August 3rd, 2006


In which I surrender to the crushing power of the French.

Me and France are not really well acquainted vis-a-vis her literary tradition. The list of French authors I have read is miniscule and seems to consist largely of plays: Waiting for godot, at least 5 plays by Eugène Ionesco (including Rhinoceros), "No exit" and "the Wall" by Sartre, maybe 2 novels (blame The Cure for me reading "the Stranger") and the Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, and some excerpts from "The song of Roland" that I read for a Freshman Medieval lit class in college. The savvy observer will note the WWII/post war commonality of all these works (except for Roland. I do really like his work with Big Black, though).

Famous French novels I likely should have read but haven't include Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons), The Phantom of the Opera , The three musketeers , the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Miserables, Madame Bovary , anything by Emile Zola, Candide by Voltaire, anything by Stendhal, Balzac, Colette, Celine, Jules Verne or even Jean Genet, who is both post-war and an unrepentant faggot and therefore should be right up my alley, but no, haven't read him yet. Have seen the Fassbinder film "Querelle" at least 3 times, but The Germans are a separate post.

So for some reason, I decided to try Marcel Proust.

I checked out "Swann's Way" on unabridged audiobook, the first novel in the 7-novel series "remembrance of things past", aka "In search of lost time". Audiobook seemed the perfect way to attempt this as I have a long commute , and wouldn't be tempted to read something else instead while the book gathered dust on my night table, like I would be with a traditional dead tree book of equal literary importance and difficulty.

This book is famous for changing the idea of fiction and for being very long and obtuse. Monty Python had a skit about a "summarize Proust" contest, and the absurdity there is that Proust doesn't seem to be ABOUT anything at all. Maybe if you can get far enough, you can get to a plot before you give up in disgust, but I didn't make it.

I got through 3 of 16 tapes, or 18.75% of the first book (which is itself 1/7th of the whole work) before admitting defeat.

I know in our culture it seems Philistine-ish to denigrate a Great Work that other people "get", but you don't. But I didn't Get It. What I learned about Proust from the 18.75% of Swann's Way I got through:

1) Proust liked long, convoluted sentences.

2) Proust really liked to describe things, especially smells and mundane incidents in the life of a boy.

3) The plot of Swann's Way has a lot to do with social class and aristocracy, including topics such as marrying above/beneath your station, the niceties and procedures of "being properly introduced", and when it's proper for a boy to go to bed when company is over for dinner, even if that means the boy must forgo his goodnight kiss from his mother and then write angstily about the lack of a kiss for 15 pages.

4) even if I didn't already know Proust was gay, the first-person narrator still comes across as a big sissy in this work. Maybe it's because of his youth, or maybe because of his fondness for describing the pastry called a Madeleine, but by the time I gave up on the book, I was feeling hostile rather than sympathetic towards the narrator. Maybe because I just wanted SOMETHING to happen.

Oddly, the book that "Swann's Way" reminded me of the most was William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch". Not because there was some kind of hallucinogenic perverse character to Proust's work (or if there is, I didn't get that far) , but because the "plot" seemed to be made up of random and barely connected vignettes that defied the logic of "plot" as most of us understand it. To a lesser extent, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is also like these, though it does have a central character directly experiencing things (which don't always exist, but hey) rather than being made of detached recollections. Any book that you could reasonably say 'There's no way you could make a movie of this, because there's no 'story' here" is probably also comparable to Naked Lunch or Proust, or god forbid, both.

So I give up. For once, the French are victorious.

Ironically, after I started Swann's Way, I read Allison Bechdel's new graphic novel memoir "Fun Home", whose main subject is her relationship with her closeted, bibliophilic father. Allison the narrator quotes that a person knows they have reached middle age when they realize they will never get around to reading Proust. Since my problem is not lack of free decades to read 7 volumes of Proust but lack of inclination after the initial negative experience, I wonder what age that makes me.