My Way of Reading Proust: the first time and, then, beyond
To the yahoo list –
Thank you for your many kind words – I love them! But I have to confess that much of what I write is inspired and informed by conversation with other Proustians. I am very indebted to “brilliant dialectic” and collaborative exegesis particularly in this list, my own reading group and the Proust Society (Mercantile Library). What started me on my writing adventures was this very list, back in 2000. Thanks to Kim, our moderator.
But to write, one has to read – Art depends on art. Proust demonstrates his reverence for reading many times over. In the Search, we often see M reading in his room, or on his way to his room to read or lolling about in the garden caught between the orchestra of the humming summer insects and the book in his hands. Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies is about reading – Proust translated that. He also wrote an essay “On Reading.” So both conversation and reading are rich ingredients for writing. Come to think of it, the references to reading and the burgeoning stack of reference and quotation in the Search are part of his aesthetic “theory.” Raw genius is not enough. Nor is raw experience. He’s telling us that, you have to read a whole lot in order to write.
The inspirational conversations that I respect the most and my independent reflections are all anchored in careful, slow and close (re)reading of the text itself. For me, these are the richest, the funniest and the most profound. I will describe the way I have learned to read Proust. Caveat: what follows is really my way of re-reading Proust ( the second time – and beyond).
The first reading is steady on – just move through without pondering too much. Look up a few things on order to learn that there are layers; that the work reaches out beyond its covers. Don’t delve deeply everywhere lest you get bogged down and anxious – but do delve in a few places that intrigue you – maybe the historical backdrop (Third Republic), or the literary backdrop (say, George Sand’s François le Champi where Mama was so careful to skip the dirty parts when she read it at bedtime to young M.) or the Dreyfus affair (relevant to Jews, inverts, the kaleidoscope). Look up a few paintings – say, the “Virtues and vices” by Giotto at Padua. But really, embrace it – let it embrace you.
Now for subsequent readings. For me, the greatest pleasure. First, close reading requires a dictionary. Proust’s vocabulary is so beyond mine that I cannot, in many instances, fully understand let alone enjoy some of those involuted sentences (or even some short ones) without the dictionary. Second, have an encyclopedia (or Google) nearby. Often, I have to have a minimum overview of signal names and events to make the text disgorge its meaning. No other way. ok – Wikipedia will do. Finally there is intertext – that rich and huge underpinning of reference to literature, art, architecture, fashion, philosophy, music, politics history. Obviously, one can’t “research” ALL of it. Here’s an approach that I came to use. Think of this huge intertext underpinning as coming in two classes: explicit and implicit reference.
The easy class to get a hold of is explicit reference. Examples of important (to my mind) explicit references are Memoirs of Mme de Sévigné, Whistler’s “Harmony in Grey and Pink”, Laclos’ Liaisons Dangereuses, Racine’s Phedre, the Dreyfus Affair, the dresses of Fortuny, Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. There are hundreds. As I began to cherish this book, I reasoned that digressions to the explicit references would not be digressive at all; they would only deepen the Search as well as be fun in their own right. So, that’s what I did and still do. You do not need an “expert” to tell you how to experience the explicit references. It’s right there in front of you in the text. What you need is enough will to dedicate some free time to this project. Go to museums to see Giotto and Whistler, listen to Wagner and Debussy, go to the Fashion Institute to see what Fortuny dresses are like. And read the cited works. If a work is cited or quoted and seems important – read it. (My friends and I have used Proust to build our own “recommended reading” list – currently it’s a suite of 17th and 18th C French novels by La Fayette, Prèvost, Rousseau, Constant, de Staël, Laclos, Chateaubriand. These are turning out to be delicious as well as eye openers to the tradition that Proust cherishes and allies himself with.)
Examples of implicit references are where the ideas or subject is there but not named. The road to these is not that obvious or easy or, perhaps, as important as the explicit. However, if you begin to do the work with the explicit – you can always consult “experts” on the implicit. You’ll know in a while how deep you want to go and how to go there.