For anyone (and in this I do not include readers under the age of, let’s say, sixteen) who thinks ploughing their way through seven volumes of Harry Potter is the literary equivalent of running a marathon, I’m afraid I am the bearer of unsettling tidings: it is not; it is a mere sixty metre dash. Having turned the final page of volume one of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and, more importantly, absorbed most of its complex emotional, philosophical and descriptive ideas, I feel that I can confidently say that finishing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with a view to going on to read the other six in the series bears no comparison to the Herculean task I am now anticipating of completing all six of Proust’s masterpiece.
This is not to deny the pleasure I had in reading all of Harry Potter. Twice.
J K Rowling tells a great story, with involved plot lines reaching far beyond the scope of the books themselves. Her characters are brilliantly drawn and she knows the value of a good hook. Reading them, I never felt lost; I was always aware of what was happening and of its importance to the story, whilst never losing sight of what had already happened and of its importance to the story. I imagine juggling the different threads of her plot and dropping the balls: I’m confident that I would be able to pick them up and begin juggling again without having lost the, er, plot.
I did not experience this degree of confidence whilst reading Swann’s Way. This was more akin to starting out on a river journey, hoping the current will take you from source to sea by the easiest route possible, only to find that you enter eddy after eddy, spilling over tricky weirs and becoming lost along uncharted tributaries whilst every so often discovering that you’ve somehow paddled back upstream, but a different stream to the one you were on, with little hope of remembering the way back. To say I felt I needed my wits about me reading Proust is an understatement. Next time I’m making notes.
Notwithstanding the concentration required to read and follow the novel, it has been a positive experience.
I revelled in Proust’s detail: here is a writer who doesn’t stop until he is sure that you understand exactly what his characters are feeling. If this means going off on a descriptive five page tangent (those tributaries are legion) containing the most intricate and well-observed details possible, then so be it.
I marvelled at his use of language: even in translation Proust’s writing is masterful. Despite the long passages of description I never felt that he wastes words; he just uses as many as he sees fit to get across an idea and is unapologetic about it.
Finally, I relished just having the opportunity to read something so entirely different from anything else I’ve read before. It’s wonderful that it exists at all; would anything similar even make it to a publisher today? Perhaps in France. If Proust were alive today he’d still be invited onto French prime time TV to discuss his ideas. In this country he’d certainly be invited on to prime time TV, but only to compete in a celebrity baking competition, (and no prizes for guessing what Marcel would be baking. Did someone say Madeleine?).
I’m now taking a break from Proust before embarking on volume two, and am using Trollope to recharge my reading batteries. There’s nothing like a dose of Trollope’s mid-Victorian scheming to remind you how much fun reading can be; and after Proust, even Trollope whips along like a racy airport paperback.