Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of "Swann's Way," the first volume of Marcel Proust's six-volume masterpiece "In Search of Lost Time." The novel is about a man compelled by a sudden surge of memory to revisit his past and, in the process, to draw meaning out of his seemingly uneventful life. Its unfolding is prompted, famously, by the narrator's dunking of a madeleine in a cup of herbal tea.
Untold universities have planned at least one reading or roundtable dedicated to Proust. Every self-respecting bookstore will hold its own Proustathon, with authors, actors and book lovers reading snippets from his epic novel. The Center for Fiction in New York has scheduled a Proust evening, and the French embassy is organizing its own Proust occasion. There are Proust T-shirts, Proust coffee mugs, Proust watches, Proust comic series, Proust tote bags, Proust fountain pens, and Proust paraphernalia of all stripes.
Still, for all the brouhaha, many modern readers still find themselves in agreement with the two French publishers who turned down Proust's manuscript in 1912. A third agreed to publish it, provided that Proust himself cover the expenses. As one early reader declared: "At the end of this 712-page manuscript…one has no notion of…what it is about. What is it all for? What does it all mean? Where is it all leading to?" The writer André Gide is said to have avoided even reading the manuscript on grounds that the author was a renowned socialite snob. What could a wealthy, delicate fop like Proust possibly have to tell anyone?
A great deal, it turns out.
Proust's novel is so unusually ambitious, so accomplished, so masterful in cadence and invention that it is impossible to compare it with anyone else's. He is unabashedly literary and so unapologetic in his encyclopedic range that he remains an exemplar of what literature can be: at once timeless and time bound, universal and elitist, a mix of uncompromising high seriousness with moments of undiminished slapstick. Homer, Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Proust—not exactly authors one expects to whiz through or take lightly, but like all works of genius, they are meant to be read out loud and loved.
Nothing would have shocked Proust more than to hear that his work was perceived as difficult or inaccessibly rarefied. For years I have taught Proust to students at Bard High School in New York City, and I often find that after two or three hours with the novel, they are hooked.
After all, the story couldn't be simpler. It's about a young man of an unspecified age who enjoys reading, who is shy and introspective, but not necessarily awkward or antisocial, who likes his mother, who wants to travel to Venice but, because of poor health, never quite manages to do so until later in life. Marcel, the hero of Proust's autobiographical novel, loves nature, music, restaurants, hotels, beaches, churches, art, theater, Paris, fantasizes about friendships and girls, dissects the grown-ups around him with no less unforgiving irony and acuity than when he studies himself, and ultimately worships the good and beautiful things of life, hoping one day to craft the story of his maturation as a human being and as an artist.