11 votes

What's the deal with Proust?

I've never read Marcel Proust, and I know very little about his work. But every serious reader of literature I know absolutely gushes over him, but never seems to be able to explain what's good about it or what the books are even about.

The scarce pop-culture references I see to his work (like in "Little Miss Sunshine") seems to cast an affection for Proust as kind of a mark of being an unmoored and depressive romantic.

So is he worth reading? The full collection of "Remembrance of Things Past" is nearly $100, so that's not a trivial amount to invest. Is there a recommended/definitive translation or edition I should read? What should I keep in mind or be open to if I do try giving it a shot?

By that last question I mean like, I'd have hated "Catcher In the Rye" if I wasn't told ahead of time to approach it from the mindset of a 15 year old boy. Or I kind of hated 'Madame Bovary" but when explained to me that this was Flaubert's exercise in trying to make people see themselves in an adulteress, a generally reviled archetype, and this was groundbreaking for the time lets me at least appreciate it for accomplishing what it's set out to do. Are there any literary contexts like I this should have in my head before I delve in?

7 comments

  1. [3]
    Staross Link
    I've read the first three books. They are basically an autobiography, the first one starts with his childhood, goes into some stories about some acquaintances, the second one is more toward teen...

    I've read the first three books. They are basically an autobiography, the first one starts with his childhood, goes into some stories about some acquaintances, the second one is more toward teen age.

    His style is very rich and elegant, but rather classical, and he makes very very long sentences. He has a peculiar and acute way of describing things. All characters (including himself) are a bit flawed or annoying (I found), there's no big stories or heroic moments, it's more a subdue and realistic tone.

    Personally I found it quite boring overall, there's some very good passages but others put me to sleep. The main issue is that he had a boring life in a boring milieu. He was a bourgeois and had some connections with aristocracy, there's some long descriptions of dinners and conversation with these people that are tedious. If you compare it to the other big French writer of the early 20th century, Céline, that was from modest milieu and went to war, traveled to Africa, etc. Céline had interesting things to say. Proust not so much.

    That said the whole thing is quite impressive from a craft perspective, it's a huge, extremely rich and coherent work.

    I've read it in French, I don't know if it holds up well in English. You can try the first book "Swann's Way" and see if you like it.

    I would fall asleep again, and thereafter would
    reawaken for short snatches only, just long enough to hear
    the regular creaking of the wainscot, or to open my eyes to
    stare at the shifting kaleidoscope of the darkness, to
    savour, in a momentary glimmer of consciousness, the
    sleep which lay heavy upon the furniture, the room, that
    whole of which I formed no more than a small part and
    whose insensibility I should very soon return to share.

    3 votes
    1. [2]
      NaraVara Link Parent
      Would it be accurate to say Karl Ove Knausgård was trying to mimic it when he did My Struggle. Or is it less confessional?

      Would it be accurate to say Karl Ove Knausgård was trying to mimic it when he did My Struggle. Or is it less confessional?

      1. Staross Link Parent
        I don't know Karl Ove Knausgård so I can't compare, but I wouldn't say Proust is confessional, it's more modest.

        I don't know Karl Ove Knausgård so I can't compare, but I wouldn't say Proust is confessional, it's more modest.

  2. [2]
    pleure Link
    I've been told that Proust is best read as a depressed middle aged man reflecting back on his life. I mean that very literally. I don't know if that's accurate, because it's advice I've taken...

    What should I keep in mind or be open to if I do try giving it a shot?

    I've been told that Proust is best read as a depressed middle aged man reflecting back on his life. I mean that very literally.

    I don't know if that's accurate, because it's advice I've taken myself and I am young yet :)

    2 votes
    1. NaraVara Link Parent
      Lol. Maybe I should give it another couple of years then. I’ve got the depression down, but I’m still working on the middle age.

      Lol. Maybe I should give it another couple of years then. I’ve got the depression down, but I’m still working on the middle age.

      1 vote
  3. [2]
    NeonHippy Link
    I've never read Proust either, and never will. I can't get into the so-called 'classics', especially after having had to read some of that stuff during high school & college (Bronte, Dickens,...

    I've never read Proust either, and never will. I can't get into the so-called 'classics', especially after having had to read some of that stuff during high school & college (Bronte, Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, Milton, etc).

    1. NaraVara Link Parent
      TBH a lot of classics they have you read as kids deal with themes that kids probably wouldn't really understand. But it's still kind of worth it to train you into reading analytically....

      TBH a lot of classics they have you read as kids deal with themes that kids probably wouldn't really understand. But it's still kind of worth it to train you into reading analytically.

      Unfortunately, the way the education system is structured, they train you to recite by rote things other people figured out by reading analytically instead so unless you have a really good English teacher you're going to get nothing out of it.

      I would recommend giving it another shot though. Learning to read with a more critical eye opens up all kinds of doors for you in terms of how you engage with material and how much you can pull out of the stuff you do engage with. I actually didn't start to like reading literature until I took a class on film criticism. Being able to extract themes and draw important connections can be really fulfilling and enhances your appreciation of everything you see or read.