Du Cote de Chez Greer

Germaine Greer had a go at Proust in an article in the Guardian over the weekend. Briefly, anyone tempted to read A La Recherche du Temps Perdu should get a life and find something better to do. Greer suggests “visiting a demented relative, walking the dog, meditating, or learning ancient Greek”.  She has a lot of fun at the expense of his various translators but finally comes down on the side of CK Scott-Moncrieff who wrote the version I read when I was 23. (Or rather when I was 23, 24 and 25).  There were 12 volumes in the Chatto and Windus edition and I can still remember sitting down to Chapter 1 of Swann’s Way and reading “For a long time I used to go to bed early…” The end was 1.25 million words away. I lived with it for over two years, a continuous rolling narrative running on in the background while I read other things, lived in different places, and began to think it was normal for sentences to run on for four or five pages in mountains of subordinate clauses. Stylistically Proust is a truly dreadful model for anyone with literary ambitions.  But I can honestly say it was A La Recherche more than any other book that turned me into a writer. I began it as a reader curious to know what all the fuss was about. Two years later I reached the end and found in the eccentric binding of the Chatto edition page after blank page. I turned these empty sheets with mounting excitement in what felt like an unmistakable invitation.  The last volume, Time Regained, is Proust’s justification for everything that has gone before and a statement of his artistic credo. I evidently finished it on the 20th January because on the last page I’d written the date – 20/1/77. Thirty two years later I can still quote embarrassing amounts of this stuff.  (“An instinct religiously listened to amid a silence imposed on all other voices”. ) But it wasn’t these writerly epigrams that made the biggest impression. What genuinely shocked me about Proust was his reaction to the continually unrolling kaleidoscope of  thoughts, feelings and impressions that made up his inner life. He didn’t just acknowledge them, he took them seriously. This inner world wasn’t just real, or a subject worthy of attention but in his words “the most real of all things”.  It was as if in this single act he’d validated my existence.   I doubt I could have got that from walking the dog.

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