Reading “In Search of Lost Time” is intimidating in more ways than the obvious one of the tome’s sheer length. As a first-time reader, one can’t help but be humbled by the thought of all the Proustians who have made the reading of this epic their life’s work. Thinkers of greater thoughts than LK! And, of course, the absinthe-tinged eyes of Marcel seem to follow a reader’s every move, exhorting one to Read! Understand! Pensée!
The authors of two field guides I’m reading (“Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time,” Roger Shattuck and “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” Alain De Botton) approach the work in grand sweeping themes or summarized chunks. I intend to look up the critical study by Howard Moss as well, but overall, I am not feeling satisfied by these so-called guides. Perhaps they best serve readers who have already finished In Search of Lost Time, providing snatches of insight they may have missed. For me, reading the guides is like reading a description of eating the most delectable crème renversee au caramel, at the same moment you taste a spoonful. No comparison between the recounting of the experience and the experience itself. It’s as if Proust has come as close as anyone to removing that filter lying between reader and author.
To me, reading Proust is like a dream. Every second explodes with texture, meaning, metaphor. But the minute you wake up, the dream recedes and the details can’t be recaptured in the fullness in which you experienced them.
Even the critics don’t seem to be able to discuss the text in the traditional fiction devices of plot and character. Rather, like describing a dream, they reach for theme and meaning.
I feel the same way doing this blog. How do I describe the experience, except in how it relates to the grander themes of life?
Why is that, I wonder? The main characteristic of Proustian prose is its extreme (some say excessive) details, which ultimately seem to bog down most readers. Paradoxically, it seems to me, these same minutiae propel readers past plot and character to the broader issues of theme, succeeding in making reading the experience in and of itself, with the reader an active participant rather than a vicarious looker-on.