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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Classic Letdowns: Proust

Lucas Jones bemoans the placement of 'In Search of Lost Time' on his Prelims set texts.

Disclaimer – I have not read the full 3000 pages of this story, nor do I intend to. The reasons for this will become abundantly clear.

In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu, to those in the know) is “the major novel of the twentieth century”. This hulking behemoth, our tutors tell us with tears of joy streaming down their faces, is the best that Western literature has to offer. French students are lucky enough to read the introduction for a narrative fiction module in first year, granting us a seductive taste of the novel to whet our appetites and persuade us to read the whole, grotesque thing. I’ll admit it, I was tempted. I’d heard great things. The premise, admittedly, is beautiful; the idea of unlocking unconscious memory is fascinating. There is just one tiny problem: it is unforgivably boring.

Reading the introduction to Proust’s colossal story recalls the final moments before you go under general anaesthesia, both in subject matter and lived experience. The opening lines appear to be a detailed instruction manual for falling asleep which, if obeyed to the letter, will have you out cold by page 4. Don’t worry though, it gets more exciting. After extracting ourselves from the quagmire of Proust’s subconscious, we’re treated to an agonisingly long description of mummy’s failure to kiss him goodnight. Then he eats a cake and it really kicks off.

It doesn’t help that the protagonist is deeply unlikeable. The reader finds himself desperately trying to stay awake as this pitiful child wanders from tantrum to tantrum, heaving with sobs at the thought of leaving the hawthorn bushes behind when he leaves his holiday home. Although this is obviously some extremely clever, obfuscated commentary on the development of personality, it is left to the reader to decide whether to press on into the shifting quicksand of the books in the hopes of answering the most important question raised by the introduction: will he ever stop being an annoying brat?

Perhaps I shouldn’t judge a book by its gruelling opening. Much of the brilliance of the introduction, assure the critics, is exposed by the entirety of the novel. Your reward for picking up on minor characters at the beginning, they explain, is their reappearance hundreds of pages later. That’s it. Characters pop up, then pop up again. Exhilarating. Even though there are ample opportunities to draw the reader into the hefty narrative at the outset, Proust never takes the opportunity to do so. He introduces minor characters who will come to play a critical role in the protagonist’s life without the slightest attempt to make them memorable. It’s as if he purposefully extracted anything that could possibly tempt the reader to continue in order to separate the men from the boys. Only the most persistent, dedicated readers are granted the fleeting ‘euphoria’ of spotting a character again later in the book; those who give up are pathetic worms who get nothing but disappointment and bush tantrums.

Of course, like any book, there are great bits. My favourite part was putting it down and reading something else. It makes a great doorstop, and you could use the full-sized edition to get rid of insects and small mammals in a pinch. In Search of Lost Time is also a tranquiliser on par with Ketamine, only I’m the miserable horse being sedated with it while my infinitely-more-intelligent tutors snort a line to get them ready for a night out in Bridge.

Asked my opinion on the novel in a tutorial, I grit my teeth and force out a “yeah, I thought it was great”, desperate to become part of the inner circle who actually get what Proust is on about. My initiation to that circle, to my horror, won’t come through a magic spell or ritual sacrifice. Unfortunately, my tutor informs me, I actually have to read the entire thing to fully understand it. He sweetens the deal by hinting at what awaits: descriptions of seagulls that change as the day goes past and strong homosexual undercurrents are both promised in abundance. Luckily, Brighton is a stop away on the train, so, safe in the knowledge I can experience both of those things there, I politely decline. I won’t be reading the rest of the novel any time soon. I’m not even sure I could without pinning my eyes open or sitting on a nail. If there’s even the faintest potential for it to get more boring than the introduction, then I’m afraid I’m going to go in search of something else.

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