Heavy holiday reading | My travels with Proust


One of the questions missing from the famous Proust Questionnaire might be: “have you actually read Proust?” At over 4,000 pages long, Marcel Proust’s masterwork In Search of Lost Time might count as excess baggage. But if you travel with it, it becomes an integral part of your journey. It changes things… Neil Stewart took it from Brazil to Ireland via Melbourne, Istanbul, Dungeness and Glasgow

Marcel Proust

Proust, by Neil Stewart

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

London, October 2011: The Way by Swann’s

I read Volume 1 in the early-October sunshine in London – too late for it to be termed an Indian Summer. The children were back at school and the park was relatively quiet. We had a few days’ unexpected sunshine, the sense of dazzle and daze not unlike the feeling engendered by reading 80 pages of Proust at one sitting. Then, when the weather changed, it was winter: no gradual cooling transition, but immediate frost. You’re into the land of Proust now, you might go so far as to characterise the weather as warning: like Persephone’s annual six-month descent into the underworld signalling the arrival of winter, you’re in for the long haul, and you’re not going to emerge unchanged.

Brazil, November 2011: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

Not to be totally reductive, but there may be few better places to read a book which places such emphasis on the bodies beautiful of young women and men than Rio de Janeiro, where the outdoor gyms on Copacabana beach act as a suitably erotogenic backdrop for Marcel’s increasingly fevered pursuit of, essentially, anything in a skirt. In this volume, Marcel and his beloved grandmother travel to Balbec – a strange fictive intermingling of the French coastal town Cabourg and Lebanon’s Baalbek, a valley crammed with the ruins of Roman temples. The fictional Balbec, by contrast, is crammed with girls in the bloom of their young womenhood, and with whom the narrator Marcel – aged maybe 14 or 15 here – is besotted, despite his feelings of inadequacy.

One selling point of the (relatively) new Penguin edition, In Search of Lost Time, is that each of the seven volumes is translated by a different writer. You have the feeling Penguin was trying to sidestep something of a curse by commissioning these simultaneous translations (1995–2002): just as Proust didn’t live to see the publication (or even completion) of the last volumes of his work, his first translator in English, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, died before he could finish his translation.

Christmas at the family home – everyone’s madeleine, a concatenation of innumerable traditions

This relay-race approach to translating throws up an interesting question. I enjoyed Volume 2, translated by Mark Treharne, a lot more than I had Volume 1, translated by the much-feted author and translator Lydia Davis: the prose seemed more fluid, the episodes more vivid. But how much of my reading pleasure, I wondered in Rio, derives from the fact this is a more “plot-heavy” (relatively speaking – ) section of A la recherche than the first volume, and how much from differences in the translator’s work? How much of what’s pleasurable about In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower can be credited to Treharne, and how much to Proust? Alternatively, I’m no great fan of Davis’s own fiction, but how much does that impact upon the effect of The Way by Swann’s? Or is it simply, supple bodies aside, that the grand unintended mimesis of reading of Marcel’s adventures in a coastal town far from home while in the same situation myself gave this volume a resonance which I might otherwise have felt only if I’d read it a year beforehand, when I’d visited Lebanon, in the ‘real’ Baalbek?

Glasgow, December 2011: The Guermantes Way

I read Volume 3 over Christmas, outside Glasgow. Christmas at the family home – everyone’s madeleine, a concatenation of innumerable traditions, old (the low-value “tree presents” our family has forever swapped after Christmas dinner; the white port we introduced as our festive aperitif a few years ago). Appropriately, The Guermantes Way is the most family-centric volume of the cycle, and by now the cumulative effect of spending so many hours in the company of Marcel and co is paying off. The death of Marcel’s grandmother is one of the most moving parts of Proust’s novel – one of the points at which the obsessive chronicling of his narrator’s state of mind leaps from the specific to the general, the universal, chiming with a depth of feeling, a sense of loss, no reader can fail to recognise.

Melbourne, February 2012: Sodom and Gomorrah

There’s a problematic preamble to this volume – the 2001 Penguin edition eschews Scott-Moncrieff’s ambiguous title Cities of the Plain in favour of a direct translation of the French, so you know what you’re in for – in which Proust pathologises homosexuality according to a mishmash of once-fashionable sexological theories (notably, Havelock Ellis’s idea of the “invert”, which suggests that a homosexual is the unwitting victim of some ethereal switcheroo by which a female soul has been born in a male body) and, one supposes, his own prejudices. Or maybe, encoded in this faintly distasteful prologue, he was offering a key to his novel: the character of Albertine, the narrator’s great love, is often held to be a gender-inverted depiction of Proust’s beloved chauffeur Alfred Agostinelli.

at times what one reads in his work corresponds to one’s own feelings so precisely as to constitute almost a haunting

When you build up your world, as Proust does, by concentrating on the most minute of details, you may end up incidentally describing the entire world. It’s no surprise, then, in 4,000+ pages of text, that at times what one reads in his work corresponds to one’s own feelings so precisely as to constitute almost a haunting. “The important thing,” Marcel notes, describing a place beloved of his characters, “was not to graze on [the beauty of the place] like tourists, but to eat well there, to entertain company that they enjoyed, to write letters, to read, in short to live in it, allowing its beauty to wash passively over them rather than making it the object of their concerns.” This perfectly encapsulates my first, year-long visit to Melbourne, the city I fell for. On subsequent visits I’ve sought to divide my time between discovering new attractions in the city and revisiting those old haunts (and catching up with old friends) I first discovered eight years ago and have revisited two, four, six years ago – less a madeleine and more a millefeuille of memories, stacked and overlapping. For the first time I started to wonder, passing the halfway mark of A la recherche, what it might be like to ­re-read Proust.

Istanbul, April 2012: The Prisoner

Like life, not only can Proust both enthral and enrage, he can do both simultaneously. You can only salute his dedication to detailing the neurotic minutiae of Marcel’s obsessive love for Albertine, which follows the pattern: “When she’s close by, I show my love for her, which drives her away; her absence means I start to fall out of love, which brings her running back” – then repeats this loop indefinitely for 300 pages. The most sympathetic of readers cannot fail, as I did on the return leg of a boat-trip on the Bosphorus, the first time I’d ever seen dolphins in the open air, but breathe a sigh of relief when news of Albertine’s death arrives by telegram. This volume is aptly named.

Neil Stewart in Dungeness

Neil Stewart in Dungeness

Dungeness, May 2012: The Fugitive

One (half-)volume from concluding the Proust experience, a sadness sets in. There may be nowhere in the world more apt for this sense of a world coming to an end than Dungeness, the unearthly wet desert at the far tip of the Kent coast, where the sense of apocalypse is heightened by the storms that lash non-stop against your black-painted holiday home, as the power-station (itself nearly defunct) glows serenely in the rain-dashed square of your bedroom window. Marcel is, regrettably, still busy emoting at length over his death-thwarted love for Albertine; but as his mourning started to shade almost invisibly into a return to “normal life”, so too the Dungeness weather cleared. I put the book down and wandered out among fishing shacks, boats stranded on their sides on the shingle as if by a phenomenally high tide, the skeins of neon ropes unwinding and intertangled. When we returned to the house we were renting, I saw that among the books that stocked the shelves was a copy of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life.

Ireland, June 2012: Finding Time Again

A la recherche is largely a series of set-pieces, mostly parties and holidays, and Proust seems almost the originator of the idea of “the last party”, that event simultaneously a celebration and an admission of defeat. In Volume 6, as his narrative leapfrogs over the First World War, despatching some minor characters as casually as war itself, he speeds up his world, leading to the celebrated and hallucinatory Bal des masques scene in which Marcel is first amused, then appalled, to see his friends and acquaintances dolled up as aged, stooped, moribund effigies of themselves. The reader, stymied by the leap in time, falters too, sharing the chill as Marcel sees that these are no masks, no disguises. Time has caught up with him. No slowing, creeping change of state this, but a brutally sudden transfiguration.

It’s been said that a person reaches middle age – it’s probably necessary to qualify that as “a person who likes books” – the day he comes to the realisation he will never read Proust. Suddenly summer is transformed into winter. No-one, to my knowledge, has yet devised a satisfactory corollary to describe what’s ended and what’s entered into when one has completed reading Proust’s novel (and I’ve felt middle-aged since I was about 15, so that’s no help). I finished it in the bedroom of a B&B in Dingle, Co. Kerry, on the day Ireland’s team played a less than convincing first match of the Euro Championship (the first football match I’d been coerced into watching in over a decade). Like Daniel Dennett’s gag about genes and memes – “a scholar is just a library’s way of making another library” – it’s hard to read Proust without developing one’s own set of richly redolent experiential data – the reader’s own madeleine. For me, then, Proust will forever be linked in my mind with those elements that furnished the experience but were totally unrelated to it: the season that changed overnight, the taste of iced white port, the peal of bell-birds in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens, the dolphins, the botched free kicks, the rusted hulks of ships beached by the sea’s retreat. C


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