A Year of Proust

In which I embark on a grand project, to read and blog about Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in its entirety over the course of a year. 

Willkommen, bienvenue...

Today is my 39th birthday. What finer a moment to first dip into a volume of Proust?

In the spirit of wild over-optimism that often besets people on their birthdays, I’ve made (or, more accurately, exhumed) a few resolutions – mostly to do with reading more, writing more, exercising more, eating more healthily, and spending more time dating and less time trawling through internet chat rooms. Like new year’s resolutions, I’m unsure whether many or any of them will be kept – though as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, no doubt in between a round of martinis, “To travel hopefully is better to arrive”.

For many years, I’ve nurtured a plan to read and blog my way through Proust’s In Search of Lost Time over the course of a year. I first had the idea in 2007, shortly after I turned 32. I bought all six volumes of the new Penguin translation, and set up an earlier version of this blog to track my progress. Though I enjoyed the blogging, I never actually got around to reading Proust – I managed about ten or so pages of Volume 1 The Way By Swann’s before I, unlike the narrator, fell fast asleep.

After a few desultory weeks, I realised that writing a blog about why I wasn’t reading Proust was going to be difficult to sustain and of minimal interest to anyone else, and so abandoned the project. I returned the six volumes of Proust to my bookshelf, where they still glower at me occasionally, taunting me with the reminder of another unfinished project.

Life has changed considerably in the last seven years – I’ve fallen in and out of love, undergone psychoanalysis for six fulfilling years, being mugged on my front doorstep, and embarked, after much if-ing and but-ting, on a regular routine of creative writing. As I approach my fortieth year, the time feels right to finally tackle Proust.

I’m interested in what it would be like to read a very long novel about memory and the recovery of lost memories written in a pre-digital world, viewed through the prism of our own post-Internet age. Unlike Proust, our lives are continually recorded and mediated by technology, and documentary evidence of our past can be summoned instantly on a computer or mobile phone. Our concept of time has been sped up, perhaps irreparably, and monetarised. My life is a continual negotiation with time, as I work to fit myself within pre-ordained time deadlines – hours of employment, train timetables, billing due dates, and work requirements to account for every six minutes of my time. Given the shape and structure of my life, which feels typical of most people living in the developed world, what, if anything, would Proust’s lengthy and contemplative book about time and memory have to say to me? Would it be as the original English translation of Proust had it, a “remembrance of things past”? Or would it prove to be a guidebook for how to go “in search of lost time”, the time that feels ever more fleeting now that I am nearing middle age?

I’m also drawn to Proust because he remains the single biggest hole in my reading. I’ve done an English degree and read a thing or two, but the older I get and the more that I read, the more I realise that he’s one of the major pillars of Western literature. Writers I admire have been inspired by him and refer to him in ways I can’t understand, which prompts me to read him to find out what the fuss is about.

Elsewhere, my reading leads me back again and again to Proust, simply because he writes – with great wit and perception, apparently – about topics that I’m interested in. I have a fetish for Paris, especially in the days of the Belle Époque and the pre- and post-WWI period, when it became the capital of experimental art and culture – a world that Proust was immersed in and writes about extensively.

I’m also interested in how the past informs the present and how the repressed desires and neuroses of a writer can find creative outlet in literary fiction. Proust is one of a loose group of late-19th century/early 20th century gay writers – Oscar Wilde, E M Forster, Henry James, Andre Gide are others – who occupy an intriguing place in the history of gay consciousness. Each of them were, to a greater or lesser degree, sexually repressed, or at least required to be cautious. (Of the group, Wilde was the most daring and risk-averse in his sexuality, an attitude for which he was severely punished when he was imprisoned for homosexual offences).

This need to stay closeted, coupled with their writerly curiosity about their own identities and a wish to write about the truth of their lives, created an ornate kind of literary style that I like to call “Gay Baroque”. The writing is invariably elegant and carefully constructed, the narrative style ironic and detached, and the narration focuses on minute details of (and occasional transgressions of) social behaviours. As Colm Tóibín writes in his study Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives From Wilde to Almodovar, writers of this period betray conflicting tendencies of concealment and display – perfectly mirroring the confused consciousness of closeted gay men who must signal their desires with a combination of caution and clarity.

Proust stands at the epicentre of this kind of writing. Sedgwick writes in The Epistemology of the Closet that despite the passage of time, In Search of Lost Time “has remained into the present the most vital centre of the energies of gay literary high culture, as well as of many manifestations of high literary modern culture in general.” It’s time for me to explore the inside of Proust’s closet door, and see what hidden treasures and insights he has for understanding gay sensibility.

As usual, I have no idea how I’m going to undertake the project, how successful I’ll be, or whether I’ll need to summon help. Such a large book may benefit from finding some kind of literary community with whom I can read and discuss it.  What’s clear to me now is that this year is the right time. 2014-15 will be My Year of Proust.

For those who like Tweeting, you can follow me at @myyearofproust.

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