IN SEARCH OF LOST PROUST

I’ll just come straight out and admit it: I am reading À la recherche du temps perdu in honour of the French Presidency of the EU (I began it in another French Presidency, but that’s another story). Several colleagues whose French is better than mine say they find it “heavy-going”. Since I can’t quite bear to say “Au contraire!” I tend to reply “Then I must be a very superficial reader.” I suspect this is true, but I get such pleasure from it nonetheless.

If you read Proust for meaning, or for the story, it must be very hard work. But if you tend to surf prose, inhabit textures, find your mind wandering on tangents, then fear not: you will find yourself satisfyingly building and juxtaposing layers of different individuals’ perceptions of the same communications about the same events. This is what interpreters do, and is part of much great literature, if not at the heart of it.

If your mind works like this, then it is refreshing and even relaxing to encounter Proust, and other adepts of errabundia such as Javier Marías… ’Hard work’ for you means retaining information crucial to a plot, and not getting distracted by aesthetic details or tiny misunderstandings which a more business-like author would contemptuously dismiss in order to get on with The Story.

The structure seems so natural that you are not even aware you are reading. You know when the narrator is going to stop to dwell on something, not let something lie, turn it around, look at it from a new angle, through another’s eyes, or from our own perspective but in the past.

There was a moment during yesterday’s run in the woods, as I approached the part-frozen lake, when my thoughts became unbounded, rushing out of the schoolroom at 4pm, intoxicated with freedom, but slowly coalescing into organised groups and activities. Skipping over here, football cards there. The running order for a performance, the strategy for advancing a complex project, it all took shape before my eyes. Was I actually running? I was aware of the rhythm, but not of my feet. Surely this was called flying (or Dad dancing)?

Pages pass (or even entire paragraphs), we flap our wings, leave the ground, examine the terrain, savour the clouds. We even begin to see patterns in those clouds. But the ground is there when we need it, and a new paragraph is somewhere on the horizon. We see cloud-like patterns in our own lives. They are shifting, of course, but so are we– remember before it all happened? More importantly, before we had that conversation? When we misinterpreted that remark.

I appear to have slipped into saying “we”. I think I mean: the narrator.