Having started this book maybe four or five times over the last three years or so, and indeed having firmly concluded that it was not for me, I let myself be persuaded by Clive James' to make one last effort to get past the point at which I usually stalled. That being where the young Marcel is waiting in anguish for his mother to come and kiss him a last goodnight. My difficulty was not just the immense effort required to unpack and assimilate each rambling, labyrinthine sentence. No one enjoys an exquisitely deconstructed stream of consciousness novel more than I do. But when the inner life of the subject is so constrained by the prurient, bourgeois conventions of Proust's times I find that a cloying sense of claustrophobia accumulates in my chest and throat as I read, such that I must put the book aside every few paragraphs to breathe freely again. Even having built up sufficient momentum to break through into the main body of the book and complete it, I cannot say that these sensations have dissipated. I have rather had to accept that this neurotic unease is one of the defining parameters of the reading experience, but one whose discomfort I now recognise is compensated for by Proust's extraordinary power to evoke a corresponding stream of resonant recollection within the reader. Reading Proust there are times when one finds ones locus of awareness suddenly split. One is simultaneously the reader of Proust, and also the reader of the meta-novel, which is the stream of conscious recollection of a fabulously dense associative network of episodes from the reader's own life, that has been activated by his reading of Proust.
One may read some novels to take pleasure in the author's facility with language, or one might admire an author for their psychological perspicacity and wisdom. But I would say that the highest expression of the novelistic art is in the conjunction of these dimensions. But there can be few examples of their being so perfectly fused as the scalpel like prose with which Proust dissects the flux of human consciousness with near atomic precision. I would observe that this is not true stream of consciousness, where thoughts are typically left incomplete, and some measure of randomness inevitably pervades their association. Efforts to pin down this kind of realistic consciousness have been notably made by the likes of Joyce or Pynchon. But Proust's stream of consciousness is that of an ideally beautiful mind, where each lapidary thought is completed, tied off and labelled with an exquisitely apt metaphor or simile, and successive thoughts are assembled into a genuinely coherent stream. The difference is somewhat akin to that between rough, fractured granite and pebbles washed smooth by millennia upon a beach.
This first instalment breaks broadly into two halves; the first an examination of the childhood recollections of Marcel himself, while the second describes the falling in love of Swann, an adult acquaintance of Marcel's, and its barely perceptible souring into jealousy and finally indifference. Both are poignant; the first for its charming innocence, the second for its unflinchingly meticulous examination of the capacity for self-deception in even the most assured and capable of people. Both will evoke unavoidable resonances in the readers own life, the latter perhaps less comfortably than the former. Proust's humanistic wisdom is demonstrated in the fact that, despite his unerring eye for the frailty and weaknesses to which we are all prone, he casts no blame and invites only sympathy from the reader.
The next book in the sequence In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (In Search of Lost Time Vol. 2): In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower Vol 2 has arrived today and sits beside me on the desk while I write. I cannot say that I am looking forward to it with entirely unalloyed pleasure. The hint of stifling pressure builds in my throat just to contemplate it. But alongside it, and slightly more compelling is the electrical tingle in the roof of my mouth that is the sublimated appetite to return once more into Marcel's gentle and luminous world. A world that for both better and worse is gone forever, but which thanks to Proust we can experience in our own day, with the same vividness as when we slow our thoughts and open our senses to our own.