Cracking the spine

I am writing this on a train which rolls on through the midday gloom and snow-patched fields of the countryside. The carriage squeaks and rumbles, the salarymen sit at the tables and prepare spreadsheets or read the Daily Mail. A woman with badly dyed hair is on her phone discussing at what price she should sell a car. For the middle of the day it is busy, which has deprived me of a proper table and so I type with my mac jammed on the flip-down plastic shelf from the seat in front of me, the keyboard awkwardly slanted upwards and my neck straining as I look down at the screen. This is as good a place as any to talk about the first few pages of Proust.

The book is at home, I am having to recall what I read from last night and this in itself is appropriate. Proust opens with a recollection, or an attempt at recollection, and a discussion of the way in which we dream of the past, willing it to return to us. Sitting on this train, staring out at the familiar fields and buildings, I see a grey pony nuzzling through the snow to the earth beneath, and wonder if I have seen the same pony before. This carriage, like Proust’s bed, is a familiar place. Is there something about familiar places which give us the freedom to imagine, to recall, and free our minds to think beyond the moment? For Proust’s narrator, this is certainly so. Frustratingly, I cannot recollect the words of the first few pages.

Do not read the start of Proust in bed: this was an error, because the prose describes the process of dreaming and the mental seduction of sleep so well that the prospect of sleep itself becomes exciting. That isn’t a polite way of saying that it is a boring introduction, because it isn’t, just that I wish I’d read the opening whilst sitting upright in a chair.

I don’t have the book on the train because I worry that it would look pretentious. Proust is a shibboleth, even the way you say his name becomes a test of whether you cut the mustard. There is something about the magnitude of the book which attracts a certain notoriety. Is the Harry Potter saga longer, or shorter? I will look that up later.

My first impression of Proust is that his sentences belong to a slower age. Is there something self-indulgent about the sentences? It feels right for what he is saying, and it is the exact opposite of Dan Brown & co (whose books I have guiltily devoured.) I imagine a Brown novel as a Big Mac, and Proust feels as if it will be a case of growing my own plants before slow-cooking them.

One of my first thoughts, a terrible indictment on my worldview: you can’t tweet Proust.



The fourth week of January has begun and after scraping three days of snow from my car so that nobody wonders if it has been abandoned and tries to steal it, I return indoors to work. I am already feeling the benefits of having stopped drinking, I have more energy and enthusiasm come Monday morning, and I am not recovering from a weekend of excess. I do not feel smug, rather that at 28 I should have worked all of this out a long time back. I didn’t think that giving up alcohol would be this easy, after so many years spent enjoying myself too much. Now I’m almost there, the training wheels are off and I can confidently order just tonic water in a bar.

This seems to have been an anticlimactic resolution. As I drank the fourth cup of coffee of the day I realised that it was not enough, I had to do something more challenging. Right in front of me, across the dining table at which I type this there is a bookshelf. Embarrassingly, I haven’t read a book from cover to cover in some time. Most of the books have been read, but my second-hand paperback Penguin Modern Classic edition of Proust’s novel stands out. Proust’s gay, pale, foppish, unimpressed face stares at me. I go over to the book, open it, and read the first page which I have doubtless read before:

Marcel Proust

His pale, foppish portrait

“Marcel Proust was born in Anteuil in 1871. His father, an eminent Professor of Medicine, was Roman Catholic and his mother was Jewish, factors that were to play an important role in his life and work… he slept by day and worked by night, writing letters and devoting himself to the completion of A la recherche du temps perdu…”

When I was a more precocious schoolchild I had first picked up Proust and tried to read him. I was smarter and sharper then than I feel I am now. This book felt like a relic of a past ambition which had since faded. I Google Proust and find the Wikipedia Entry for this novel:

In Search of Lost Time is considered the definitive modern novel by many scholars.[citation needed]

This wonderful statement seems in that final note to be symbolic of the unknown quality that the book possesses in my hands. I read on a while, and notice that the first volume of Proust’s work was published in 1913, 100 years ago exactly. This feels eerily like fate.

Hungry for a new challenge, eager to see whether years of work and the drudgery of adult life have dimmed my capacity for the enjoyment of books, I carry it over to the table and wonder if now, a dozen years since I first found it in the school library, I will be able to get through this massive seven volume novel. I’ve decided that you will keep me honest: this blog will chart my reading, will chart my amateur attempt to read Proust’s great work from cover to cover.

The blog will be called Amateur Proust because after so long out of University I feel like an amateur when reading a serious book. Amateur of course is a French word, which also means ‘lover of’ – I don’t know in all honesty whether I will love Proust, my faint memory of the first attempt to read it was that it was long, slow, and not my cup of tea, but who am I to argue with the many scholars? It is a challenge, at the very least.