Like one of Shakespeare’s fairies: The Year of Reading Proust has begun

My dear friend, Catastrophizer, and I met during our PhDs. She is a dyed in the wool Modernist while I think the last time anyone wrote good poetry was prior to the year 1700. She hates Henry James, without exception, and does a bitterly funny send-up of The Wings of the Dove. It goes something like this (please imagine alternating voices, one of a male, portentous and semi-benevolent in its patriarchal authority; the other, female, young, high-pitched, vapid and just shockingly stupid):

“You’re like a dove.”

“I’m like a dove?”

“Yes, you’re like a dove.”

“A dove?”

“Yes. A dove.”

This makes me tremendously happy, and I’ve been treated to this dramatic reconstruction many times over the years we’ve known one another. I believe her when she says this novel is horrifyingly awful but it doesn’t make me like The Portrait of a Lady any less. This latter admission, of course, makes the Catastrophizer look at me suspiciously, as though she’s wondering if I’m a victim of a real-life body-snatcher.

In spite of our essential party differences when it comes to the literary, we still hold some very important things in common, things which form the cement, the glue, the atomic stability of our friendship. Oh wait, that’s food. Never mind. Still, it’s important that we share certain bookish loves: Dorothy Sayers. Vanity Fair. Wolf Hall. Charles Dickens. Cloud Atlas. We’ve both been rationing Bring Up the Bodies, and for the same reason (a morbid and hysterical fear of having no incredible books to look forward to). We sometimes fantasize about punching J.M. Coetzee in the neck. This is the stuff a friendship for the ages is made of.

I began reading Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way recently. I feared letting the Catastrophizer know this. So I didn’t tell her, not directly anyway. I mentioned it on the Twitter, knowing she’d probably see it. I began to worry, in earnest, that my tango with Proust would sever our literary bond, especially when I found myself really enjoying Swann’s Way. I didn’t expect to enjoy it. And then I didn’t expect to retain my bestie’s respect after admitting to enjoying it. Luckily, I was wrong about that too. Being wrong never felt so good.

So, first, Swann’s Way. It’s not unmixed enjoyment. Or, rather, it’s not enjoyment I can take in large doses. I actually adore this book. I adore the narrator. I adore Proust for writing the way he did, which is entirely unique, kind of infuriating, too intense, and…funny. Yes, funny. I did not foresee this. I expected only earnestness amplified and then reiterated and then celebrated and then cooed at. I thought I might want to leave off dreaming of punching Coetzee in the head in order to fantasize about busting Proust in the mouf. But no! It’s wonderful. It’s too much, but it’s so good. Why it’s good is also why it’s too much–except for the funny bits which, incidentally, I still can’t get over the mere existence of. It won’t give anything away to share one funny bit with you. Do you like asparagus? I do. So does Proust:

At the hour when I usually went downstairs to find out what there was for dinner, its preparation would already have begun, and Françoise, a commanding officer with all the forces of nature for her subalterns, as in the fairy-tales where giants hire themselves out as scullions, would be stirring the coals, putting the potatoes to steam, and, at the right moment, finishing over the fire those culinary masterpieces which had been first got ready in some of the great array of vessels, triumphs of the potter’s craft, which ranged from tubs and boilers and cauldrons and fish kettles down to jars for game, moulds for pastry, and tiny pannikins for cream, and included an entire collection of pots and pans of every shape and size. I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet—still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed—with an iridescence 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 and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting like one of Shakespeare’s fairies) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume. (pp. 168-69)

Oh Proust. I think I love you for this. And for that fully three-page comic horror of awkward social interaction with M. Legrandin. I won’t quote it; it’s too long and too hilarious; it would either destroy all your beliefs or shoot you dangerously far out onto the astral plane if you read it here, out of context. It occurs close to the page 200 mark, and is best read there; the preceding pages will prepare you for this scene, which makes the amusing discomfort of the British Office look merely half-arsed and amateurish in comparison.

Swann’s Way is a lovely book and the Year of Reading Proust is clearly going to be one of pure joy and celebration for me. If I wish to make myself feel virtuous and smugly superior by reading something essentially unreadable, it won’t be this. And I can’t use it to fuel any incipient martyrdom either–for it turns out that the Catastrophizer also really enjoyed this novel! She read it many years ago but like the me of late 2012, worried it would be all “Frenchy and pretentious and unbearable” and was pleased to be completely wrong. So, I get to enjoy my reading AND not undermine the stability of my friendship. I love a happy ending.

But. There can be too much of a good thing. Swann’s Way is turning out to be a very slow read for me. It’s too much. It’s too rich to take in very much of it at a time; it’s like a triple chocolate mouse–three bites of profound and almost unearthly pleasure, and you need a nap and a green juice cleanse. You know what I mean. It’s just too intense, even when it’s being funny. Or, to put it another way: it’s like the narrator is walking around with no skin. He feels and thinks everything so intensely that the pleasure of it is necessarily infused with a little bit of pain. It is the pain of surfeiting, to be precise. Or, to say it in yet another way: when he wrote this novel, Proust remembered that which, I think, most of us mercifully forget–how intense perception is from a kid’s perspective. What it all comes down is that reading this book is a wee bit tiring. Happy tiring, but tiring nonetheless.

So, small bites. And right now, I’m taking a little break. Given the lurid grotesquery that defined The Scar, another China Mieville novel wouldn’t seem to be the right choice. But a well-timed email from a friend from away referring casually to Kraken as “a blast” and “super fun” saved me from drowning in Proust and this afternoon I happily stormed through the first 110 pages of Mieville’s tale of giant squids and weirdo cults. Damn, it’s so good. Not intense or incredibly profound good–just page-turning, rollicking, fast times at Nerd University good.

Damn, I wish I were sufficiently full of youth and disregard for healthy sleep patterns to just stay up all night reading Kraken. It would really lend itself to the sort of mild paranoia that comes with reading anything in the dehydrated and restlessly uncomfortable hours between midnight and 5am in a creaky house. But alas, I am too sensible, too responsible, and just too damned enamoured of not hallucinating from sleep deprivation for such reckless debauchery. Le sigh.

Am I the first person ever to read Marcel Proust and China Mieville at the same time? Does this make me a visionary or a madman?
Am I the first person ever to read Marcel Proust and China Mieville at the same time? Does this make me a visionary or a madman?
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19 Comments Add yours

  1. raych says:

    Let’s form a party and all go punch Coetzee in the EVERYTHING.

    1. Colleen says:

      Yes. A thousand times, yes. I elect you as president of this party. We’ll change the world.

  2. Terri B. says:

    That Proust quote re asparagus made me choke on my beer! Did not see that coming!

    1. Colleen says:

      I know! Me too. (Hope you’re okay though.) 🙂

  3. Terri B. says:

    That Proust quote re asparagus made me choke on my beer! Did not see that one coming!

    1. Colleen says:

      What the hell…I responded to his before and now it’s gone. I didn’t either; and Proust keeps on gob-smacking me (100 pages left).

  4. Tony says:

    1) I’m with your friend on James 😉
    2) Proust is funny, and fun
    3) I think I’ll ration him over about five years though…

    And I’m out of here – have fun!

    1. Colleen says:

      I might have to take longer than a year myself…we’ll see. It’s so…so…a lot. The so muchness of it. I can’t even. (As people on the interwebs are writing these days.)

  5. Alex says:

    ‘Portrait of a Lady’ is the only James I’ve ever come to terms with as well. Of course, in my case it may have something to do with the fact that I first encountered it in a BBC 1960s’ production starring Richard Chamberlain:)

    1. Colleen says:

      Oh ho. Richard Chamberlain. The older I get, the more he makes sense to me.

  6. Stefanie says:

    Yay for Proust! I totally know what you mean by only being able to read him in small chunks. He is over-the-top rich. That’s probably why I stalled in Guermantes Way, I was so tired. But you are inspiring me. Proust and Mieville? I’m going to go with visionary 🙂

    1. Colleen says:

      Thanks for the vote of confidence re: visionary-ness. I just finished Mieville and I’m vaguely fearful of returning to Proust. Mieville’s terribly literal puns were terrible but so relaxing compared to Proust’s overly intense hilarity couched in 24-inch words.

  7. J.G. says:

    No detail too small but that Proust cannot extract something amazing from it. All the more reason for small doses — to rush is to miss something, which could be his motto as well.

    Enjoy the contrast effect! Love the kitty supervisor in the background!

    1. Colleen says:

      Yes, I think the almost universal consensus on Proust is small doses–and I think I’m with the consensus on this one. But we’ll see.

      The kitty in the background is Lyra Love-Stealer. She blocks all the other cats’ attempts to either receive or bestow affection, cat-locks me when I try to get out of bed in the morning, and enjoys watching while I blog. She’s the best stalker ever.

  8. Thomas says:

    I’ve taken the last 12 months off from the internet and, truthfully, most other things that I could not touch with my own two hands. I’ve adopted a doggie, became closer to my (not so new, now) GF, and generally just hung about and read. Imagine my delight to see that you are still writing, and fabulously as well! I did manage to get thorugh Proust last year, perhaps for the first real time (I have flipped all the pages and stared at all the words before).
    If you thought James’ short stories would take up a titch of one’s time . . .

    1. Colleen says:

      It’s you! I’ve been wondering where you’ve been. My goodness, a year away from the internet, etc sounds like heaven, especially when there’s a doggie to walk.

      I think I might have only stared at some of the words in Swann’s Way. Not all, but some. Nonetheless, I will persevere, when my U of T library card expires and I can’t just roll around in difficult to find Victorian and Japanese classics.

      I want to hear more about life without internet….

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