Marcel Proust and Me

There are three novels that are an absolute must for every literate creature to have read. The first is War and Peace. The second is Don Quixote. The third is Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. I admit to an embarrassment. I have never been able to finish the latter. I started it several times, always under pressure from a friend whose opinion I valued or from a reference in a book that reminded me I hadn’t read it yet.

What has taken me so long?

The truth is I should never have tried to read Proust. The descriptions are exquisite, minute, neurasthenic, narcissistic, interminable. But that is when I am reading him. My great discovery is that Proust comes alive when I listen to him while I’m walking.

I recently decided to walk two miles every day. My decision has to do with a back spasm. The walking has definitely helped. But to make the enterprise tolerable, I decided to listen to books. I had recently read The Hare with Amber Eyes, in which de Waal notes the great similarity between Charles Ephrussi, his ancestor, and Proust’s Swann:

They are both Jewish.  They are both homes (sic) du monde.  They have a social reach from royalty (Charles conducted Queen Victoria round Paris, Swann is a friend of the Prince of Wales) via salons to the studios of artists. They are art-lovers deeply in love with the works of the Italian Renaissance Giotto and Botticelli in particular…

The reference was enough to guide me to Audible where, for $9.99 I got 21 hours of someone reading the whole of A La Recherche unabridged. An incredible bargain. With my Bose noise suppression earphones snugly over each ear, I walk and listen. The combination is perfect.  But why?

I have given that matter some thought. Why should Proust be so enjoyable while I’m walking and such an ordeal when I’m not? This is what I think. When I am walking and listening to Proust, he and I are engaged in the same activity, a minute inspection of a world as if it were brand new.

Proust’s descriptions arise from an obsessiveness characteristic of someone seeing something for the very first time, say, a seven-month old child. Everything about the world is new, exotic, mysterious. It is all an object worthy of the most minute scrutiny. Same with me. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for almost 20 years but I’ve never really seen it, not until now. Now it has come to life with all the intensity of a Proustian word painting.

There is an incredible John Safer installation in one of the Harvard Law School quads (see my previous blog). Had I not taken to walking I would never have seen it, let alone run it through my fingers like a child playing in the sand. Around the corner from my house one of the neighbors has turned his front patch of lawn into a luxurious garden dominated by Lacinato Kale.

Lacinato Kale Growing Just Around the Corner

I look at this while I am listening to Proust describe the colors of an asparagus spear.

But what fascinated me would be the asparagus tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads finely stippled in mould and azure through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet still stained a little by the soil of their garden bed. A rainbow loveliness that was not of this world.  I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognize again when all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them they played lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream at transforming my chamber into a bower of aromatic perfume.

I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised at this collaboration of walking and Proust. After all, Swann's Way is the name of a footpath.