It’s an odd experience, reading an undisputed literary master for the first time. Over the years as I’ve embarked on a work by a writer who I have up to that point avoided, (Thackeray, Trollope, Eliot or Proust, for example), I have found it hard to leave my preconceptions about the author or work of fiction at the entrance and simply leap through the door into the fray. Will I find it tedious, too wordy (worse: too worthy), over-complicated or simply disappointing? These preconceived ideas are probably the reason I have so many ‘classics’ gathering dust on the upper reaches of my book shelves in the first place.
However, when I finally reach for one of them, sending its resident motes to find shelter on another author’s work, I invariably find that it’s a more pleasurable read than I was expecting and wish that I’d attempted it sooner.
So it is with Proust. I may only have reached the end of part one of volume one (and haven’t yet purchased volumes two through to six, so have no visual idea of the extent of the task ahead) but already I feel that I’m going to enjoy this experience.
Proust, I have found (in my limited experience at least), is a writer unlike any other. His descriptive passages, which seem to comprise most of every page, are flights of supreme fancy. On reaching the end of each one (and I have at times found it necessary to re-read a sentence two or even three times to check my understanding, or to retrace my steps to the place before a parenthesis started to remind myself what was said several lines before), I find that I am left in no doubt as to what he is trying to say or what his narrator’s view is on a certain subject.
Proust’s famous passage about biting into that Madeleine cake, causing his narrator to recall a time and emotions which he had long forgotten, is wonderful. However, so are the pages which describe the delicate and vulnerable beauty of hawthorn blossom; or the church and its steeple which acts as a towering point of reference for so many feelings; or then again the joy of losing oneself in the pages of a novel (what, do you suppose, was Proust suggesting?).
Amidst so many inventive descriptions though, one in particular stands out for me thus far; so memorable was it in fact, that I took the trouble to make a note of it. It is not Proust’s longest passage, and perhaps not his most intricate, but it appealed to me because it mixes beautiful and poetic language with a touch of knowing humour: this is an observational detail which only Proust could render is such delicate prose. It concerns asparagus, and the very particular effect the eating of this vegetable has on a person:
“but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet – still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed – with an iridescence that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting like one of Shakespeare’s fairies) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.” (Swann’s Way, Volume 1).
I think I fell in love with Proust’s writing at this point. I hope the affair continues for many volumes to come.