I know that Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is ranked by many as the greatest work of fiction of all time and place. However, if Proust’s life had depended on entertaining Scheherazade for one thousand and one nights, she’d have had him executed the first night. Where’s the story? What am I missing?
I’ve asked these questions before and I’m asking them again, and yes, they’re rhetorical. Since people first sat around a fire grunting at each other until today, what has changed in human behavior that a person no longer likes to hear a good story? In my opinion, nothing.
Homer formally set down the storytelling parameters in The Iliad and The Odyssey almost three thousand years ago, with techniques probably well-established long before Homer used them. You either start at the beginning and build the story to a satisfying climax, or you start somewhere in the middle, give us some back story, then build to a satisfying climax. Take your pick.
And you’d better do it well or no one is going to hang on very long. If you’re sitting around the table and Uncle Mike starts in, you know you’re going to be entertained. He gives you concrete details and plot points, doesn’t forget where he is, makes you laugh, entertains, and yes, even enlightens, builds to a conclusion, and you’re ready for his next one. But if Aunt Helen starts in, groans all around. Please God, no! See ya later. It’s the same at the kitchen table as it is in a great book.
Proust knows this. It’s in his book. In one funny (to me) passage (about sixty-two percent in using a digital reader), people are sitting around a table listening to a particularly boring storyteller, and Proust has one of his characters say: “You could take anything you liked—I don’t know what—this glass, say; and he’d talk away about it for hours.” How boring. Is Proust poking fun at himself, because that’s exactly what Proust does.
Why write page after page of narrative about a house’s décor, including documenting the décor’s history? Perhaps Proust should have put his talent for this kind of detail in an architectural digest, or a home furnishing magazine, or a history journal. It’s like touring a museum with a docent—and honestly, most museums are boring enough without the added docent! All this accoutrement but whereby hangs the tale, to paraphrase Shakespeare?
How long did it take Homer to hook the reader in The Odyssey? Within forty lines, we learn that he longed to return to his wife and country but was detained by the goddess Calypso. Bingo. There it is, the hook. That’ll keep a person reading.
How about Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s easier, shorter plays, loaded with riveting drama. Within a few pages, Macbeth becomes the Thane of Cawdor. A few pages later, the three witches, without having known him, tell him what title he had, what title he now has, and prophesy that he will be king. There it is! The hook! Didn’t take long.
Here’s another, from Dracula, which I reread last month. A few pages in, Jonathan Harker checks into the Golden Krone Hotel in Transylvania on the dark side of twilight. The moment that the landlord learns that Jonathan is to go to Dracula’s castle, “[he] and his wife… looked at each other in a frightened sort of way.” From that point on, wow! Bram Stoker had me hooked.
In the very first chapter of The Count of Monte Cristo, written in 1844 by Dumas, a fellow Frenchman, we learn of the querulous rivalry between Dantes and Danglers, the shipment of gold, and the mysterious letter. Did Proust know that Dumas is the all-time master of the chapter-ending hook? Had he ever read Dumas?
I couldn’t help but think of Dumas when I was trudging through Proust’s twenty-plus pages of details about the inside of his Aunt’s house, the furniture, the pottery, the tapestry, the wallpaper, the artwork, the changes in the interior over time, ad infinitum or ad nauseum. You decide. Contrast that with Dumas’s half a dozen chapters with the Count in solitary confinement inside a single prison cell, detailing cement blocks. It’s the most riveting section of Dumas’s novel (and perhaps of any novel). How did Dumas pull it off?
By all accounts, Proust was a raconteur in Paris’s highest society, the life of the party, the guest that no one left off the list. He must have known how to engage people with a good story. No?
It’s obvious Proust knew a great deal about art and architecture and music; he was a keen observer of human behavior, but he can take a moment and turn it into an eternity. Proust isn’t a terrible read, only a terribly slow read. After finishing Swan’s way, all Proust has managed to give me is a few breadcrumbs at the surface that I’ve nibbled on.
Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed many individual sections of Swan’s Way. For example, in a particular slab of poetic prose (at around the forty percent mark in a digital reader), the narrator reminisces about walking along the Vivonne River encountering, year after year, unhappy water lilies that the current carried back and forth from one side to the other, never at rest, while remaining tethered, being stretched almost to their breaking point. This he likens to his Aunt Léonie with her peculiarities of habit, a “treadmill of maladies and eccentricities,” done year in and year out, that she could never break free from, which he then likens to sinners encountered by Dante in one of The Divine Comedy’s levels of hell, eternally tethered, unable to break free from whatever held them there but unable to stop and ask them because, just as Dante is hurried along by Virgil, so is the narrator by his parents.
Proust packed an amazing amount of stuff into that section—the whole of the West, in a way. The breadth of knowledge and intellect and skill required to come up with a passage like that highly impresses, and is a lovely flower of good. I stopped at this section and I meditated and I pondered and I dreamt and I remembered. I read it several times. I suppose that’s what Proust wanted me to do.
I can’t say the emperor has no clothes because surely Proust is wearing something complex and elegant—but impractical. He has the chops. He has the education, the encyclopedic memory, the historical mind, keen insights, the full range of human experience. I could go on and on. But whereby hangs the tale, I ask again?
Is Proust one of the first to suffer from the modern compulsion of artists not to see art primarily as a means of communicating, one person to another, but mainly as a way of expressing oneself? To whom is Proust writing? Could it be that Proust’s cocooning himself in an almost hermetically-sealed room during much of the writing of the seven volumes of Remembrance, windows boarded up to keep out the allergens, working mainly at night because the street noise bothered him, and limiting human contact with anyone but his amanuensis who cleaned, brought him food, and rewrote his manuscripts—was this the possible source of Proust’s disconnect to other human beings?
I enjoyed the process of reading Proust. The microscopic, telescopic, kaleidoscopic observations over time, the thorough going over of every event, made me think. It’s certainly got me fired up. I haven’t been this intellectually engaged in a long while. It reminds me of the time I saw a corporate-sponsored exhibition of Pompeii’s artifacts. I’m still thinking about how some of the pieces hadn’t changed in over 2,000 years. Each piece suggested a profound story. However, I had to use my own imagination to tell it!
I’m not a Proust scholar, and I haven’t investigated the details of his oeuvre. However, is it possible that Proust himself, from the beginning, didn’t know where he was going with his book, and that he rambled on in search of a story? I ask this because the narrator talks about two “ways,” the two walks that he and his family often took, Guermantes way and Swan’s way, and these two ways metaphorically weave through the story. The Guermantes way is the flowing stream of consciousness (almost the entire book) while Swan’s way is the possible story. Whenever the reader gets to Swan, the reader gets to an action, gets to a present, gets to a dialog, gets to a conflict, gets to a drama, and gets to a breadcrumb. Proust finally shows rather than tells.
Near the very end of the book, in the ninety-five percent range, Proust finally dangles the first small hook: the narrator has fallen in love with Swan’s daughter but it seems that Swan and his wife frown on this match. I bubbled right up to the surface. Are we there yet? I thought. Is this the story?
Using the fisherman-cum-writer metaphor who tries to hook the reader isn’t my idea. It’s Proust’s! You can find it in the text. While walking along the Vivonne River the narrator (who throughout remains unnamed) sees an unknown, unnamed fisherman. The narrator admits that the fisherman is the only person whose name he doesn’t know which is a big admission because otherwise he’s a Mister Know-It-All. The narrator desires to fish but has no fishpole. He can only throw breadcrumbs and see the swirls the fishes make eating them. He doesn’t even see the fish. This occurs at the same point in the novel (about forty percent) when the narrator first mentions his dreams of writing. But he doesn’t know what he’s going to write!
And these dreams reminded me that, since I wished, someday, to become a writer, it was high time to decide what sort of books I was going to write. But as soon as I asked myself the question, and tried to discover some subjects to which I could impart a philosophical significance of infinite value, my mind would stop like a clock, I would see before me vacuity, nothing, would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent, or that, perhaps, a malady of the brain was hindering its development.
Am I stretching my metaphor too far? Has my proposition hooked you? Swan’s Way, I theorize, is the early part of the journey, and Proust doesn’t give the reader anything more to chew on than breadcrumbs because perhaps Proust at that point didn’t yet have a hook!
I have a friend who recently finished reading all seven volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past of which Swan’s Way is the first. I asked him if he liked it? Yes, he said. Really? How long did it take him to get into it? His response: the last half of the second book, In The Budding Grove. After that, he said he couldn’t put it down. That’s a long time to take to get hooked by book, don’t you think?
Until now, Proust merely has given me breadcrumbs. However, having said that, and based on my trusted friend’s recommendation, I’ve downloaded the second volume, and I’m going to give it another go.