Monday, December 19, 2011

Aimless Reading: The P's, Part 44 (Marcel Proust)

Swann's Way
Proust, Marcel
Swann's Way

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

For many people, the discovery phase of reading ends at some point between the ages of 12 and 21. All who love to read can recall the experience of picking up a book that permanently altered something within their psyches and sent them, like an addict after his first sniff of cocaine, on a permanent hunt after that first contact. 

Unlike a cocaine high, the first pleasures of reading are in fact recoverable. Each book being its own kind of intoxicant, and their number and variety being practically infinite, the book addict can keep getting her fix throughout life. However, there is usually only a short window in adolescence when our minds are soft enough and our emotions wild and chaotic enough for us to have life-altering experiences with books. Most of us stop taking literature seriously after college anyhow. 


Unless, of course, one happens upon a book whose feelings and ideas remain so sharp as to be able to penetrate the leather hide of the adult psyche to the quick of those buried adolescent passions, making psychic change not once again possible. 


Such, anyhow, was my experience of reading Proust in my late thirties. 


I'd read a review of this translation by Lydia Davis, and for a year or two after reading it the book kept jumping out at me every time I visited the bookstore. It felt like a challenge, in the same way that reading Joyce or Woolf or Eliot or Pound had felt like a challenge when I was in college.

I had more or less stopped reading fiction for the better part of a decade. During graduate school I read poetry and theory. Towards the end I became interested in history, and I continued reading quite a bit of it after leaving school. 
One day I picked this up and started reading. It was autumn. Suddenly I felt the same kind of awakening I'd felt when I was a teen reading J.D. Salinger or as an undergraduate reading Robert Creeley.

Initially I thought it was just a reawakening of my senses, long numbed to gauche pleasures such as character, setting, plot and so forth by the rigorous textual analysis demanded by graduate study. 
But as I spent the better part of the next six months reading through the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, I began to feel that things inside my head were actually changing, that my experience of the world from that point on was going to be different...

Ok, I have to get to work, so I'll continue this tomorrow...

from Swann's Way

For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: “I’m falling asleep.” And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflec-tions on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This belief lived on for a few seconds after my waking; it did not shock my reason but lay heavy like scales on my eyes and kept them from realizing that the candlestick was no longer lit. Then it began to grow unintelligible to me, as after metempsychosis do the thoughts of an earlier existence; the subject of the book detached itself from me, I was free to apply myself to it or not; immediately I recovered my sight and I was amazed to find a darkness around me soft and restful for my eyes, but perhaps even more so for my mind, to which it appeared a thing without cause, incomprehensible, a thing truly dark. I would ask myself what time it might be; I could hear the whistling of the trains which, remote or nearby, like the singing of a bird in a forest, plotting the distances, described to me the extent of the deserted countryside where the traveler hastens toward the nearest station; and the little road he is following will be engraved on his memory by the excitement he owes to new places, to unaccustomed ctivities, to the recent conversation and the farewells under the unfamiliar lamp that follow him still through the silence of the night, to the imminent sweetness of his return.

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