On Reading Proust for the First Time

The reader who is planning to read Proust for the first time is no doubt nervous about how to tackle such a notoriously difficult writer. As a former first time reader, I can offer a short list of ideas that may be helpful.

Should you prepare by reading one of Proust’s biographies first, or at least alongside the novel? I would not recommend it. Of course if you should become a Proust enthusiast, you will read at least one of them. I have read William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust, am halfway through Jean-Yves Tadié’s Marcel Proust, A Life and I understand that George D. Painter’s Marcel Proust, A Biography is quite good. These biographies are full of insights into how much of the Search is autobiographical and who each of the characters may be based on. The problem is, generally speaking, once you know that M. Leblois de Charlus is based on the Parisian gourmand M. Avoir du Pois, you are worse off by muddying the Proustian character and learning next-to-nothing about the latter. The same point may be made about Proust himself: the biographical Proust is far less interesting than his novel. The Search is a direct look into the deepest recesses of his soul, a view not afforded by the best biography. The Proust left to us in letters and biographies is frankly a disappointment. I believe Proust himself would readily acknowledge this. You will be shocked by the passages where the narrator will condemn friendship as simply a diversion from the hard, solitary work of art. Proust’s reputation as a social lightweight was such that André Gide refused to read or consider publishing Swann’s Way. Wait on the biographies.

The same made be said for reading critical texts. I find it a joy to read reviews of Search by people who are more insightful than me. This blog is filled with pages that I have typed out of books by everyone from obscure academics to Samuel Beckett. Sample them here, but you don’t need an expert to explain what is happening in the novel. Proust’s prose is very clear, never obscure (albeit somewhat lengthy in places). You will not need critical help, at least in the way you might with Joyce’s Ulysses.

But the structure of the novel will at first be puzzling. You will need to read the whole thing, not just Swann’s Way, to get a clear grasp on the overall plan. Spoiler Alert! This is the whole plot: a youth longs to be a writer, but first he must overcome some illusions, which he does after witnessing a number of social events and observing and participating in love affairs marked by extremes of jealousy. The first thing you will notice is that there is virtually no plot. You will not find yourself turning pages late into the night to see what finally happens at the soirée. Proust is for slow, in the moment, readers.  

The novel is written in three voices, which in fact are all the same person. In the opening passages you will hear from an older man you may consider the Narrator at a point in his life not far from when he writes the novel you are reading. Shortly afterward you will meet a young boy, who the Narrator later names Marcel. Although this is the young Narrator, the point of view is strictly that of Marcel. The narrator rarely foreshadows the experiences of Marcel. You will move at Marcel’s pace through the novel. And occasionally Proust himself makes a sort of postmodern appearance, but that is rare. And then there is the problem of Swann in Love. Nominally, Marcel is recounting a love affair that happened before he was born and that he has later learned about. But it reads like an omniscient point of view, like an inserted novella. I remember being so deeply disappointed over this shift when I first encountered it; I had so totally suspended belief that I felt I was reading a real memoir up to that point.

Lastly, you will at times be confounded by the number of characters. The aristocracy will each have several names, as in Russian novels. (Get a copy of Patrick Alexander’s Who’s Who in Proust if necessary). But Proust has such a wonderful quality of dialogue writing that you will come to hear the characters distinctly. He was famous at the time for his pastiches, delivered live at parties when of contemporaries in society or in newspapers when of literary figures. He could perfectly mimic anyone. With authors he would read them until he had learned their inner music; he could then sing their prose in his head. This gift gives his characters their immediately recognizable voices. Unfortunately, Marcel almost never says a word, which leads you to wonder how he got invited out so much.

Relax and have a good read.




21 Responses to “On Reading Proust for the First Time”

  1. Jen Craig Says:

    I would definitely agree that it’s better not to read the biographies first. I only read them later, when I was so immersed that it was impossible not to. My own beginnings with Proust was astoundingly banal. I was going to visit friends in France who, the last time we’d visited, had said on the way to the tiny house they owned in a village without a boulangerie (but with its own Napoleon impersonator), that ‘over there’ was the little town made famous by Proust, and at the time I was too ashamed to admit that I had no idea which town they might be referring to. Hence, before the second visit, I began the first volume…

    • Jim Everett Says:

      With me it was a chance reading of an article in the NYRB on Lydia Davis’ new translation of Swann’s Way. I wasn’t really able to tell if her translation was better, but the article included the paragraph where Mme de Cambremer was trying to decipher who around her was important. I got hooked. It was like when Ella Fitzgerald died and I heard a bunch of her music in tribute. Just a chance encounter, but I was hooked.

  2. Marcelita Swann Says:

    I waited until I retired to begin. Reading history in my 20’s, I kept coming upon this “Marcel Proust” and various references to his grand novel. Somehow, I knew that “The Search” was going to be important to me one day. (It was the early 70’s, but I believe I was lucid.)
    It was December 2004, and I couldn’t wait to finally discover what everyone else seemed to know about Proust. Being obsessive, I just raced through the novel…paging over words, words, words that I found “slowed down the story.” Ha! Now, those are my favorite passages, which I read in slow-motion.
    I think a Proust teacher (will find her name later) also recommended reading the novel quickly.
    Maybe another’s experience will be like mine:
    The first time…reading quickly, you get a sense of the structure…and the surprising ending forces you to immediately re-read it with different eyes.
    The second time…all the clues are in neon. You understand the “voices” and the how the book teaches you to read differently.
    The third…the philosophy, the themes, the musicality, the art and architecture references, the history…keep you reaching outside yourself. You read the biographies and Proust’s other writings and attend lectures and concerts and movies…
    The forth on…the novel brings you friendships, from the reading groups, sends you on travels, to see Paris and Illiers-Combray and Cabourg/Trouville-Balbec and Venice and the desire to follow Ruskin’s footsteps as Proust did, and then to re-discover Fauré, Debussy, Franck, Hahn and Wagner. You go to the opera and hear the opening note of “Das Rheingold” and think of the opening sentences in the Overture.
    Well, it is wonderfully rich and endless.

    It doesn’t matter how you begin, but you MUST finish.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Thanks. Your experience is very similar to my own in the way that Proust was the seed crystal for a wide intellectual venture. I now have a “Proust” playlist on my ipod with the same composers you list.

      The immediate motivation for writing this post is that I was contacted by a member of a new reading group at goodreads called “2013: The Year of Reading Proust” http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/75460-2013-the-year-of-reading-proust, which formally begins next year. You may find the group interesting and they are looking for experienced readers.

      • decayetude Says:

        I think the situation reading Proust in a group is problematic. I studied vol one in a uni(old close reading school roughly) and came out with a 50% different interpretation from everyone else’s , except the tutor who was fairly openminded:)Whilst there are,of course, universals in Proust-the epiphanies(hawthorns etc), the social satire, the beautiful stuff on memory and the many psychological insights- critics are nearly wholly divided on the relevance/nonrelevance of Proust’s sexual orientation, and the fact that he was censored/selfcensored, because of the homophobic time at which he wrote; a lot of critics(eg Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Queer Theorist) and Gregory Woods(lgbt studies) believe, strongly, Proust changed the gender of eg Albertine; they point to the “through-the-keyhole” spying scenes on lesbians (eg in book one); the way , either.1 Proust is so self-oppressed and ditto his narrator, Marcel(sic!), re his sexuality, he turns it into some kind of contorted sublimation of turning his female characters sometimes into female homosexuals, and his love objects(Gilberte/Albertine) into women.or 2. according to Sedgwick, Proust saw BEYOND his own times (and their homophobia) and wrote about same sex love being natural(she teases this out in the famous “inverts ” scene in Sodom and Gomorrah”). So what I am saying, that as a gay man,I would be interested in reading Proust in a lesbian/bisexual/ gay context/group; this will probably be seen as amazingly contentious by some (not everyone!) and “seperatist” but it is what i woud feel more comfortable with.Just Google critical interpretations of Proust and you see all the insecure critics marginalising Proust’s sexual orientation or saying is unimportant or too much focus on it de-universalises the book; AND you will see the BALANCED views of Edmund White, Rivers and the two critics i mentioned, who,whilst NOT UNDERMINING(I stress!) the beautiful UNIVERSALITY(applicable to EVERYONE) vision and writing of Proust, DO unapologetically elucidate the same-sex relevant material; so there is a balance between the universal(regardless of sexual orientation) and the material which needs to be especially teased out as a direct result of his (occluded sometimes)homosexuality. Perhaps i will get a better response to this than I envisage; if so, apologies. I am not saying u have to be lesbian gay or bisexual to fully appreciate/read Proust, just that it often becomes difficult or that the latter issues are marginalised or accused of being foregrounded too much. Most internet book reading sites are sometimes homophobic/heterosexist; I hope this isnt one of them !Thanks for listening. Steve. P.S Interesting, Marcelita, u mention Reynaldo Hahn: he was Proust’s lover(well-documented):)

  3. decayetude Says:

    Apologies, Jim Everett: I notice you are aware of the sexual orientation-specific issues in Proust, from reading some of your ealier postings. Sorry. So I certainly feel i could have a good, productive, give-and-take dialogue(on gay and non-sexuality-specific issues!) on THIS site anyway, if not GoodReads!:)Life has made me defensive sometimes and not want to let Proust and others (eg Forster/ some of Sebald’s characters and narrators)suffer the double marginalisation their authors SO wanted them to avoid(though Sebald was able to be much more overt). Thanks Steve

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Of all Proust’s biographer’s, White has the best sense of his complex sexuality. For prurient detail you may want to look at Proust in Love by William C. Clark. What strikes me first about Proust is the almost complete lack of physicality in his sex. He begged his high school classmates for sex but they uniformly refused. And later in life he visited male bordellos (as they were called) for visual stimulation only. The only exception was with Renaldo Hahn, with whom he had an idyllic summer on the Normand coast.

      In the Longest Sentence post I noted that the subject of all eight clauses is Being Homosexual. The rejection of his sexuality for the most part by his friends and family (he would never shame his mother) is mirrored by the French rejection of Jews in the Dreyfuss affair. But he would not be repressed. It is actually difficult to find a character in the novel (except for family) who has not had a least one homosexual experience. You have to pay attention, but you read that Swann had sex with Charlus, Mme. Verdurin with Odette and so on. His Jewishness, like his sexual orientation, is not given to Marcel the character; it somehow has less urgency than the sex. Plus he heaps more riducule on it (via Bloch and his family) than he does on homosexuals. (In writing about Proust I resist “gay” as being anachronistic.)

      In short, I agree with you that Proust’s sexuality is a huge wellspring of energy and creativity in the novel and deserves no end of exploration. I would not limit, however, discussion to the glbt community, which while understandable is not very supportive of Proust’s belief that human sexuality is on a spectrum that has no privileged range.

      • decayetude Says:

        Wow!thanks, Jim, for your undefensive and explicatory post; we are on the same wavelength:); so refreshing to hear this viewpoint on the quintessential centraility of P’s homosexuality, via the contortions of Marcel/narrator in the book,outside(or perhaps u are inside?!) the world of (official) Queer Theory. You end by making a very similar points Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, which i greatly like:”Proust’s belief that human sexuality is on a spectrum that has no privileged range”. My remark on limiting discussion to lgbt community was primarily my own need to be in a safety zone, away from real-life or ,( more likely), net homophobes or marginalisers of great writers’ sexual orientation; this has sadly, largely , been my experience; hence the “seperatism”; but, with people likeyou on this site(is this YOUR site) and a couple of the other posters, i agree, we do not need to stay within the lgbt community; is more Queer Theory territory, tho i have reservations with the perjorative overtones of the word Queer, though find the theory very excting; it seems to derive from deconstructionism, which, again, is very useful to elucidating the gaps, nuances, contortions, double-twists(of a girl really being a boy, all the lesbianism) of what EKS calls “Proust’s little deities”; those complex but human moments when one thing is neither one thing nor the other; heterosexual nor homosexual etc; hence,as you said , the spectrum. It is not quite Barthes “Death of Writer” but upto us, as individual readers,i believe, to tease out the twists, parallel texts and hidden texts (as well as the overt Baron Charlus etc!); and to do this we have either , to an extent, impose our own subjectivity and/or be very openminded.So sorry again for the rant earlier lol; I feel included:)take care Steve

      • Jim Everett Says:

        Yes, this is my blog. I have rarely had to reject comments. The subject of Proust just seems to attract a better class of person. Please contribute from whatever perspective you’d like. The novel is richer and more varied than any commentary, so the final word will never be said.

      • decayetude Says:

        Thanks, Jim; thats very welcoming.:) i look forward to contributing to your blog comments:)Btw, do you like WG Sebald?: my own blogs “decayetude” and “TowardsUtopia” are primarily influenced by him. Take care, Steve Benson

      • Jim Everett Says:

        Sebald is definitely on my to-read list. I’ll get an introduction through your blogs. I’m getting back into Musil again so you will see from fresh entries on musilreader.

      • decayetude Says:

        Thanks Jim; yes Sebald, always pays re-reading and re-reading!Ashamed to admit not read a word of Musil!Take care , Steve

  4. David Says:

    Proust is for slow, in the moment, readers.

    Well, that certainly describes me. I’m a first time Proust reader. I’m taking the Search in very small but deliberate and constant bites. I do not let a day go by without reading from one to ten pages. I finished Swann’s Way a couple of months ago, and I’m nearing the end of the “Madame Swann at Home” section of In a Budding Grove. I’m using the revised Modern Library translation. I do not know French.

    The late Christopher Hitchens advised starting Proust in midlife, after one “has shared some of the disillusionments and fears, as well as the delights, that come with this mediocre actuarial accomplishment” and “learned something of how time is rationed, and of how this awful and apparently inexorable dole may conceivably be cheated.” It is good advice. I first had a go at Swann’s Way in graduate school, in my early 20s, and got no farther than the madeleine. I’m 51 now and able to more fully appreciate the “rapturous experience” (to quote David Denby) of reading Proust.

    As an aside, I have absolutely no interest in the political GLBT dimension of Proustian criticism. Having no desire to marginalize anyone (as I would hope not to be marginalized myself), I simply accept the fact of Proust’s complex sexuality and its inescapable presence in the Search. Beyond that, I try to avoid politicized readings of great literature.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      I agree with you about having a certain amount of life behind you before you can read Proust more out of enthusiasm than duty. I too was in my fifties and chanced to read a few lines and loved it.

      I also agree that the novel can be read with no particular passion one way or the other about sexual identity. But if you are passionate about gay issues you will no doubt bring something a little extra to the reading. Also Proust will bring you to think about these issues by the sheer amount of attention he pays to the subject.

  5. Karen Says:

    I just found a copy of The Guermantes Way… I’m wondering, do I need to read the first two books of In Search of Lost Time before I read this? Is it a good starter, or unable to be appreciated on its own? Thank you!

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Sure, start there. What you will miss is the full scope of Proust’s grand design. On the other hand, there is next to no plot that spans the volumes, so you won’t be lost because of that. And if you really get into it, you can always take a break and go find the first volume, Swann’s Way (which is easily found in used book shops or online.)

  6. Marcelita Swann Says:

    2013: The Year of Reading Proust…and maybe a time to gather Proustians together?
    The Morgan Library (New York) is planning an exhibit celebrating the 100th Anniversary of “Swann’s Way.” It will run from February 15th to April 28th.
    As I live in Manhattan and am a member of The Morgan, I would be more than pleased to “celebrate” with kindred-spirits.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Sounds like that would be a lot of fun to view the exhibition with kindred spririts. My problem is that I live way back in the Ozarks and don’t get to NYC as much as I used to. Are you in the Year of Reading Proust group? I’m sure you will get a good response there.

  7. Jeff Says:

    Spoiler alert in a blog entitled “On Reading Proust for the First Time”? Please. I stopped there and am now googling again for direction.

    • Marcelita Swann Says:

      Jeff, if you wish to know, “Why?” here is a favorite radio discussion from the BBC.

      Duration: 45 minutes
      First broadcast: Thursday 17 April 2003

      “Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work Marcel Proust whose novel À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, has been called the definitive modern novel. His stylistic innovation, sensory exploration and fascination with memory were to influence a whole body of thinkers, from the German intellectuals of the 1930s to the Bloomsbury set, chief among them Virginia Woolf, and innumerable critics and novelists since.

      “But how did he succeed in creating a 3000 page novel with such an artistic coherence? To what extent did John Ruskin influence Proust? Is his fascination with memory and recall simply a nostalgia for the past? And what impact did he have on the 20th century novel?

      “With Jacqueline Rose, Professor of English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London and author of Albertine;

      Malcolm Bowie, Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge and author of Proust among the Stars;

      Dr Robert Fraser, Senior Research Fellow in the Literature Department at the Open University and author of Proust and the Victorians.”


  8. Marcelita Swann Says:

    Jeff, if you want to know the “mechanics” of reading the novel, here is the article I referenced in my post (above) on September 4, 2012.

    How to Read Proust?

    “In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust” By Marcelle Clements From “How to Read a Hard Book.”

    Marcelle Clements is a Collegiate Professor and a Fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.

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