I’m reading has CK Moncrieff’s translation (glorious, to me) for the first six books, but ends with Andreas Mayor’s translation of what is said to be the best book of all, Time Regained. Definitely a different voice and a different experience. I hope I enjoy Mayor as I have Moncrieff. And what to read next?


    • Hello, Jeff, it’s great to meet another who loves this work:) I think that next time I read this, as I hope to do before long, I shall try the Moncrieff translation – because as you probably know the Penguin version has six different translators, some better than others. I think it would be interesting to read it again, all in one voice, so to say.


  7. Lisa, hello. Do check out the Moncrieff translation. Many translations of books become classics for the translations themselves. This, I think, is one of them. The Moncrieff voice becomes dear, like a person becomes dear as you listen to them hour after hour. I read Boswell’s Life of Johnson a couple of years ago. Though on the surface about Johnson and Johnson’s life and thoughts, I began while reading to realize the genius and character of Boswell himself, and that was at least as much of the pleasure as I derived from the book. (These are not entirely my own thoughts, btw). Also, I called what I am reading the “Viking” edition; I don’t know where I got that; it’s the Random House version. Nice meeting you, Lisa. JB


    • Nice to meet you too, Jeff, and I shall take your advice about the Moncrieff. Cheers Lisa


  8. Hello again. Clarification of my last post: I am not saying ROTP is a classic only because of Moncrieff’s translation. That would be absurd. I am only saying that Moncrieff’s translation is itself a remarkable presentation of a remarkable underlying work. Anybody out there reading Proust in French? French people, for instance?


    • Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to read it in French! I have enough French to get by, but not enough to read Proust, alas…. Lisa


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