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Reading Proust Aloud

Reading Proust Aloud

What? All of it?

For a long time ( longtemps, if you will ) reading aloud had been a custom in our home. This had begun with a bargain between the writer and his spouse, that he could have his shirts ironed, if she who ironed was read to during the job, and it evolved into a regular twenty minutes of prose au lit before lights out.

In this agreeable fashion, we worked through a lot of Wodehouse and countless Rex Stout mysteries, many essays by Johnson and other classics of efficient light prose. Then, one night, having on hand a second-hand paperback, and having read the first three or four pages privately, in some bemusement, we, the reader, suggested trying a few pages in the spirit of as “And now for something completely different.” So we began on the Moncreieff translation of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, a writer who seems to be at the far end from efficient.

Surprisingly, our auditor enjoyed it (it may have induced slumber) , and we tried some more the next night, and the next night after that. By the time we had finished Swann’s Way, we (the two of us) were committed, or had committed ourselves, to reading aloud the whole thing, and we did, the whole A La Research du Temps Perdu, although it took three years, from Combray to the dance-of-the-dead at the conclusion.

It doesn’t seem likely that ALRDTP (like LOTR) can have been read out loud to someone very often. Indeed, it may qualify as an extreme sport, or a endurance event. At any rate, perhaps it merits a little reflection.1

What is such an experience like?

But first what is the experience? After all, the method is to nail your substance first, then analysis your qualities. It seems not to be a case of oral literature. That usually means first something created without writing, and then something written but intended to be viva voce, to oneself or an audience.

ALRDTP is pretty clearly created for the eye going down the page. It is a text absolutely, and meant as such for solitary pleasure (we suspect that Proust would have enjoyed that ambiguity. There is a strain of nudge-nudge wink-wink in Proust, and he might have rather liked Sid James).

To read ALRDTP aloud to someone comes closer to a dramatization, or an episodic radio show, albeit a show with only one in the audience, with frequent back and forth comments between stage and orchestra.

How does it come off as spoken?

Very well actually. For the lector, reading the text cold, without rehearsal, the sentences are often long, but the structure of the sentence is usually that of a simple core stretched out with many interpolations and asides. By keeping the corner of a eye about three lines down the page, it is not hard to to get through without stumbling. Nor is it a dull, on the whole, to listen to.

There are dull passages, and our auditor confesses to having gone to sleep on [them] a few times, but not often. Interest is kept up, but it is the interest of piquant (sometimes indecent) details and character. We may mention the curious incident of Little Marcel and the ladder, the disappearance of Aunt Leonie’s furniture, the asparagus episode, and so forth. These episodes swim up into view without warning and then pass without comment. It is like watching a river, where odd things float by and vanish: a canoe, an elephant, a square triangle . . .

It is the tension between ordinary detail and sudden weirdness that keeps the listener alert. The sentences, as we said, are long, but often without a driving internal force. Compare any sentence in the essays of Samuel Johnson. There the reader must work toward delivering a punch line and the listener is waiting for it.

Typical sentence from Johnson:

“There are some vices and errors, which, though often fatal to those in whom they are found, have yet, by the universal consent of mankind, been considered as entitled to some degree of respect, or have, at least, been exempted from contemptuous infamy, and condemned by the severest moralists with pity rather than detestation.”

Compare that to a typical sentence from Proust:

“And so it was that, for a long time afterwards, when I lay awake at night and revived old memories of Combray, I saw no more of it than this sort of luminous panel, sharply defined against a vague and shadowy background, like the panels which a Bengal fire or some electric sign will illuminate and dissect from the front of a building the other parts which remain plunged in darkness; broad enough at its base, the little parlour, the dining room, the alluring shadows of the path along which would come M. Swann, the unconscious author of my sufferings, the hall through which I would journey to that first step of the that staircase, so hard to climb, which constituted, all by itself, the tapering “elevation” of an irregular pyramid. . . .”

Actually that sentence goes on for a while but like good cheese the texture is consistent. The Johnson is like heavyweight stand-up comedy. The other passage feels rather like floating in an isolation tank.

ALRDTP is less a narrative than an atmosphere. And therein lies a point, possibly. Most first person novels, those of the sort that begin “I think back to the morning I arrived for the first time at Outlandish, the great country house . . . ” The narrator is remembering, or supposed to be, but that is simply a ploy to get us to the narration. Proust is giving us, as far as he can, the actual process of remembering, and it is remembering that is his subject.

Another point: to read ALRDTP out loud is not just to read a novel, but to read a very very long novel. As so often quantity changes the quality. To be married thirty years is not the same as being married ten years times three. It is another sort of business. Likewise to get a dose of a novel for several weeks is one thing, to be dosed every night for three years is another.

The events of ALRDTP begin to build themselves into daily reality, and one becomes first curious about what will happen to the characters and then concerned. Events at the Guermantes began to be referred to at breakfast and discussed with gravity. Was Albertine really a lesbian or was it all in the narrator’s head. Why did the duchess go to a party when she was ill. We named our new cats Odette and Gilberte, and the one after that Albertine and the latest one Oriane.

Whether this is edifying or not is a moot question, but the seep from page to real life is real enough. In one of his short stories, Borges outlines how a fictional encyclopedia of a fantasy world began to change the real world, the secondary creation of the author pulling on the primary creation, and it certainly happens. Ask any fan of the Lord of The Rings. As for edification, ALRDTP has certainly cured us of any desire to rise in French High Society. Compared to dinner with that crowd, the latest Adam Sandler film looks better and better.



1. LOTR=The Lord of the Rings

Max ArnottMax Arnott

Max Arnott

Max Arnott is an independent scholar living in Toronto and has been a reader of Voegelin for many years.

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