Why Read Proust?
Why Read Proust?
There are many good reasons not to read Marcel Proust’s great novel A la Rechere du Temps Perdu.
It is uneventful. It can be boring. The narrator is a bitchy snob. It has too many outright lies in it to be autobiography, and too much tiresome bickering to be considered a novel. And it is too long.
It is cynical: all human relationships except close family are false, fake; naked unconscious self-interest and vanity drive all social interactions; childhood habits once broken can never be recovered; insomnia, poor health, jealousy, sadomasochistic urges, ungovernable impulses – all of these completely overrule and overdetermine the individual’s sense of reason.
It is capricious: a huge cast of mostly irrelevant characters caper about uttering strange irrelevancies, whose total sum is some kind of mysterious calculus of snobbery cloaking intense animalistic urges, which Proust seldom deigns to explain to readers living in a less uptight culture. Cruelty is commonplace between characters that are considered friends, and sexual compulsions bind everyone together invisibly and inseparably.
It is disorganised: the tone changes from page to page, from book to book, without warning, guidance, or apparent reason. The paragraph divisions are completely useless, presenting the book messily. The chapter headings are either hopelessly irrelevant or simply nonexistent; the reader is left to impose his own structure on the book if he is to make sense of it.
So why read Proust? If the good is the enemy of the great, surely Proust’s book is its own worst enemy? But if you read merely good books, then you are condemned to mediocrity. And since Marcel Proust’s book is both bad AND great, it provides the most uniquely vulgar amusements in the midst of the most sublime art. I don’t dispute its greatness; its goodness I sincerely doubt.
So why read it? I can tell you must read Marcel Proust. I can tell you it is great. But I cannot tell you why. Harold Bloom blathers on about identity and memory; I don’t know about that. I can only tell you that I do, you must, it’s worth it – that is all I can say.
Addendum: Okay, okay, so Proust is funny, charming, insightful, sweet. His language is beautiful, delicate, tough, and sinewy. His ideas on love are shocking and wise in equal measure. And the badness of Proust’s book makes the great qualities all the more astonishing. It is as if it were discovered that Thomas Aquinas has been, in addition to writing his Summa Theologica, the author of some pornography – I kid you not: Proust is THAT shocking.