The Proustometer!

page 3294 (done)
My trip through Marcel Proust's mammoth novel, Remembrance of Things Past, is completed now, so the Proustometer monitoring my progress, pictured to the left (graphics courtesy of Steph), is perhaps not as interesting as it used to be. My progress reports remain, however.

It was a hell of a read. Given that the thing is 3300 pages long, you probably don't need any convincing regarding Proust's longwindedness, but I will give one example. Probably the one thing you know about Remembrance of Things Past is that it starts by the narrator dipping a madeleine in some tea and suddenly starting to remember his childhood. Well, it turns out he doesn't even get to that until page 50.

By the way, Proustometer is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable. Because I said so, that's why.

Reports indexed by page number: 0 / 204 / 342 / 494 / 1854 / 2143 / 2303 / 2620 / 3294

28 June 1998
page 0
Why am I reading a 3000+ page novel? Well, it is one of the classic works of fiction of all time, so I always figured I would get around to it someday. Why not now?

One of my favorite authors, Alain de Botton, came out with a book last year called How Proust Can Change Your Life, which I haven't read, but its presence has given a boost to my Proust-consciousness. What put me over the top was looking at the customer comments at Amazon; every person gave it five stars. If it really is that good, then what am I waiting for?

1 July 1998
page 204
Well, I'll tell you what, the man knows how to digress. He'll start talking about the countryside around this French village Combray, then mention how he and his family used to take a couple of different walking routes through it, then mention someone they met on one of those walks, then mention the town gossip about that person, then go off for a while psychoanalyzing the general class of people this person belongs to. Then he'll wrap that up, finish talking about the gossip, finish the description of the person, describe how this particular walking route ended (all with other digressions along the way), and then say "Oh, and about the other route we used to take"... I am not making this up. I just finished the first chapter and it turns out it's one big 150-page long digression; at the end of it, he's finally emptied his stack and sums it up by saying "Hoo boy, yeah, that madeleine, I tell ya, sure brings back those memories. Well, okay, let's start the actual story." Not in those words, of course. I'll get to the words later.

But they're great digressions. Every couple of pages he makes some penetrating insight that makes you put down the book for a couple of minutes to digest it. Which is not increasing my reading speed. He spends some time talking about a young woman who's treated her father awfully, and summing up her problems, says

It was not evil that gave her the idea of pleasure, that seemed to her attractive; it was pleasure, rather, that seemed evil.
Which I thought just nailed it. Still no plot as of yet, though.

4 July 1998
page 342
We have achieved plot. Though the plot so far could be summed up in a few sentences, and plot doesn't really seem to be the point of the book; despite which it's a hard book to put down. This is really good writing, and not as difficult a read as I had feared. Of course, I'm only 10% of the way through it.

Surprisingly, none of the characters yet are very sympathetic. The action takes place in the upper classes of late 19th century France, and everyone is always trying to impress everyone else within earshot (while putting down everyone out of earshot). You have to give the narrator some credit for being so descriptive and perspicacious, but so far he's sort of hard to take seriously, being such the sensitive sort (he spends 50 pages describing, without embarrassment, how as a child he couldn't fall asleep without a goodnight kiss from his beautiful Mamma). Swann is about the most sympathetic character so far, but despite being a man of taste who generally has the right ideas about things, he's in an awful relationship with a stupid and shallow woman (Odette) and can't bring himself to realize that it's destroying him, which makes you want to just slap him. It would be one thing if she had any redeeming qualities, but if she does, I can't see them.

It is driving me nuts that Mme Verdurin will go to her grave not realizing that she's a total loser. I so want her to get her comeuppance, but even if she did, she wouldn't realize it. Loser!

8 July 1998
page 494
Here's another good quote:
"I do feel it's absurd that a man of his intelligence should let himself suffer for a woman of that sort, and one who isn't even interesting, for they tell me she's an absolute idiot!" she added with the wisdom invariably shown by people who, not being in love themselves, feel that a clever man should only be unhappy about a person who is worth his while; which is rather like being astonished that anyone should condescend to die of cholera at the bidding of so insignificant a creature as the comma bacillus.

It can be a little uncomfortable to read spot-on observations about falling in love with someone who your rational mind knows isn't right for you, since we've all been guilty of that mistake and thus feel our own bad decisions critiqued and expertly dissected. But I don't mean to compare any of my ex-girlfriends to Odette! I haven't been able to find any positive character traits in her yet. This chapter is about her, so I'll let you know if I discover any.

I'm now in the second book (of seven). We're back to first-person narration again, which I think doesn't work quite as well as the more third-person narration of the Swann section, partially because the narrator is an oversensitive child (and it looks like he's going to become an oversensitive adult). I have been told that the end of the novel isn't as good as the beginning. Just what I needed to hear!

28 October 1998
page 1854
I haven't written any progress reports in months! Although obviously I have been making progress. I've slowed down a lot, as there are lots of other things taking up time in my life, but I'm still reading this when I can, and enjoying it greatly. I'm past the halfway point, so I'm pretty sure I have the stamina to make it to the end.

Some changes in my attitudes over the last few months: for one thing, there really is a plot, and it's pretty interesting. I'm enjoying watching various people rise and fall in this aristocratic society. Also, I've found that the writing style isn't really so hard to read, once you get used to it. Sometimes I do get to the end of a half-page-long sentence and decide it isn't really worth it to go back and spend the time to really understand exactly what he means, but in general I haven't found it to be extraordinarily difficult reading.

A couple more quotes from my recent reading:

Like everybody who is not in love, he imagined that one chooses the person one loves after endless deliberation and on the strength of diverse qualities and advantages.
People who laugh so heartily at what they themselves have said, when it is not funny, dispense us accordingly, by taking upon themselves the responsibility for the mirth, from joining in it.
These occurred a scant seven pages from each other, to give you an idea of the density of pithy observations of human nature to be found here.

17 November 1998
page 2143
The title of the current book is Sodom et Gomorrhe (rather prudishly translated as Cities of the Plain), and as you might guess, its main subject is homosexuality (or "inversion", as it's called here), just as the recurring subject of the last book, The Guermantes Way, was the Dreyfus case. It's not portrayed in a particularly flattering light, which is interesting given the fact that Proust himself was gay. The main gay character is quite the caricature, though strangely sympathetic.

In fact, Proust excels at creating characters who are obnoxious caricatures at first glance, and then, by exploring their own feelings and rationales, making them more sympathetic. For example, Mme Verdurin is back, and as much of a loser as ever, but I understand why she is the way she is, and it makes it more difficult to outright hate her; I guess my attitude is now closer to pity. But she's still a loser!

24 November 1998
page 2303
Fewer than a thousand pages to go! Yes, sometimes I'm more excited by how close I'm getting to the end than by the book itself, and right now is one of those times. We've reached a lull in the plot, and we're in the middle of a stretch (a hundred pages and counting) consisting mostly of the narrator obsessing over his tainted love for Albertine.

It's actually getting a little infuriating. He's acting like a jerk, seems to realize it, but doesn't seem to feel any particular remorse. It's rather hard to feel much sympathy for him right now. Hopefully, soon either he'll start acting better, or he'll describe his thoughts well enough that I'll develop a bit more sympathy for him.

9 December 1998
page 2620
Man, dude needs to get a grip. Our narrator is in the middle of one of those 'I only love her when I think she doesn't love me any more' states. So we've now been through a few cycles of him deciding he's about to leave her, then getting clues that maybe she's going to leave him, and then frantically trying to earn her love back. By doing things like buying her a Rolls-Royce and a yacht. Yes, really. Sample quote:
I felt that my life with Albertine was on the one hand, when I was not jealous, nothing but boredom, and on the other hand, when I was jealous, nothing but pain.
I should probably be more sympathetic with the guy, but really, he needs nothing so much as a slap in the face. Which I guess he just got; she just took off on him. This would make me happy if I didn't have the sick feeling that he's going to spend the next two hundred pages chasing after her. Arrgh!

24 December 1998
page 3294 (done)
Well, that was quite something. I certainly don't regret spending six months of my life on it, and I'm sure there aren't many books you could say that of.

Marcel's affair with Albertine came to a surprising end, and it took him a couple hundred pages to get over it. But the last book (Time Regained) went by quite fast. The end was actually quite inspiring (at the age of 40+, Marcel finally gets off his butt and starts writing his novel), and certainly it inspired me to spend more time trying to finish up some of my creative work.

What more can I say? It was a great, great book. Go read it yourself.

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Last updated 28 December 1998