“On Reading Proust” is a hybrid: except for the incidents at the Y, it is all true. Call it creative non-fiction. Or Proustian.
Our public library sponsors an annual citywide book club called Mission Impossible, so named because only the most impossible-to-read classics are selected. What’s an impossible-to-read classic? One that by reputation is too big, too abstract or too abstruse to comprehend or enjoy. Think Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Or as Mark Twain said, a classic is “a book which people praise and don’t read.” But often these books are wonderfully readable, with the right help, and that is what the library provides in the form of an excellent introductory lecture and subsequent breakout discussion groups led by trained facilitators.
The first year the library made the obvious and preemptive choice: Joyce’s Ulysses. Of the 150 or so people who signed up, about a third actually made it to the end, nine months later. That is a phenomenal batting average as far as I’m concerned, having made it only to page 5. It’s not that the words were hard. It’s just that, with the profusion of styles, literary and geographic allusions and jokes, it was incoherent. I needed a second book to translate the first, and that quickly became tiresome. I remember thinking: if I want to read Joyce, I should be getting college credit.
The next year we read War and Peace, which I loved, notwithstanding the number of characters (some 120!) whose names, nicknames and patronymics made keeping track of so, well… impossible. I actually had to reread the first 600 pages just to get a handle on things. Not a problem! The writing was superb – is there anyone better than Tolstoy at keeping a big story moving? – the characters memorable and the sweep epic. Despite the long and tedious epilogue, in which Tolstoy argued against the “Great Man” theory of history, some of the best sections were about two of the great men of the era, Tsar Alexander and Emperor Napoleon. Needless to say the Tsar cuts a better figure in the book, but even Napoleon has his moments. I loved how, in order to impress the Emperor, a large contingent of Polish “Uhlans” tried to swim across a raging river while he busied himself pretending not to watch. “Some forty Uhlans,” wrote Tolstoy,
“were drowned in the river, though boats were sent to their assistance. The majority struggled back to the bank from which they had started. The colonel and some of his men got across and with difficulty clambered out on the further bank… That evening… Napoleon also gave instructions that the Polish colonel who had needlessly plunged into the river should be enrolled in the Legion d’honneur of which Napoleon was himself the head.”
Last year I would have bet money – call me certain – the selection was going to be Moby Dick. It was time for an American epic that no one reads. Instead, the library put it to a citywide vote and the winner was Flannery O’Connor. Oh great, I thought: so much for democracy. On the basis of one O’Connor story I had read in college, I shuddered at the prospect. I recalled her writing as gothic and her characters chillingly violent. Instead the stories were beautifully written and the characters memorable and unique. Violence was still integral to her work – often sudden and gratuitous – (couldn’t Southerners just “get along”?) but it was amazing reading, anything but impossible.
This year it is Proust. I learned in the opening lecture that it is unnecessary to say which Proust. He only wrote one book, In Remembrance of Things Past, which he worked on most of his career. It is 3,000 pages long, but we were reading only the first two sections: “Swann’s Way” and “Within a Budding Grove,” a mere 851 pages. I was so unfamiliar with Proust I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce his name. Turns out it rhymes with “roost” as in chickens coming home, and not “roust,” as in, hey you, get out.
Modern experts now assert the title should be properly translated as In Search of Lost Time, for reasons I’m sure I can’t explain, but if so, that would render the book small beer to me, like some extended riff on searching for the weekly newsmagazine at the dentist’s office or missing luggage at the airport. When the experts can’t agree on a book’s title, that should be some kind of tipoff.
My wife and I started out taking turns reading to each other and sure enough, once we got into it, we found it was impossible, like breathing particles of feathers in a pillow fight, and about as substantive. Waterboarding would have been preferable. We suffocated in the endless sentences, paragraphs consisting of whole pages with no indent in sight, reeling on and on like an Andy Warhol movie, which were about…nothing, just Proust’s minute descriptions of his childhood home and family. A section of dozens of pages described the trauma of going to bed without a kiss from his mother.
There’s a segment of several hundred words to describe a wink! Life is too short; I’ll go with “blink.” In the first hundred pages I found only one lyrical passage, a beautiful description of light rain (like “a shower of sand”) that was worth pausing to admire: a few words out of twenty or thirty thousand, a speck of dust on the sun.
The larger, introductory group of 150 or so Proustians was divided into smaller, bite-size chunks of 10 or 12 people scheduled to meet bi-monthly to masticate and digest the leviathan, and our section leader was reputed to be a Proustian expert, so at least initially we were encouraged to stay on, just to get the expert’s take on the vast nothingness, like some famous astronomer declaiming on black holes.
A week before our first meeting, I bumped into a friend, a brilliant Jesuit-trained scholar and retired civil servant, at the local YMCA. When I mentioned we were reading Proust (no need to say which Proust) his eyes closed softly, as if he were thinking of some precious inamorata. “Ah yes, Proust” he murmured dreamily, with an accent that suggested he had read it in the original French. “He’s so rich.” But what about the endless and annoyingly pointless digressions, I objected. My friend launched into a fervent defense of the book, homing in on the brilliance of Proust’s psychological insights, that threatened to run on very nearly as long as the book itself. “This is fascinating,” I cut him off. “I think you’re onto something. But I’ve really got to get to the pool” I said, and gestured in the direction of the locker room. “Let’s discuss it over coffee some time.” Rude but not insincere: I figured it was worth an hour and the cost of a latte to hear what someone who seemed to regard the book as a holy object had to say.
While swimming, however, I had an unfortunate accident. At our Y there are two adjacent pools, one warmer than the other and used mostly for swimming lessons and classes. I always try to swim, when there’s an open session, in the warmer pool – swimming in the “cold pool” feels like running naked through an ice storm, and you have to paddle hard to avoid being dunked by the Speedo-wearing set. As I was dreamily breast stroking in the slow lane the lifeguard leaned over and said, “Excuse me sir, you’re going to have to leave. There’s a kids’ group coming in.” I squinted through my goggles and saw a dozen tykes holding their mothers’ hands and tiptoeing tentatively to the edge of the pool.
Rather than get out and walk to the other pool, as we’re supposed to do, I decided to swim through the short, narrow underwater passage that connects the two. It’s for emergency and maintenance use only, but I’m a strong swimmer and enjoy a challenge. I figured this way I wouldn’t have to get out into the cold air and slip-slide my way across a wet floor. Big mistake: the channel narrows and as I swam toward the big pool I could feel myself being sucked along by the current and then, suddenly, pressed in by the walls like a piece of wood in a vise. I wriggled to free myself, but that only wedged me tighter. I have strong lungs and even underwater I could see the lifeguard anxiously scurrying off to get help. So, convinced that all would turn out for the best (and to conserve oxygen) I stopped thrashing around. And then in this brief hiatus, a funny thing happened. I recalled a long-forgotten but similar hapless episode at summer camp, some 50 years before, when in another moment of careless bravado I tried to swim under a wooden dock used to separate younger swimmers from the more advanced ones. But the dock wasn’t as shallow as I thought, its wooden moorings extended down almost to the sand, and I had to keep nose-diving my way deeper and further. I remember, at the bottom, looking up and seeing the underside of the dock, where I knew dozens of campers and lifeguards were padding along, oblivious of my fate, while I, just a few feet below, faced a horrid death. This hesitation only increased my apprehension, and in that momentary long-ago, underwater pause – it was probably only a few seconds, but in my panic seemed much longer – I tripped on another memory, recollections curiously stacking up like the endless multiplying images in a barbershop mirror. Maybe this was what it was like to see your life unfold in a flash the moment before you die.
It was the memory of an incident at junior high school just the month before. The school was named Albert Leonard, after some school administrator or city functionary once of grand importance and now forgotten except for the engraving of his name high above the entrance. It was located in a typical 1950s suburb of leafy, tree-shaded streets and commuter trains snaking into the big city nearby, but not so near that you couldn’t get through at least the sports section and make a dent in the crossword puzzle of the newspaper and then maybe put it down and take a little nap before the ride was over. My father would do this, every afternoon, laying the World Telegram and Sun on his belly as he snoozed and waking just as the train pulled into his station, a feat of timing that always astonished me. I must have been in the seventh grade – I remember it was one of my “bad” school years – because (in this case) I was having trouble making the transition from the Edenic setting of grade school where nothing much was expected of you beyond learning cursive and the alphabet and you could play dodge ball or tag in the school yard for what seemed like the whole day. No, at Albert Leonard teachers were demanding and even sometimes relentless. There were nightly homework assignments, which students were expected to have completed and mastered the next day.
Based on our sixth grade reading scores kids starting at Albert Leonard were placed in three tracks – college prep, vocational and special ed, i.e. the dummy classes. In theory this leveraged and maximized everyone’s potential; in practice it locked every student into an academic and social order as rigid as the Indian caste system. I was a good reader if not a good student, so of course I was relegated to college prep. But I didn’t like it – school had become an academic factory, as far as I was concerned, and like spinach, I wanted none of it. As a result I was quickly singled out as a rebel, a shirker and an underachiever, the preferred term in those benighted days for non-compliant kids. One of my worst tormentors was Mr. Paradise, my inaptly named seventh grade English teacher. He once accused me of trying to fake an oral book review of the Story of the FBI, which, of course was true, but he couldn’t prove it: I could sum up the book just by reviewing the table of contents. When he asked to see the written report I pulled it out of my pocket, folded into little squares, like one of the origami paper games then popular, and proceeded to unfurl it like a flag. That earned another sharp rebuke. I didn’t care, I was used to it. I was reminded of the time, in fourth or fifth grade, when the teacher was explaining percentages, and satisfied she had demonstrated clearly how they worked asked the class who still didn’t get it. A few of us courageous stalwarts raised our hands. She explained it again, something to do with slices of pizza: regardless of the size of the pizza, the percentage didn’t change! I still didn’t get it. I was the last one in the class left with my hand dangling in the air, still not getting it.
I shrugged off these setbacks like the piffle they were. My skin had grown thick on the barbs of adult criticism. I was convinced I was smart enough, no matter what any “authority figure” said. For better or worse, I had, like some precocious turtle, already developed an extra-thick layer of disregard for others and high regard for self. In this I might have been influenced by my father, who supposedly told his high school principal, late in his senior year, that he “wasn’t fit to be the janitor,” and in consequence was disinvited from his own graduation.
Then there were the examples of our culture’s prominent anti-heroes, actors and writers like Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg. Conventional criticism meant nothing to them. Not that I knew who they were, but Eisenhower was president – I knew him, I had actually written a letter to Ike protesting the Cold War and complaining about wasting money on missiles and soldiers when what America really needed were more tennis courts and baseball fields. Amazingly I heard back, though not in a personal letter or even a form letter but a form post card. But that was still unusual enough to get written up in the local paper – and these were the nation’s bland, fat years, when Ike was off playing golf and letting General Motors run the country and it didn’t really matter if you listened up in class (which I did) or completed your homework (which I didn’t).
Unfortunately my mother was president of the PTA and we were duly hauled before the school’s assistant principal so I could be admonished, to her endless embarrassment, for being an underachiever. I adored my mother – she loved to make me laugh and it was clear without her ever saying so that she adored me, unlike whatever signals I’d pick up from my father, ambiguous at best and rarely good – and I felt bad that I was causing her such distress. After all, who likes to see her kid told in so many words he’s going to be a lazy bum and a miserable failure? Not that I cared personally: of the administrator who was lengthily dressing me down I heard hardly a word. I was like the dog in the cartoon that hears its master saying, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, Yippie! Blah, blah, blah, blah!”
No, around then my life revolved around Mickey Mantle and comic books and certainly not isosceles triangles and Julius Caesar, though we read the play in seventh grade and there were some stirring speeches and one interesting mistake I’ve never forgotten: a minor Roman character refers to a chimney. But as the editor pointed out, there were no chimneys in Rome! Now this was cool stuff: a Shakemistake. I can still see the term in the footnote that described the error: anachronism. I liked the way the word looked and how it rolled off your tongue when you said it. When we left the assistant principal’s office my mother made me promise I would never do “that” again, and we both knew what she meant – cause her acute embarrassment. I was certain she didn’t care if I did my homework – I doubted she did her homework when she was a girl – and I dutifully agreed, even though we both knew this was a charade, certain it was that I would cause her embarrassment again and again, not because I was a “bad” kid or dumb, it was just in my nature not to care what other people thought of me – a trait my wife reminds me that I have no business being proud of.
The next day I was sitting in the lunchroom eating a hot dog. I was alone, which was curious because I had friends, but maybe they didn’t have lunch the same period. Like I said, seventh grade was a tough year. At any rate, I was alone, minding my own business, mindlessly chomping away, when a plug of the morsel got stuck in my throat. And not a slight blockage either but a complete jam-up like a tightly stopped cork in a wine bottle. There’s a sequence in one of the Babar stories when a baby elephant – possibly it was Pom – swallows his little rattle and goes pink in the face, and that’s what I stupidly thought of: Babar and Pom. Only there was no little monkey friend like Zephir to reach into my throat and pull the damn thing out. My eyes widened and my skin went cold and clammy. I stood up. I couldn’t say anything. My throat was as knotted and tight as a fist. In a daze I walked into the hallway. I saw the football coach, with whom I had Phys Ed, walking in my direction with a couple of students at his side. He was your typical crew-cutted, rough-hewn lug nut. Coach once ordered one of the kids to toss his dirty jockstrap onto the basketball rim just at the moment when our very straight-laced and elderly principal walked into the gym. Another time we were in the locker room when one of the boys, who later got into trouble for peeping into the girls’ locker room, triumphantly brandished for our wide-eyed delectation a dirty comic book. I remember a crudely drawn spread showing a young woman performing oral sex on a young man, or maybe it was vice versa – I was in the back, and it was hard to see. Everyone was crowding around in feverish excitement craning to get a better look – if only homework was like this! – when I had the presence of mind to look up, because I figured this kind of titillation could not go unnoticed and unpunished – more of a Calvinist than a Jewish sentiment, perhaps – and sure enough, I saw Coach bearing down on us like an oncoming train, some nerdish informer at his side. “Look out,” I cried and we scattered like cockroaches when a light goes on. Amazing the things that come to us. Now Coach was ambling down the hall, acolytes at his side, gesturing and gabbing and presumably dispensing little beads of jockular and footballular wisdom. I ran up to him and waved my arms frantically and made the universal choking sign with my hands frantically swabbing at my throat. If my eyes were any wider they would have popped out of my head and rolled down the hall, like ping-pong balls. “Oh, yeah. Hi Jake,” he waved at me distractedly and continued on his way. I ran into the boys’ room and did the only thing left to me. With one giant exhalation I spit the plug out of my mouth. It flew across the room like a bullet and splatted against the wall, bouncing harmlessly if somewhat sardonically on the floor. “Take that, you stupid punk,” it seemed to say, or maybe just ought to have been saying.
I’d like to report that I learned something important from the Incident of the Plugged Hot Dog. Straighten out! Do your work! Take things more seriously! Alas the only thing I took from the episode was an immediate and ever-after dislike of hot dogs and a neurotic aversion to coughing, my own or anyone else’s. If I am at a concert and someone coughs more than once or twice I will turn and fix the offender with a beady glare like twin lasers that would melt an asteroid.
Just then I felt someone pulling on my ankles and in a moment I was out of the pool. A clutch of people were hovering over me waving a towel in my face. The breeze felt nice. The next week we met for our first Proust class and I must say the discussion leader was terrific and the other classmates enthusiastic and, for the most part, erudite. But I never went back.