Monday, June 06, 2005

Confessions Of One Imperfectly Edumicated - Reading Proust

I don't know why I do this to myself, but every few months I allow myself to read one of those "lists." You know the lists I mean. Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom and their ilk are often reminding us that if we are to consider ourselves truly educated, we must be familiar with the authors whose works make up the loosely defined "Western Canon."

My latest trek down this primrose path began a few months ago when I began to read Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds by Harold Bloom. I was fine (and even a bit smug and self-congratulatory) when I could mentally check off my having read and come to appreciate Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Goethe, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mann, Cervantes, Milton, Chaucer, St. Paul and the rest of the club. But I was once again caught short when I learned that I must be a cretin or worse not to have read and celebrated the prose of Marcel Proust.

I had tried to read him several years ago. Bloom and his co-conspirators had guilt-tripped me into tackling "In Search of Lost Time," (A la Recherce du Temps Perdu), Proust's seven volume paean to Combray, unrequited love, self-reflection, narcissism and life in general. I got a few chapters into Volume I - Swann's Way, when I gave up in despair. I could not figure out what all the hubbub was all about. There was no action and it took Proust seven pages to describe the young protagonist wanting his mother to come to give him a good night kiss. So, I set it aside.

This time I was resolved to get through it and prove to Harold Bloom and the Western Canon Nazi's that I was their equal! So I waded once again into the slowly trickling stream that is the prose of Swann's Way, this time in a new English translation by Lydia Davis. This time it was different. I don't know if it was a matter of a new translation, or that fact that I am at a different point in my life and read through different eyes now, but this time around I "got it." Reading Proust no longer seemed like choking down Brussel sprouts. It was more like biting into a tasty "Madeleine." (The novel's most famous scene involves young Marcel biting into a tea-soaked madeleine cookie and having memories of his childhood come flooding into his consciousness.)

I think I woke up to what Proust is all about and jumped on the bandwagon around p. 128 of the new Penguin Classics edition when I read:

"He had in fact asked my parents the day before to send me to dine with him that evening: 'Come and keep your old friend company,' he said to me. 'Like a bouquet sent to us by a traveler from a country to which we will never return, allow me to breathe from the distance of your adolescence those flowers that belong to the springtimes which I too traversed many years ago.' "

Perhaps one needs to be eligible for membership in the AARP for such words to fly to the bull's-eye in the center of one's heart, but fly they did. Reading those words almost took my breath away. So, I was able to continue reading and enjoy arriving at the end of Swann's Way. I immediately began to contemplate finding the next volume in the Proust heptalogy - In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower - to continue the nostalgic journey.

So, I am able to breath a sigh of relief and check off another box along the path to being a fully sentient, classically educated member of the literati. Can anyone help me with James Joyce and Ulysses?!

Happy reading!



Anonymous said...

You expressed yourself in a most exemplary fashion. You damn well edumicated right now!

Devo said...

You know, Al, I too tried to tackle the ponderous beast that is In Search of Lost Time, and I too ran headlong into a brick wall of boredom. Perhaps one day I will be able to handle the sickly-sweet treacle that is Proustian nostalgia, but now, I need action. I need passion. I need to appease my shocking Deficit of Attention by flashing lights and loud explosions. I need a good, fun read. That is precisely why I recently picked up the Kaplan guide to the GMATs!

Anyway, I am proud enough of myself to have slogged through The Borthers Karamazov at the tender age of 23! And I am even more proud of the fact that I not only enjoyed it, but also "got something from it" as they say in the ivory halls of academia. I think that's a step in the right direction...

As for Ulysses, I took a great Joyce course in college, and while I didn't follow along with the class's reading of Ulysses as dilligently as I should have, I DID take some wonderful lessons about the book from the class, including a great insight on one of the more traditionally confusing chapters featuring Bloom in a pub, apparently the chapter that parallels Odysseus's adventure with the oxen of the sun. The teacher who led the class was evidently a world-renowned Joycean scholar, so I feel blessed to actually remember some of the lessons he left me with. I'm still looking forward to ambushing that particular tome. Also, I have 2 guidebooks to the novel, which makes things much more interesting...

Perhaps one day we can again attempt a "book club" of sorts, albeit a distance book club, and together saly the great jabberwocky that is James Joyce.