I’m a reasonable guy. Not much upsets me. Few things give me cause for concern – rattlesnakes, expired cartons of cottage cheese and the occasional Republican being among the few exceptions.
And then the late Marcel Proust (pronounced “Proooost”) decides to make a comeback for the millennium.
Two new biographies of the long-winded and long dead French author have been published in the last six months. And a group of dedicated Proustians (pronounced “Proooost-eee-anz”) has even opened a cafe in San Francisco where fans of the author can gather to compare sentences. Despite its rather outre theme, Caffe Proust is, I’m told, quite popular.
These are not good signs.
For those of you unacquainted with the acclaimed French novelist who wrote incessantly about virtually every dust mote that caught his fancy, Proust is one of those authors best left to people who spend a lot of time pondering the universality of table salt and the true meaning of carpet tacks.
Proust (still pronounced “Proooost”) was a turn-of-the-century French novelist who, after ingesting a tea-soaked rusk biscuit in 1909, had a flashback to his childhood and promptly decided to embark on a decade-long, semi-autobiographical seven-volume act of literary terrorism called “Remembrance of Things Past.”
For those who missed it the first time, this was a seven-part novel that was still being put together by a series of red-eyed editors five years after the author died in 1922. It wasn’t until 1954 that some poor devil compiled the whole thing in one edition.
I first encountered Proust’s inspired ramblings when the initial volume of his sprawling novel about truth and everything else, “Swann’s Way,” was assigned to a European literature class in which I had enrolled.
I honestly tried to read “Swann’s Way.” I honestly tried to understand Marcel Proust. I even tried imagining myself as a friend of Proust’s attempting to explain his work to a bistro full of his critics (you can tell I was getting a little punchy at this point).
After 250 pages or so, I tossed the weighty tome to my faithful Doberman pinscher and ordered him to bury it at his earliest opportunity.
He wouldn’t touch it.
Don’t get me wrong. Proust was a gifted writer. Unfortunately, he was a gifted writer who wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote …
There have been detailed histories of the world written in a third of the space Proust would routinely use to describe a grape.
Some Proustians have suggested that I can’t fully appreciate the author because I haven’t read him in French.
Uh-huh. And why do you think the French always seem to be in a foul mood? It’s obviously because they’ve tried to read Proust in his native language.
Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of the current revival is the fact that, like the works of innumerable dead 20th-century authors, it’s only a matter of time until somebody opens up a musty sea chest in someplace like Mantes-la-Jolie and discovers a previously unpublished manuscript by Proust.
About 9,000 pages worth … all one sentence … in French …
Originally published June 4, 2000