My New Year’s resolution: To read Proust

Long daunted by the French master's seven-book masterpiece, I vow to finish it this year on audio

Topics: Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, Audiobooks, Fiction, Editor's Picks, The Listener, Books, audible,

My New Year's resolution: To read Proust (Credit: Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

As New Year’s resolutions go, vowing to read more ought to be easy — easier, anyway, than making it to the gym on icy January mornings or forgoing that plate of salty, golden French fries. Reading, after all, is fun. But if you have to make the resolution in the first place, chances are something is standing in your way.

For me, it’s time and eye strain. For ages I’ve been meaning to finish Marcel Proust’s “The Remembrance of Things Past” (now more commonly translated as “In Search of Lost Time,” but I’m going to stick with the titles as translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, as that’s the version I’m listening to). To date, I’ve yet to get past the second volume, “Within a Budding Grove,” in print, but I have high hopes that, by switching to audiobooks, I can vault through the whole sequence of seven novels by the end of 2013 (despite needing to review at least one new book per week for my day job). After all, that’s how I’ve consumed all five doorstops in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (the basis for HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) and Anthony Powell’s famously Proustian 12-volume “A Dance to the Music of Time,” deliciously read by Simon Vance.

Proust offers a particular challenge, for both objective and personal reasons. I’ve had a life-long difficulty in engaging with just about every French novelist beside Alexandre Dumas; there is something about that culture’s valuation of the refined over the genuine that rubs me the wrong way. (Or maybe I’m just too much of an Anglophile.) “The Remembrance of Things Past” is a somewhat peculiar fusion of Montaigne-style personal essay and more traditional third-person narration, which makes it the sort of work that’s best digested in the variable pacing available to anyone reading in print.

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One moment the narrator is shading in an enchanting character study of the relationship between his invalid great-aunt and her prickly maid, and the next he’s going on and on (and on!) about a bunch of hawthorne blossoms. Proust’s commitment to the intimate and almost microscopically detailed reproduction of certain fleeting moods can seem oppressively moony. But the catch is that these passages of intense self-examination can also meander into surpassing beauty, flooding the reader with sensations that would be hard to induce any other way.

For a journey like this, with such a mercurial (if brilliant) companion, it’s heartening to have a third party along in the voice of Neville Jason, whose completion of the narration of the entire series for Naxos AudioBooks was heralded by newspaper items last fall. Jason has not only narrated this and an earlier, abridged version of “Remembrance of Things Past,” he also translated the last volume; Moncrieff died before completing the job. I must confess that, given the choice of several recordings of the first book, “Swann’s Way,” I was initially drawn to John Rowe’s narration, which seems dreamier and more inverted, more like the mind of the novel’s narrator, to me. (You can also get a version narrated by an American, George Guidall.)

But there’s nothing more unsettling than switching narrators in the middle of such a long listening. Besides, Jason’s slightly more astringent interpretation made me feel, when I was inclined to roll my eyes at the ruminations of “Marcel,” that he would understand, would shoot me a discreet glance and a soothing gesture to remind me that this trip, despite the occasional exasperation, was well worth taking. Jason is comfortable with the long, complex, almost Jamesian clauses of the prose and he never overplays the characters’ emotions, which might have made their Gallic histrionics unendurable to me. His British reserve serves as a counterweight to the melodrama that has so often alienated me in French novels. And so he carries the three of us along into another of those shimmering transports, and I’m very, very glad to be sticking with it.

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New to Audible? Listen to “Swann’s Way” for free, or check out a sample.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

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