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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all