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A Summer With Proust – “Reading is a friendship”

January 31, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

A Summer With Proust by Antoine Compagnon, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Erman, Adrien Goetz, Nicolas Grimaldi, Julia Kristeva, Jérôme Prieur and Jean-Yves Tadié. (2014) Not available in English. Original French title: Un été avec Proust.

La lecture est une amitié.

(Reading is a friendship)

Marcel Proust

In 2013, to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Un amour de Swann by Marcel Proust (Swann’s Way, in English translation), France Inter broadcasted a series of moments entitled A summer with Proust.

Several Proust specialists talked about a side of A la Recherche du temps perdu. (In Search of Lost Time) In French, this masterpiece’s pet name is La Recherche. The panel was composed of Antoine Compagnon, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Erman, Adrien Goetz, Nicolas Grimaldi, Julia Kristeva, Jérôme Prieur and Jean-Yves Tadié. They are teachers, philosophers, writers, essayists, film-makers or historians, all Proust lovers.

Each of them has a section in the book and writes about Proust or something in La Recherche. The topics are various: Time, characters, love, imagination, places, Proust and philosophers and arts. All chapters are structured the same way: a quote, a short introduction, an essay and a longer quote to illustrate the essay. They make Proust easy and the burin of their love for Proust chips away the ivory tower where this monument of literature has been locked into. They demystify Proust, the author of a literary cathedral.

This team of writers knows La Recherche in and out and addresses all readers with maestro. I imagine that the newcomer will want to start reading Proust after this appetizer. The Proust reader will experience a mise en abyme, living the madeleine episode while reading about reading Proust.

I opened this billet with a quote by Proust stating that La lecture est une amitié and this is exactly how I feel about literature in general and Proust in particular. Like the writers of A Summer With Proust, I have a long and standing friendship with La Recherche. Of course, I’m far from being as literate as they are about Proust but reading A Summer With Proust is like receiving a letter full of news from old friends who would live on another continent.

I discovered Proust when I was in high school. I read it slowly, La Recherche is not a book you devour and it required a lot of attention. This slow rhythm mixed with the presence of characters coming in and out of the pages all along the volumes is such that the characters and events stay with you. I started to read it again as an adult. (See my Reading Proust page) and I got reacquainted with a world I had not forgotten.

Like all readers I have experienced this: I read a book I enjoy immensely and a few months later, I don’t really remember it, its plot or its characters. For my memory and my senses, some books are like the rain of a summer storm. I get drenched, I get dry and I move on. Lots of rain and pleasure at the time I read, but most of the flow is flushed from my memory. Storms don’t help with groundwater, moderate rains do.

La Recherche is not a storm, it’s a long, persistent and warm drizzle. It reached my bones, penetrated my memory the first time I read it and settled in me. I developed a familiarity with the characters of La Recherche and I can only compare it to crime fiction series, with their recurring character. When you open a new volume of the series, you’re on familiar grounds, happy to spend some more time with the lead character. When I started A Summer With Proust, I re-connected to Proust’s world immediately, like you do when you meet up with good friends, even if you haven’t seen them for a long time. The reconnection is instantaneous. 

In La Recherche, Proust is the master of all masters. He wrote a book about the power of imagination, about memory and its effect on us. Through the power of his memories, his literary skills and his intelligence, he wrote a masterpiece that dissects the workings of memories and sensorial experiences on our beings and at the same time imprints himself and his lost world in our souls and memories. His experience helps us understand our experience.

Proust left us keys to enter into our memories, analyze our feelings and enjoy little moments in life. For he is also the writer who dissects small moments, sees the beauty in them and tells us that beauty is within our reach if we pay enough attention.

In other words, it’s good to be friends with La Recherche, a book that gives its friendship freely to readers who seek for it.

  1. January 31, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    Well that’s a love letter if I ever read one. I hope I do a fraction as well in my monthly posts this year for my slow read of Australia’s masterpiece, Such is Life.

    Like

    • January 31, 2021 at 2:23 pm

      I love Proust, even if I don’t read him as often as I should.

      Like

  2. January 31, 2021 at 9:39 pm

    Sounds like I have to read this one, and actually all the Un été avec…volumes sound good. Have you read others?

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    • January 31, 2021 at 9:41 pm

      No, I haven’t but I’m terribly tempted by Un été avec Montaigne.

      Like

  3. February 1, 2021 at 12:11 am

    Such perfect descriptions of ‘La Recherche’. I started it several times and gave up until one time I basically skimmed the very famous introductory pages, then after that I didn’t want to put it down. It’s incredibly immersive and it must be an amazing experience to have a real history with it. (I did go back and actually read those first pages.)

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    • February 1, 2021 at 7:53 am

      Swann’s Way is an unfortunate beginning for La Recherche because it can be discouraging. The following volumes are much easier to read. Personally I don’t care much for Swann and Odette’s story.
      I decided to read Albertine disparue and Le temps retrouvé again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 1, 2021 at 10:24 pm

        The ridiculous thing is it was the first chapter of Swann’s Way (Overture) that kept stopping me dead. I had to quickly skim that then I was fine. And I have no idea why that happened.

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        • February 3, 2021 at 8:21 am

          Skipping pages is part of the inalienable rights of the reader. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  4. February 1, 2021 at 6:20 am

    Oh *sigh* this sounds lovely!

    Like

    • February 1, 2021 at 7:48 am

      It is. There are others too! A summer with Montaigne, with Baudelaire…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. February 1, 2021 at 11:18 am

    Oh, lovely post, and I wish this was a available in English!

    Like

    • February 1, 2021 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks. It’s available in some languages but not in English, sorry.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Tony
    February 2, 2021 at 12:16 pm

    A bit pricey, but I’ll keep an eye out…

    Like

    • February 3, 2021 at 8:21 am

      Maybe it’s available in ebook?

      Like

      • Tony
        February 3, 2021 at 11:03 am

        Noooooooooooooooooooo!

        Like

        • February 3, 2021 at 2:27 pm

          Strange it’s available on the US kondle store.
          There’s the Radio France app on phones, the radio program that gave this book is available in podcasts. (Episodes of 16 min)
          There’s also Un été avec Baudelaire, un été avec Montaigne, un été avec Victor Hugo…

          Like

          • Tony
            February 4, 2021 at 12:25 am

            No, I meant that reading about Proust on Kindle seems like blasphemy of the highest order, like going to a three-star restaurant and asking if they can pop next door to get you a Big Mac 😉

            Like

            • February 4, 2021 at 9:22 am

              I’m usually grateful for ebooks because I can read books I’d never get otherwise, especially Australian lit.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Tony
                February 4, 2021 at 1:26 pm

                Hmm. I’m reading one now, but I’m rather grumpy about it. It’s just not the same as reading a real book, and it does affect how I read and how much I enjoy it…

                Like

  7. February 2, 2021 at 9:48 pm

    I love that description of Proust as a drizzle that enters your bones instead of running off like storm water. I embarked on a reading of all seven volumes years ago, but never got beyond Swann’s Way. To be honest, I struggled with it a bit, and yet I can still picture scenes from that book, whereas others I’ve read more recently have long since washed away. Perhaps he is in my bones too. I shoudl restart that reading—thanks for the reminder!

    Like

    • February 3, 2021 at 8:25 am

      Thanks, Andrew.
      I really think that Swann’s Way is not the best introduction to La Recherche, but alas, it’s the first book. Personnally, I’m not into tortured relationships and Swann and Odette’s story is not my favourite part of Proust’s masterpiece.

      But the force of Proust’s writing is there: you say it yourself, Swann’s Way stayed with you, even if you struggled with it.

      La Recherche is a perfect pandemic lockdown book. Written by someone who locked himself down to write. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 3, 2021 at 4:58 pm

        Well, that’s good to hear. Reading your post made me realise how rare it is for details of a book to stay with me for so long (probably 15 years now)—especially when, to be honest, I often fell asleep while reading it. So I think it’s time to try again, and this time I hope to get beyond Swann’s Way and see how things progress!

        Like

        • February 4, 2021 at 8:23 pm

          Looking forward to reading your thoughts about it!

          Like

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