Marcel Proust had always struck me as the quintessential snob’s choice; pretentious, devoid of action and inundating readers with impenetrable vocab. All of these concerns proved spot-on as I laboured my way through endless sentences disturbed by commas almost at every other word, sometimes lasting half a page long. Often I was too mentally exhausted to turn the page when I got to the bottom. The first chapter (at least) had made absolutely no sense to me.
However, I had paid some £8.99 for the book and my Scrooge instincts told me I should get another few more pounds-worth from it at least, a decision that turned out to be worthwhile as Proust’s unique charm began to dawn on me – an ability to transfigure everyday observances into the most beautiful, inventive and moving descriptions. With a literary virtuoso’s touch he bends, twists and toys with words in such an intriguing way that I begrudgingly started recognising his genius, and I really do mean genius, when reading his description of a lantern. Those that have read The Way by Swanns might recall a child boy’s description of a rotating metal lantern early on in the book, which has the shapes of knights, castles and so forth cut out of it and filled with coloured glass, meaning their figures are projected in multicolour on his bedroom wall. I then grasped that, unlike all the incomprehensible drivel that had preceded it, I was suddenly following Proust’s train of thought to precision, and there I was, in the child’s bedroom, with a peculiar type of lantern I have never ever seen in person but could nonetheless perfectly visualise. For a few pages I really followed knights and maidens as they travelled across his room, their shapes distorting as they cross different surfaces. For me these lucid moments occurred intermittently, but I learned be patient when I was made to feel stupid by Proust’s complex language, thought process and tangential descriptions, as I would just as suddenly find myself back on his train of thought and be rushed away again, with no hard feelings about the abandonment in-between. I did get used to his style though, so the book got much easier as it progressed.
Really there was little in the way of plot to recommend the volume, particularly the first book of volume one. The second book in the volume breaks off almost entirely from the first, aside from some tenuous linkages that have no influence on the story. Disappointingly I felt that the second book of the volume was incredibly dull, and chose to follow a plot-theme redolent of your typical, though well written, 19th Century novel – a love story centring on an all-consuming and destructive obsession between a rather silly, limp man and his manipulative, slightly evil muse. As all too often, it is set amongst the bored and boring in top-tier social circles, with the usual dollop of social politics mixed in. There was quite a lot of action-y stuff going on which surprised me, but in the process all of the unique, gentle and hyper-sensitive charm that characterises the first book was lost. Incidentally, with such a shallow concept it became very repetitive and offered little that I hadn’t read elsewhere.
What Proust was doing in the first book was discarding my preconceived ideas about what a book is for. It doesn’t need to be a story as such; a wizard like Proust can conjure and things far better from a fragmented bundle of recollections, set of descriptions or a medley of weird characters and with nothing really ever leading to anything. I have not yet attempted to read the other volumes of In Search of Lost Time, I haven’t the stamina, though I imagine the plots of the first and second books begin to intertwine. However, I finished the first book of volume one entirely satisfied that nothing had really happened at all.
If you wish to swim around in Marcel’s mind, then give the book a try. It’s no page turner, but you and your senses may just come away dazzled by the descriptive vividness.