Why do they all love Marcel?

Proust is definitely flavour of the month, hardly a week goes by without a new biography

WHAT'S HAPPENED to Proust? Twenty years ago, when I first read the old brute, he was a minority pleasure which you would only admit to in the most sequestered company. Then, you used to have to go to sordid outlets in back streets and hand over a few quid for a little package, bound in blue and white. "Got any Scott-Moncrieff?" you'd mutter. It would keep you going for only a few days, a week at most; and then you'd be back, twitching for more.

The only people I ever knew who had read Proust were either very, very old ladies, who had got through it the last time it had been fashionable, or academics, who didn't count because they had been paid to read it. So it remained a solitary vice. You would hardly want to talk to the old ladies ("Oh yes; Odette. She's rather fast, isn't she?"). The academics, who could generally remember it in better detail, were no use either, since they never wanted to put on a tiara and pretend to be the Queen of Naples stalking out of Mme Verdurin's salon, alas.

Even at university, I don't think I knew more than two or three people who had read it. We used to have A la recherche du temps perdu evenings in the pub. Once, we thought about re-enacting the Duchesse de Guermantes' dinner party. I think the resolution foundered, since the only thing you know about the food and drink is that they end up drinking orange squash. Kia-Ora somehow didn't have the authentically Proustian note.

It's not the same now. Proust is definitely flavour of the month. Hardly a week goes by without some new book on the great man, such as, yesterday, a nice mini-biography by Edmund White. Some, like Malcolm Bowie's Proust Among the Stars, are excellent, but a lot are faintly patronising handbooks which seem to make the bizarre assumption that Proust, who is the funniest and most constantly entertaining novelist ever to have laid his hands on the French language, needs any introduction.

Translations are proliferating - there are two or three in progress right now. You can even write to Penguin on the Internet, and make suggestions about their forthcoming new translation. Since every translation gets even the first line wrong - it ought to be "For a long time, I've been going to bed early" - this may not be such a bad idea.

But why this sudden taste for an author who demands such an investment of time and energy? A friend of mine once read the whole novel in a week, for a bet, all 3,500 pages of it. But I wouldn't recommend it; three months is a more sensible minimum, and people have been known to take a year or more. Perhaps it's exactly that, the investment of time and energy. Maybe it's a millennial thing.

Or maybe it's an unlikely but rather agreeable alliance between the pleasure principle and the Protestant work ethic. It's noticeable that, in the past few years, the taste for difficult modern music has spread enormously; a composer such as Sir Harrison Birtwistle now has a genuine popular following, made up of listeners who are bored with music that doesn't have to be worked at; who prefer something that puzzles at first, and reveals its pleasures slowly. The taste for Proust is a bit like that: let's read something that develops our minds. And why not? I heard recently about someone who gave a party when he finished Proust. No one ever gave a party when he finished Bridget Jones's Diary.

It's all rather like going in for the London Marathon, and Proust's readers often approach himas if he were a major sporting event. First they announce their intention to all and sundry; then they go in for training, in the form of reading the easy-peasy guides to the territory. They buy the special equipment you need (a silk dressing-gown and a chaise longue). Finally the big day arrives, when they march into WH Smith's and exchange their ten quid for Swann's Way. And they're off.

I can't get used to the idea that an author I'd always thought of as a special taste, a source of private jokes, is on the verge of mass popularity. But let's be optimistic about this. We're a very long way from the Proust theme park, with a cafe serving madeleines; he's never going to be as popular as all that. I was heartened to discover that, in this country, though sales are startlingly high, the number of sales of copies of the last volume is running at the level of about a quarter of the sales of the first volume.

People, it seems, certainly want to read Proust, and embark on it with the best will in the world. If you're going to get beyond the first couple of hundred pages, however, you're going to have to do without a guide. You are, unfortunately, going to have to do something very unglamorous: just sit down on your own, and get on with reading.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'