To Read Or Not To Read - Proust

I hardly have to comment on the merits of Marcel Proust´s "In Search of Lost Time" (or "Remembrance of Things Past" depending on the translation; Sw. "På spaning efter den tid som flytt") - countless books have been written on the subject, hundreds of academics have made a career of analysing the 3000 or so pages of this mega-novel. I´m not sure I know anyone who has read it in its entirety, most people are probably happy to get through the first part, "Swann´s Way". Personally, I got to about page 158. That´s when I realized I had effectively stopped, that I was seriously procrastinating my reading - a very strange experience for me.

Yes, I had developed a strong sense of unease about the whole thing, almost a kind of claustrophobia that made me either just shut down (and go to sleep) or want to open the window and howl.

I reached for support in the form of Olof Lagercrantz, my old favourite literary critic, who has written a whole book about his reading of Proust ("Att läsa Proust", 1992). It was a joy to read, as everything by him: he clearly and concisely laid out the main points of the novel - as he saw it, of course, his interpretation is his own. I realized this: to "get" Proust, I need to read all of it. I must also read a few biographies about him. This will probably take a decade of my life, if not more considering the pace I am keeping. Lagercrantz himself didn´t get to it until he was old and retired. Also, now having read Lagercrantz and knowing a bit more about the story, I am even less inclined to pursue the reading. The language is lovely, but pretty sentences is not enough for me.

Lagercrantz has written elsewhere ("Om konsten att läsa och skriva", 1985) that a good writer leaves room in his text for the reader to breathe, a poetic way of saying that the reader is invited to participate in the creative process; for example he does not give every little detail away, does not kill the story with descriptions, thereby letting the reader add his own flavour and make the story more familiar to him. (Or her, obviously.) We, as readers, engage in the text through our imaginations. There is, adds Lagercrantz, two exceptions: Proust and Joyce. This does not make them poor writers, he hurriedly continues, but rather the Mount Everest of literature. There is very little oxygen up on this literary Olympus, very little for the reader to do, and it is very hard to engage. I have tried Joyce as well, and came to somewhere around page eight, so I think Lagercrantz is probably right.

Well, I have a very active imagination. I like to "nest" within a story as I read it. To be frank, I found this beautiful, skilful, impressive, and very, very dull. I am not qualified to comment on anything beyond my own experience and there you have it. For a few days, I tried to convince myself that I might "save" it for my old age, but honestly, I will never go near it again. I will always have something better to do than reading Proust, even if it is just looking out the window, like his Aunt Leonie.


  1. me! me! lol i've read the whole thing. i have an older translation in 2 volumes, and i'd read the new english translation if it didn't cost so much. joyce, on the other hand, i have not yet been able to get through.

    1. I am very impressed. Have you written about this experience on the blog? I´d love to know what you thought of it, particularly since you are prepared to do it again...

    2. no, this was long before i started keeping the blog. it took me a long time, and i alternated reading it with other things.