Good news for reluctant readers of Proust. Germaine Greer, feminist icon, author of The Female Eunuch and erstwhile Proust scholar, claims that reading Little Marcel is a waste of time.
“Why do people gush over Proust?” the heading screams. “I’d rather visit a demented relative.” Well, you can always count on Germaine Greer to know how to make an entrance.
In a 2009 blog post for the Guardian, Greer offers words of reassurance to those who’ve never read Proust, suggesting that there are better things to spend one’s time:
If you haven’t read Proust, don’t worry. This lacuna in your cultural development you do not need to fill. On the other hand, if you have read all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, you should be very worried about yourself. As Proust very well knew, reading his work for as long as it takes is temps perdu, time wasted, time that would be better spent visiting a demented relative, meditating, walking the dog or learning ancient Greek.
She pooh-poohs scholars who praise Proust, rebuking him for “his battering of the sentence to rubble and his apparent contempt for the paragraph”. She also takes him to task for his abominable punctuation in the manner of a scary schoolmarm marking an undergraduate’s lousy examination paper:
He relies on commas and semi-colons to do what should be done by full-stops, of which there are far too few, many of them in the wrong place. Sentences run to thousands of words and scores of subordinate clauses, until the reader has no recollection of the main clause or indeed whether there ever was one.
Greer rather loses the plot after the third paragraph (the same can be said of her last few books) and starts a long and rambling discussion about differing translations of Proust. Never losing sight of her target, though, she blames it all on Proust: “The translators’ manifest difficulties stem at first from Proust’s own imprecision, and are then compounded by their ignorance”, she fumes. Alas, poor Marcel – not only were you a rambler and terrible at punctuation, but you’re also responsible for appalling mistranslations made in your name after your own act of authorship has long been completed.
Eventually, Greer runs out of steam (though it reads more as if an sub-editor cut her off). She concludes that the Scott Moncrieff translation, despite containing “all kinds of howlers”, is actually the pleasanter read as it follows Proust’s rhythms more naturally than modern new-fangled translations.
It’s an amusing enough piece, and I suspect not meant to be taken seriously. What’s most interesting is the way in which Germaine rhetorically places herself above the fray, reserving for herself the authority of the academic who has read Proust, while patronising her readers and telling them not to enlighten themselves as she has done. With all due deference to her wit and intelligence, she needs to come up with a more compelling argument not to read Proust other than “it’s long” and “there are lots of commas”. The closest she gets to raising a proper critique of In Search of Lost Time is that “it is damnable in its fake heterosexual voyeurism, and its disparaging and dishonest account of homosexuality.” This may well be true, but it seems overly simplistic to judge a novelist for reflecting the dominant social mores of his time.
The post inspired 131 responses – not bad for a piece of fluff in the Guardian’s arts and culture section. Some readers breathed a sigh of relief and thanked Germaine for the encouragement not to read Proust. Others agreed with her that Proust wasn’t worth the effort (“Proust is literary tripe,” wrote one correspondent. “Masturbatory, superficial and pretentious“). The majority of the comments, though, castigated Germaine for also being masturbatory, superficial and pretentious, and for daring to assume the moral high ground. My favourite quote comes from a blogger called @DogDay: “So Big G would rather visit a demented relative then read Proust….. fair enough…. But recently I’ve started to suspect that she is starting to turn into the demented relative.”
If I ever get anything published about Proust, I plan to write to Germaine and ask her to contribute a quote for the cover – something like “The worst book on Proust I’ve ever read – and that’s saying something!” or “Utter shit. Don’t read it”. Not being liked by Germaine Greer sounds as though it’s a fairly powerful endorsement for anyone – even Proust.