Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Marcel Proust

Who here has read Marcel Proust? What do you think of him? Would you expect me to like him? Because at some point, two or three or four years ago, I purchased Swann's Way, Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, on the recommendation of somebody or other on the Internet (I've long since forgotten who) plus the general vague feeling that since he's both a very famous writer and a queer writer, I as a queer English major would surely have to like him. And then I left the book sitting untouched for the past two or three or four years, until last night I finally picked it up and settled down to what I thought would be several hours of reading in bed before I was due to fall asleep. Except as it turned out, I made it through all of three sentences before unexpectedly being overcome by a sudden urgent need to sleep.

So I picked it up again today, earlier in the day to make it less likely that I would fall asleep, and today I have made it to all of page 13 - but already I feel the same thing happening. It's very rare indeed for me to ever find any book too boring to finish, but it's completely unprecedented for me to be so bored by page 13 to already be contemplating it. But here's the thing: in those 13 pages I've read so far, the only thing that has happened is: some guy woke up.

And when I say "some guy," I do not mean "some guy whose identity I could tell you more details about but am omitting the details of in order to exaggerate how boring the book is." No, not at all. I mean, "some guy about whom I know nothing whatsoever other than that he has spent the past 13 pages waking up, one muscle at a time, telling me in excruciating detail about how he often finds when he first wakes up that
I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal's consciousness; I was more destitute than the cave-dweller; but then the memory - not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived and might now very possibly be - would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself: in a flash I would traverse centuries of civilisation, and out of a blurred glimpse of oil-lamps, then of shirts with turned-down collars, would gradually piece together the original components of my ego.

Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our conception of them. For it always happened that when I awoke like this, my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything revolved around me through the darkness: things, places, years. My body, still too heavy with sleep to move, would endeavor to construe from the pattern of its tiredness the position of its various limbs, in order to deduce therefrom the direction of the wall, the location of the furniture, to piece together and give a name to the house in which it lay. Its memory, the composite memory of its ribs, its knees, its shoulder-blades, offered it a series of rooms in which it had at one time or another slept, while the unseen walls, shifting and adapting themselves to the shape of each successive room that it remembered, whirled round it in the dark. And even before my brain, hesitating at the threshold of times and shapes, had reassembled the circumstances sufficiently to identify the room, it - my body - would recall from each room in succession the style of the bed, the position of the doors, the angle at which the daylight came in at the windows, whether there was a passage outside, what I had had in my mind when I went to sleep and found there when I awoke.
I mean, if I were ever looking for the perfect essay on what the human experience of waking up is like, to show to a friendly passing space alien who'd never experienced sleep, there'd be no topping Marcel Proust. But I sort of thought this was supposed to be a novel, not an essay on what the human experience of waking up is like. And there's zero character development here. Like, the guy mentions that he sometimes dreams while he's asleep, and he mentions some things his dreams are sometimes like. Surely you'd think that details about what someone dreams about would be an opportunity for a novelist to reveal something about the character's individuality. Well, this guy dreams about his childhood, and about having sex with women. No, not anything interesting about his childhood, and not anything interesting about sex with women, either. Just: the fact of having once been little. And sex, described in the vaguest terms possible, with women. He does not name any specific women whom he has been known to dream about having sex with; he merely says that he has been known to dream of having sex with women and that some of them were real women whom he knew. The sex seems to have been pleasant, but he tells no details beyond that. What I learned from his dreams about sex with women is that he either has been known to enjoy sex with women, or else imagines that he might enjoy it someday. In summary: the only things I have managed to learn about this man in 13 pages are that he has been known to sleep and wake up, and that he is probably heterosexual (since he does not mention any dreams about having sex with men). And that his memories that he flashes through when waking up include "a blurred glimpse of oil-lamps, then of shirts with turned-down collars," whatever the hell that says about him. He probably wears shirts. He probably uses lamps. The fact that the lamps are oil lamps can hardly be considered revealing since the book was published in 1913. Is Proust ever going to get around to telling me anything non-generic about this guy?

Please, someone tell me it doesn't continue like this for all 615 pages of Volume 1 and all 3600 or so pages of the remaining six volumes.
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