Attempting to remember my own things past recently, I thought back to first reading the opening overture of Swann’s Way as a teenager on holiday in Ireland. This astounding, swirling, sensuous evocation of the process of recollection unfolds voluptuously to create a mindscape of Marcel. I still haven’t read the whole book, but the opening remains one of my favourite pieces of prose, sonorous and delicious.
It was a revelation to first encounter this book which described how exactly we struggle to tease strands of dreams back into consciousness, how complex is the fabric of our musings and yearnings of nostalgia. And it’s impossible to write about Proust without trying and failing to write like him, sentences coiling and drifting like cigar smoke.
Recently I was on the underground pretentiously carrying over my shoulder the “Proust Society of America” book bag which I bought on a trip to New York for a meeting at the Mercantile Library where that society meets. On the tube a man sitting opposite asked if I’d read Proust, then told me that since his retirement he’d read the whole thing six times but never met anyone else who had even dipped in. He’d heard of the New York group, but found nothing like it in London. When I posted this news on the if:book blog (www.futureofthebook.org/blog), I soon heard from a London-based Proust Close Reading Group. It’s good to know that the Web connects Lost Time lovers too, because I’ve just been listening to another pundit sounding off on Radio 4 about the limited attention span of the digital generation. Of course my frenetic, twittering, mashed up excuse for a brain may find it hard to marshal a rational counter argument, but I believe that attending, Proust-like, to how exactly the mind works as it multi-tasks and clicks through layers to uncover depths beneath will surely be more fruitful than indulging in the same old moral panic about what’s newly new. There’s a magic about the transliterate way people read the world in the 21st Century, and we need a Marcel to document the texture and quality of that engagement.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was a French writer, best known for Remembrance of Things Past.