Field Notes

"EVERYONE IS READING PROUST," Virginia Woolf once wrote. "It seems to be a tremendous experience." How right she was!

Consider Alain de Botton. He read Proust, and he discovered that À la recherche du temps perdu was "a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting time and start to appreciate life." De Botton learned that the secret to long-lasting relationships is the threat of infidelity, that friends should be flattered shamelessly since meaningful dialogue with them is impossible, and that paranoid jealousy is best regarded as an opportunity to learn more about your lover. He even discovered that literary criticism confines the soul: Proust, it turns out, nearly became a Ruskin scholar, but thankfully he nixed an academic career in order to spend some fourteen years in bed writing his seven-volume novel. "To make [reading] into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement," Proust wrote.

An incited de Botton dodged the trap of Proust scholarship and wrote the charming How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (Pantheon, 1997). Not only was the book well reviewed in major newspapers around the world, but when de Botton left his email address on the book’s Web page, a complete stranger wrote to him…and later became his girlfriend!

Consider the Marcel Proust Support Group. Its members read Proust, and yet these San Franciscans are not your grandfather’s Proust fans. These women and men ride motorcycles, tour the sewers of Oakland, brew absinthe at home, sword-fight on rooftops, binge on aquavit, and have "tremendous respect for firearms." They frightened de Botton when they attended a bookstore signing he gave in Marin County. "Extremely tough and dangerous-looking creatures" he called them. Every November, the Marcel Proust Support Group holds an invite-only memorial wake for Proust in the John Wickett Museum of Exotica, where a Proust impersonator lies in state, moustachioed and tuxedoed in his coffin, then rises from the dead for an interview and perhaps some cream cheese with crushed strawberries.

And within the Marcel Proust Support Group, consider P Segal. She read Proust, and although Proust affected everyone in the support group deeply, Segal describes herself as "the most altered" by the experience. Segal is a caterer and freelance journalist who, like Proust, "knew at an early age that I wanted to be a writer." After André Gide and others rejected him, Proust printed the first volume of À la recherche at his own expense–and this fact incited Miss P (as Segal signs herself) to write, edit, and self-publish Proust Said That, a fanzine at least as charming as de Botton’s book. Available at, the "utterly unacademic" ’zine offers recipes for coffee éclairs and fried sole, a liberal supply of Proust quotes, assessments of the extant English translations, a chronicle of the Marcel Proust Support Group’s antics, and Miss P’s ongoing though discreet autobiography. Proust Said That won Miss P so many fans and so much support that this spring she will realize a lifelong dream: a literary coffeehouse in San Francisco’s Western Addition. The decor of Caffé Proust, Miss P reports, will be "Bohemian-surrealist-Belle-Époque."


To beginner Proustians, Miss P advises that the first two hundred pages are the hardest. The story heats up after that, when "you start getting into the really sick stuff, like jealousy." But for those daunted by those two hundred pages, or by the four thousand one hundred and forty-seven that follow, consider Stéphane Heuet. He read Proust–fourteen times!–and now this French advertising executive is adapting and drawing À la recherche as a comic book. IT IS MARCEL WHO IS ASSASSINATED complained Le Figaro. But despite this frumpy disapproval, Heuet’s first volume, Combray (Delcourt, 1998), sold out its first printing and went into a second. The adaptation is pretty faithful. It’s in French, and there are no animal sidekicks. Young Marcel looks like Tintin in a black wig, Aunt Léonie looks like the old lady who befriended Babar, and Françoise resembles the Good Soldier Schweik. Heuet’s style is clean and winsome, which is somewhat incongruous for the portrayal of, say, Marcel’s sadistic lesbian neighbor.

Fans of Babar probably should not consider Phyllis Rose. She read Proust, and he filled her, a biographer and Wesleyan professor, with so much insight that she felt as though she had been given "a free subscription to some hitherto locked-out cable channel." Proust, it seems, licensed her to write The Year of Reading Proust (Scribner, 1997), a memoir about her TV-watching habits, the unhappy childhood that her parents denied her, her dinner party for Salman Rushdie, and her rudeness to the landlords of her Key West vacation home. She also wrote about stealing a friend’s husband, the son of Babar’s creator, away from his wife. This wife in turn had a friend, the writer Edmund White, who has kept his distance from Rose ever since–a social punishment that Rose finds "tiresome and painful."

But consider Edmund White himself. He read Proust, and he wrote a trim, witty biography of the novelist for the new Penguin Lives series. This biography is so gay that at one point White has to stipulate that Walter Benjamin was heterosexual.

And consider Malcolm Bowie. This Oxford professor read Proust, visited the French towns that Proust wrote about, and began to worry that his memory of the book would degrade into a "non-reading knowledge of the novel, a Proust of tea-parties and table-talk, of selected short quotations and haunting images that had long ago drifted free of their original textual moorings." This noble fear spurred Bowie to write his own para-Proustian contribution, the genteel and meditative Proust Among the Stars (Columbia, 1998).

And consider André Aciman. He read Proust, and he wrote an article for The New Yorker about visiting Proust’s childhood hometown, an unlikely but increasingly popular tourist destination–"a dull, cloying, humdrum, wintry, ashen town, where the soul could easily choke." Aciman plans to write about Proust in not one but two books: a travel memoir and another book about eleven scenes from À la recherche.


Are you convinced yet? Do you crave what Bowie calls an "insolently protracted exercise in word-magic, a tonic, a restorative for any reader who has gone tired and listless under a late twentieth-century tide of verbal waste-matter"? Do you long to reconcile yourself to the damage and sorrow caused by having always had your way as a child? Do you want for no one to expect you to have read anything else for a year or for as long as it takes? Do you want to read the one book that no teacher–not in high school, not in college–ever dared ask you to read in its entirety?

Yes, it’s long. Even the sentences are long. According to de Botton, Proust’s longest sentence concerns a sofa. However, Boston University English professor Roger Shattuck, writing in The New York Review of Books, has alleged that Proust’s longest sentence concerns the unhappiness of homosexuals. Lingua Franca must report that Proust was indeed more voluble about frustrated homosexuals than about furniture, by 944 to 443 English-language words. ("I confess to not having checked the whole work myself," de Botton admitted when confronted with this evidence. "What a vexing problem." White reports that Proust donated some of his parents’ furniture to a male brothel, a fact that may help to redeem the disparity.)

Remember, in our culture, length impresses people. And Proust’s novel could be longer. As Shattuck recently lamented, the most recent authoritative French edition, the 1987-1989 Pléiade, bloats the text by seven thousand words by printing Proust’s esquisses (rough drafts). "Is there someone somewhere who believes that this elephantiasis is appropriate to Proust’s novel?" Shattuck demanded, in his call for a Pléiade boycott. (For those who found Proust cumbersome even before the bloating, Shattuck offered in a footnote to his 1974 book on Proust a list of chapters that would give the gist of the novel in one-third the page count.) Happily, no English translation prints the esquisses. Even the eagerly awaited new Penguin translation–a team project, with a different translator for each volume, under the general editorship of Cambridge University’s Christopher Prendergast–will omit them.

The Penguin translation is scheduled for 2001. The Modern Library now has a complete translation available in paperback. Heuet releases his comic book’s volume 2 in August. A nine-hundred-plus-page biography by Jean-Yves Tadié, France’s dean of Proust studies, will arrive in America in April 2000.

Proust–now more than ever. His novel isn’t getting any shorter, and you aren’t getting any younger.


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