Why do they all love Marcel?
Proust is definitely flavour of the month, hardly a week goes by without a new biography
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 12 February 1999
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.
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