Packing, Packing, Packing, and Peter’s Advice

My post this week will be an abbreviated, slightly different version of the usual musings, as I am now fully in the process of packing and getting ready to move to New York on Thursday (!!!). As a result, between runs to Marshall’s to get sheets and renting a U-Haul both my mother and I are terrified to drive into Manhattan, I am admittedly behind on my Proust. So, instead of trying to make some profound connection to my life this week (stay tuned for that once I move!), I’ve decided to take this opportunity to publish a list Nora and I have been meaning to share for several weeks now.

Peter, our beloved Comp. Lit. advisor at Hamilton, and the professor who teaches the Proust class every other year, called me at the start of this project to impart some words of wisdom, encouragement, and warning. He was very excited about our blog, but wanted to make sure we could get through the book together, without missing too much, or falling too far behind. It is his belief, as well as that of many Proust aficionados, that this is a novel one can only really read in a book group or classroom setting, as different sections appeal to different people, a great deal of nuance is implicit in the writing itself, and the sheer length is enough to deter any lone reader.

He is not entirely sure a book group of two will remedy this issue but, knowing how determined (or maybe just stubborn!) we both are, accepted our project, and gave us the following advice:

  • The books are long, parts can be very dull (especially certain party scenes). In a classroom setting, this is not an issue, as there always tends to be at least one student in the group who finds something of interest in a particular scene which everyone else disliked, but may be more slow-going as an individual effort.
  • Proust doesn’t really like anyone, and spends tons of time discussing what people wear, tak about, etc. Get ready for a great deal of description without a lot of action in certain parts.
  • We are allowed to skim sections (especially the party/description scenes), in order to get through the denser areas.
  • Most importantly, we should read the first pages several times, as they are super important, and some critics even think the entire novel is previewed/summed up in these first five or so pages
  • For that same reason, we should read them again when we have finished (so far off it hardly seems possible right now!)
  • Whenever something might seem funny, assume that it is (Proust has very dry humor)
  • Characters keep coming back over the course of the novel—never expect anyone to vanish entirely
  • The summaries at the end of each volume are helpful, but only once you’re done (don’t read them to preview, as they give things away)
  • The character index ( at the back is not helpful at all. it spoils the trajectories of the characters—don’t read!

So with these in mind, we continue to truck along (and, in my case, to truck up to Manhattan, all six volumes in hand!). More updates will come once life is less chaotic! Until then, enjoy the weekend.

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2 comments on “Packing, Packing, Packing, and Peter’s Advice

  1. marimann says:

    Greetings, Proustians~ I just started following your blog a few days ago and have been going back to read your earlier posts; when I got to this one, I had to stop to comment. I must respectfully disagree with your professor on a couple of points: 1) that Proust can only really be read in a group. I am in my 2nd solo reading of Proust and find that reading it alone is a very meditative experience. Its length does not deter me, rather I am comforted in knowing that there is more to come, and when I finish reading the entire work, I can start again and it will be as fresh and insightful as the first reading. 2) I find it amazing that Peter would say that Proust doesn’t really like anyone- what can he mean by that? Proust’s love of his mother and the shattering of his world at her death, the narrator’s love of his grandmother and Albertine and, I would argue, of just about everyone in his world, is shown by the sheer amount of attention that he pays to them- for of what else is love made?

    • Peter Rabinowitz says:

      From the “author” of the slightly hyperbolic advice passed on by Maeve: these are excellent points, and they remind us that virtually any advice you give about Proust is likely to be too simple and lacking in nuance.

      I certainly never meant to suggest that no one could ever read Proust alone: only that for most of us, it’s far more difficult than reading it in a group. I’m impressed with your success!

      The question about whether or not Proust (or his narrator) likes anyone is a bit more complex. If I recall correctly, I made the comment (or meant to do so) in the context of the party scenes, as a way of pointing out that the scenes are a lot more fun to read if you understand how snarky and mean they tend to be. But I do think there is a more general sense in which the book is profoundly misanthropic. Yes, the narrator does love his mother and his grandmother (even though he can be exquisitely mean to both of them). But his “love” for Albertine doesn’t really involve liking her very much–and the minor characters are more apt to be memorable for their faults than for their virtues.

      Still, given a chance, I’d moderate that initial claim!

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