My Monthly Reading posts might start to look a bit same-y this year as, sometime between Christmas and New Year, I decided to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I had taken a few stabs at the first volume in the past, but not successfully. It occurred to me that:
- I’d never actually read it unless I committed to it, and that a New Year’s Resolution is as good a way as any of forcing the issue
- the Christmas holidays was a good time to start, as I actually had large chunks of time to read, and the headspace to concentrate, both of which are basic prerequisites when it comes to Proust
I decided on two further tactics to strengthen my resolve: I would annotate my beautiful Penguin Allen Lane hardbacks* and I would keep a Twitter diary of the experience.
*An aside: Buying the lovely 2002 Allen Lane** edition hardbacks (picking them up for cheap as and when I saw them) was my previous best attempt at making myself read the novel. It failed.
**Another aside. I don’t really have the time or expertise to get into the Proust translations debate. I’ll note here that I also have the very, very lovely three-volume Penguin Classics hardback set of the unrevised Scott Moncrieff translation, but it’s not to hand just now.
The Twitter account @ProustDiary I’ve found useful and fun to do. There is a major practical problem I’ve run into, however, in that, once I got out of Christmas holidays into real life, my Proust reading has largely been relegated to bedtime, and I’m a strong believer in no phones at the bedside. It’s not just that you might get distracted by Twitter itself; it’s also that the process of translating vague readerly thoughts to brilliant 280-character apophthegms is one that does fundamental damage to the basic bedtime routine, that gentle slide towards sleep which books are so good at.
Which raises the interesting point of whether Proust is good to read at bedtime? Well, despite the pleasing echo it gives to both the content and composition of the novel, the answer has got to be No.
Or let’s think about that again. It’s a book that, in its syntactic extravagance and complexity, can act as an effective soporific. Those long, boring (yes, it’s true) paragraph-long sentences that never quite seem to want to end, enact the very process of the heading-towards-sleep brain, coiling down into the psychological depths where, strangely, in Proust, nothing actually seems to matter much, and it’s no great leap to give up on consciousness altogether.
In order to enjoy, or appreciate, the book, you need to be properly awake, and alert. I’ve found myself going back pages to pick up where I left off the previous night, as I simply had no idea what I’d been reading, dipping in and out of sleep, in and out of wakefulness.
***Another aside: I absolutely love that odd sensation you get sometimes when you’re dropping off, and switching (though that’s too abrupt) between wakefulness and a form of dream-state that isn’t fully dreaming, isn’t lucid dreaming, but where you have if not quite full control over your thoughts, then certainly a greater surface access to them . As it happens, last night I read Julio Cortázar’s clever, chilling story ‘The Night Face Up’, following its recommendation in Armel Dagorn’s Personal Anthology, and a brilliant evocation of this experience it is, too!
So I do encourage you to take a look at my @ProustDiary account. It has things in it like this:
This is something my 16yo boys have started doing recently (sans pipe, of course); clearly, it’s a fad at their school. While it’s fun that Proust is anatomising a social ritual that remains contemporary over 100 years later, there’s something else. pic.twitter.com/QpPq2OYlD9
— ReadingProustin2019 (@ProustDiary) January 5, 2019
The Verdurins at one of their soirées. pic.twitter.com/SIYXBDrnKz
— ReadingProustin2019 (@ProustDiary) January 7, 2019
The interesting point, as with Cottard, is that Proust doesn’t make of these characters ‘types’; rather, he uses them to exhibit symptoms. Their behaviours are more important than they are. (This may of course change as the novel develops.)
— ReadingProustin2019 (@ProustDiary) January 9, 2019
Two contradictory tropes: that the novel is all about digging – digging into the past, yes, but also digging into social behaviours and psychological mechanisms – and it meanders. Digging, and meandering. #readProust2019
— ReadingProustin2019 (@ProustDiary) January 11, 2019
And my absolute favourite Proust spot, though apologies for the photo quality:
— ReadingProustin2019 (@ProustDiary) January 23, 2019
Am I enjoying reading Proust? Yes, largely.
Is it an unalloyed delight? No.
Is some of it boring? Hell, yes. And perhaps that’s partly the point.
Is he sometimes clumsy as a satirist? Yes.
Is he actually a bit too interested in the operational minutiae of class distinctions, and all at a microscopic level, differentiating between social classes that, to us (to me) look basically identical, in the way that a patissier may see in a mille-feuille a near-infinite number of distinct gradations, where to the rest of us it’s just a probably gorgeous but in the end rather rich and monotonous slice of cake? Yes.
So long as he pulls back from character (or pushes in through character) to get to psychology, I’m happy, because I see myself there, in the miasmatic general, but the strange thing about Proust is his odd way with surface and depth. He can spend a page describing in depth a particular superficial aspect of a character’s behaviour, only for you to realise it wasn’t surface at all. Whereas at other times, when he isolates and adumbrates a particular psychological trait, again at length, you realise he has spent half a page or more describing something he could have said in a sentence, and lost nothing of his acuity in the process.
I am intrigued by how the novel will progress, but…
Actually, no, I’m not. I’m intrigued by how my experience of reading it will progress.
Perhaps reading Proust is a bit like that odd online thing ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), which is largely long online videos of people (most of whom are very much your usual blandly attractive, clearly hugely self-obsessed and vacuous YouTuber types) whispering and making quiet repetitive sounds from objects. I mean, Surely ASMR would work better as audio than video?
Which prompts the question: would Proust work as an audiobook? I don’t think so, for me, as the looping process of reading is so intrinsic – whereas Ulysses, for instance, I did listen to and hugely enjoy as audio (though to be fair it was dramatised and somewhat edited).
The other book I’ve read in January is Wayne Holloway’s Bindlestiff, published by the good people at Influx Press (who kindly sent me my copy – and I was on hand at Wayne’s launch last week to meet him and help him celebrate the publication). This is probably as different a book from Proust as it’s possible to be: it’s a fast read, blisteringly confidently written, that is at times like being collared by a madman in a bar and ranted at, at times like sitting alone in a cinema and watching a great lost road movie.
No surprise, then, that Holloway has (bitter) experience of the film industry; the novel is partly built out the remnants of an unsold screenplay, and much play is made of that. This is a novel thoroughly infused, irradiated and – to a certain extent – compromised by the love-hate relationship we all (well, most of us) share with cinema, Hollywood, American in general. (It makes me think of that line from Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road: “The Americans have colonised our subconscious.” This is the subconscious fighting back, but realising that most of its weapons belong to the enemy. Not all of them, but most.)
The novel is partly about a British scriptwriter, who is given the name @waynex; this is Holloway’s Twitter handle, and that is as elegant a way I can think of avoiding the now clunkily Amisian device of dropping the author into the text. @waynex is trying to sell his screenplay in LA, but sees it get twisted out of his control when the money comes in. Partly the novel is that movie, given to us in screenplay excerpts, as it was, and as it ended up. And partly it’s a sort of novelisation of it.
It’s a potentially frenetic mixture, but the sheer pace and verve – and precision – of the telling keeps you on track. Holloway is as good at hiply sardonic seen-it-all coke-and-wisecracks LA authenticity, as he is at romantic evocations of bums hopping freight trains across the mid-West (“bindlestiff” is an old American word for a tramp), as he is at recent-past Iraq war scenarios, as he is at near-future dystopia. There is a jaw-dropping chapter explaining exactly how the American apocalypse finally came about, chock full of jargon that seems so frighteningly real that, truly, I hope to God it’s all made up. And another one in which Holloway deconstructs his own novel in a critical essay that pushes outwards to the other writers he admires and is inspired by, and questions his own motives, and challenges his own assumptions – and ours – about where the book will end up.
The book it made me think of most is The Kills by Richard House, which is equally ambitious, and covers some of the same ground (eg the Iraq war) – but in far greater depth. The Kills basically wanted to be Bolãno, and Bindlestiff, while ambitious, has the courage to limit its ambitions.
Both books are interested in what the novel is, and might be, and what it’s not, and both of them are sure-footed in their performance of their vision. Bindlestiff, in particular, moves like a featherweight boxer, never still, always seemingly knowing what you’re about to do, or think. And, most importantly – though parts of the novel, or the screenplay-in-a-novel (and only Holloway knows the truth of the relationship between them) have a sentimental streak a mile wide – he has the guts the burn the whole thing down to the ground, if that is what it takes to end it properly.