Why We Need to Talk about Books 3: The Proust Club

Proust Just a month ago a quiet, shy young woman employee I encounter every Thursday morning at the University Book Store in Seattle was suddenly animated and talkative, with a lot to say. In fact, Jodie Vinson had been waiting to ambush me. The reason: she knew I had read Remembrance of Things Past twice, that I was a devout Proust fanatic, and she had just plunged into Swann’s Way and was in a state of ecstasy.

She needed to talk about it.

So do we all, especially when we’re reading Proust. His multi-volume masterpiece is a novel that changes the very way we think about our lives, not to mention the way we think about fiction. You may not recognize it by name anymore because it’s recently undergone a name change. Its new title is In Search of Lost Time. But more often than not, it’s just called “reading Proust.”

This life-changing, mind-expanding roman-fleuve (“river-novel”) by turn-of-the-century French author Marcel Proust is much, much more than plot and characters, though it definitely has those in spades. It’s a whole different way of perceiving life. No one who finishes reading it ever looks the same at time, memory or other people. Is she faithful? Is she cheating? In Proust, as in life, you never know anything for sure.

Proust believes that life is a constant wading through errors of perception, and so is his novel. Again and again in this 3000-page river of a novel the reader sees incorrectly, interprets the action erroneously, comes to the wrong conclusion, because as readers we’re trapped inside just one point of view – Marcel’s. Out of the people in his own time and social circle Proust manufactured a mythology of larger-than-life characters who are endlessly intriguing because they’re unresolved puzzles, never what they seem, and their social interactions are a labyrinth of misunderstandings.

It’s not always easy going.

So it doesn’t hurt to have a Proust-loving pal nearby to encourage you when you hit a long, difficult passage, to tell you about the real pieces of music that inspired Vinteiul’s sonata, to show you photos of the real Duchess of Guermantes, to tell you that the character of Albertine was based on Proust’s male chauffeur, to introduce you to Stephane Heuet’s brilliant comic book adaptations, or encourage you to watch Raoul Ruiz’s masterpiece film, Time Regained.

Jodie is currently in a Ulysses club, reading that other hefty tome and discussing it bi-weekly over ales with eight others under the guidance of fellow University Book Store employee, Jacob Burd. And because of Jodie’s daily epiphanies and enthusiasm, and since Jacob loves Proust as much as Joyce, the staff of University Book Store have decided to take the challenge as a group. Starting with a public kick-off Proust Party on January 25, Jodie and Jacob in General Books will be helming folks from all over the store and city on a literary adventure that will turn out – for the hearty few who actually have the muscle to finish the journey – to be the most mind-bending intellectual reading experience of their lives.

If you live in the Seattle area, you should take the plunge. You only live once. Make a commitment to a masterpiece, with a support group behind you.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

1 Comment on "Why We Need to Talk about Books 3: The Proust Club"

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  1. Bill says:

    New Proust readers might enjoy Phyllis Rose’s memoir, The Year of Reading Proust, in which she describes her successful attempt to overcome a serious aversion to the author. A fascinating book on its own–and good therapy for those who just haven’t been able to make themselves get into Proust.

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