As you may know, Proust was a French writer famous for his seven volume masterpiece "In Search of Lost Time." I first became interested in reading Proust while I was reading "Henry and June" by Anais Nin. She cites Proust as a major influence and so I tucked his name away (next to Dostoevsky) for further exploration at a later time. Then I read Alison Bechdel's award-winning graphic memoir "Fun Home," which was also influenced heavily by Proust's "In Search of Lost Time."
At the time, I knew nothing at all about Proust and his masterpiece. I remember going with SK to Powell's Books to see Alison Bechdel talk about "Fun Home," and afterward, feeling inspired, I ran down to the literature section to look for this little novel that seemed so important. I found a whole shelf of Proust and yet somehow couldn't find "In Search of Lost Time." I got annoyed. And then, a tiny little lightbulb went off over my head... and I realized that it wasn't just "a little novel" I was looking for. I realized that, in fact, the "whole shelf of Proust" WAS the little novel. All seven volumes.
At that point I felt kinda crushed. I knew I wouldn't be carrying home seven volumes of anything. I was still in school and too busy to read much that wasn't published by West or Aspen (casebook publishers). I gave it up. And then, miraculously, school ended, I took the bar, and I suddenly found myself with a huge, gaping hole in my life, with a corresponding gaping hole in my brain. What to do, what to do...
So I started reading like a fiend. I filled the void with the fattest books I could find. I read Portrait of a Lady, I read The Brother's Karamazov, I read War and Peace. Just as I was starting War and Peace, I wondered how I could possibly top it, what fat book could be fatter than this fattest of books? Some of you who were reading last spring might remember that I discussed that very dilemma here. I decided I could either try and read the impenetrable "Ulysses" or I could go for the seven volumes of Proust. Having tried once to read something by James Joyce ("Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man") and therefore knowing what kind of misery awaited me down that path, I chose Proust.
I knew seven volumes was a major committment, so I decided the best way to guarantee success was to enlist help. I decided to start a Proust Support Group. I figured if I could find a few other intrepid souls who wanted to tackle the behemoth, we could encourage each other, give each other hope and the strength to carry on. I posted a message on Craigslist just to test the waters and much to my surprise I recieved so many responses I started to worry that the group would be way too big. I considered taking down the original post so no one else could respond.
I told all these folks that I'd be ready to start at the beginning of June and we discussed possible structures for our group. Should we meet once a week? Once a month? What side of town? At someone's house or in a coffeeshop? Meanwhile I slowly struggled through War and Peace and something truly magical began that changed everything. It became summer. As War and Peace wore me down, the sun and warmth called to me with the promise of fun, light and easy good-times. I wrote the Proust group and told them I couldn't start in June. I apologized. I asked if they'd mind if we put it off till the fall. I stuck with War and Peace until I finished that fucker, but once I put it down I didn't pick up anything difficult for a long time. Instead, I put on a t-shirt and ran outside to enjoy the gorgeous Portland summer.
Over time, though, something about that desire to read Proust entered my identity. It especially entered the fabricated identity I started using on a couple of internet personals sites. I blame my kayaking friends for luring me back into the seedy world of internet personals, but I'm not here to point fingers, I'm here to tell a boring story. When it came time to create my profiles, I decided on a very snappy "headline" that seemed to sum things up pretty well. "Pabst, Pinball and Proust."
I loved the alliteration and felt that those three words really said it all. "Do you like cheap beer? Do you love to pump quarters into the pinball machine? And what about hardcore literature? I've got it all baby." The only problem was the niggling guilt I felt knowing that I hadn't actually read Proust yet. I knew, on some level, that this was false advertising. I was completely ready to explain why I chose to throw Proust in my headline and, if asked, I would never have lied about it. And I consoled myself with the knowledge that I still INTENDED to read Proust... just not today.
Well, today finally came. As summer waned into fall and my desire to sit in hot bath reading a book returned full force, I decided it was probably time to make good on my Proust promise. I decided to put the first volume on hold at the library and, lo and behold, it came in immediately and suddenly I was faced with a very thick "Swann's Way" and no good reason not to read it.
I picked it up after the party Saturday night. That was foolish, but I came home more sober than I would've expected and I wasn't ready to sleep yet. It was the first chance I'd had to look at the book since I'd been so busy with party preparation. I read the first two pages and my eyes started closing. I got nervous. I thought, "Oh no, this is one of those awful, wordy french books, just a tangle of language, a neverending wrap-around maze of phrases and clauses that, in the end, go nowhere. This will be worse than stream of consciousness! This will be worse than Ulysses!"
I shut the book and decided I would probably have to change my headline. Without the alliteration, it really wouldn't have the same punch... maybe I could develop an appreciation for Pushkin? or Pynchon? (Doubt it.) I was bummed.
But yesterday I decided to give it another chance. I drew a nice hot bath after my kayaking adventure and I climbed in with my tea and my fat copy of "Swann's Way," the first volume of Proust's behemoth. I started on page one again... and I read... and read... and read... and I suddenly realized I was actually enjoying it!!! I realized I was moving steadily through the pages and I felt like a kid who suddenly realizes she's riding her bike along all by herself and mom's stabilizing hand has long since let go of the seat. I can do it! I can read Proust and I don't need to change my headline! It's a miracle.