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.