Monday, April 30, 2012

Reading Proust

 About two years ago I decided I wanted to “read” Proust. I kept coming across references to his Remembrance of Things Past, I’d see it in a bookstore, and even Emily came home with the first volume in tow. In the New York Times I read of a group devoted entirely to Proust which met at the public library and I thought that sounded interesting. At the time I was still pretty new to Ellsworth and hadn’t found many non-work activities which interested me, so…I started asking around…a Francophile friend, a librarian, acquaintances who read serious books. And in the fall of 2010 five of us met at my house for drinks and madeleines and got started.

  Remembrance of Things Past (known as In Search of Lost Time in the newest translation) is a SEVEN volume series of the narrator’s musings on French life in the late 19th century. Paragraphs can go on for pages, descriptions include so many minute details that many readers want to throw in the towel, and once again, it is SEVEN volumes long! And yet…Proust was onto something. His observations of human character are superb, and the characters themselves, whether annoying or charming or both, are universal. With all his flowery language he still manages to speak to twenty-first century readers.

 Proust is most often associated with madeleines, small French pastries somewhat like cookies. It is the taste of a madeleine, dipped in tea, which brings a flood of early childhood memories back to our narrator. And, according to Jonah Lehrer in Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Proust actually anticipated the scientific discovery of involuntary memory; that sensory experiences of sight, sound, smell, feel and taste can trigger remembrances of things past.

 There are now nine of us in the group and we meet every 5-6 weeks for a marvelous potluck meal and “discussion.” We are all at different places in the seven volumes and our librarian member is always challenging us to go further with our analysis. She has even given us an assignment for next month: we are to read aloud a passage that has special meaning to us. That may be difficult for me because I have resorted to cheating by listening to the audio version as I drive back and forth to work. It is so much easier this way, and also somewhat abridged. To die-hard Proustians this probably doesn’t count, but it’s good enough for me.

 Invariably someone at our gatherings will ask if we should keep on, or might suggest another book as a diversion. And just as invariably the general consensus will be if not now, when?

 I’ve just begun Volume 4, and I promise to take a photo of the group at our next get-together.

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