Reading Proust Is Like Climbing a Mountain — Prepare Accordingly
Take on an intimidating book like you would take on an immense physical challenge: in small parts, with lots of gear
Some might think reading Proust is akin to watching paint dry, but that would be reductive. Rather, reading Proust is like watching Proust focus on a single part of the wall where the paint has not dried as fast as the rest of the paint, then, once the paint has indeed dried in that part of the wall and is no longer distinguishable from the parts that dried faster, talk about this phenomenon and how it made him feel because it reminded him of his aunt in the spring in Combray, her face at once all dark but for one gleaming disk where the sun fell and made glorious that soft, wrinkled cheek, until the sun completed its rise or fall, whichever path it was on, and gently lit every furrow or kindly hit it all in velvet blue night, the kindness of uniformity ultimately less engaging then the brutal but thrilling spotlight, and what that means about him and his mom and bedtime.
Which is to say that reading Proust takes stamina and fortitude, strength over time and strength of character. In my opinion, it’s worth it, but it’s never going to come easily, and should not be attempted without a battle plan and immense willpower. As with finishing a marathon or reaching the summit of a daunting mountain, the only way to get through Proust — even with the best of intentions, even with unlimited free time — is to force yourself.
Reading Proust takes stamina and fortitude, and should not be attempted without a battle plan and immense willpower.
Avid readers may scoff. They think they have that discipline or that, if they weren’t born with it, they certainly developed it over years and years of gobbling up books like candy on Halloween. And there are still plenty as adults who retain their great appetite, who no more have to make themselves read Ulysses than they would Harry Potter. They’re excited to jump into Infinite Jest or A Suitable Boy or Anna Karenina and stay excited even after they’ve been on this trek for days. They don’t need any gear to help them get through and out — no book club, no paid book review, no online reading challenge to keep them accountable. They don’t get on their sat phones and call for a helicopter to come save them, the equivalent in this metaphor to throwing the book across the room. They are able to finish their great adventure in an acceptable amount of time, and then they move onto the next. It’s not an accomplishment. It’s just what they do — read books.
I thought I was like that too, able to rush in unprepared, sneering at the quinine, granola bars, and compass required by lesser readers. If the trails are well-marked, why fear tripping on a rock or getting lost? Then I met Proust.
Proust doesn’t write day hikes. He doesn’t write those four-day hikes you can take in New Zealand where a boat takes your bags for you from hotel to hotel so you don’t have to weigh yourself down as you get your 10–12 miles in. Proust is more like the Appalachian Trail. You need a strategy, and if you don’t prepare, if you don’t pace yourself, if you don’t, several weeks in, have the capacity to kick yourself out of the tent in the morning to once again drag your exhausted butt to the next campsite, you will not make it.
Proust doesn’t write day hikes. Proust is more like the Appalachian Trail.
While I’m not close with anyone who’s hiked the Appalachian Trail, I do have a friend, Leah Passauer, who ran the Great Wall Marathon, a beast in its own right. Not only does it involve some serious climbing up and down large sections of the Great Wall, China as you might remember, and this part of the Wall in particular, is often immersed in a thick, lung-ruining smog. “I think I honestly love the feeling of just pushing through pain to keep going,” the ever-peripatetic Leah wrote me from Burundi. But that’s not what gets her through race day. “It is exciting when one week six miles hurt and then a month later you are breezing through 14 miles. During the actual race for me, [however], it’s all about breaking it into different chunks. Talk yourself through important milestones. You’re suddenly like, ‘Amazing! Less than ten miles left!’”
In other words, even if you read every day of your life, it doesn’t matter if some of your past experiences were a breeze or a pain: leviathans require a unique approach. The whole can just be too daunting to handle, but cutting it up into pieces — a fang here, a tail there, claws one day, horns the next — is how the beast becomes far more manageable. I might be cowed by a monster, but I can fight a tooth here and a nail there. I can compartmentalize. I can fashion for myself a reading schedule.
For Swann’s Way, the first book in Marcel Proust’s septology Remembrance of Things Past, I have Lydia Davis’s translation, which is a very reasonable 400-something pages. Breaking it up in 20–30 page increments, giving myself every fourth day off, gets me finished in a month easy. Some days it’s very hard to crack that 20 — the less dialogue and more pontificating Proust throws my way, the more challenging it is — but I know I can’t go to bed until I’ve finished. I have a deadline. Self-imposed, yes, but if I don’t shake the stones out of my boots, plow through these mosquitoes, and make it to that milepost, it’ll be just that much harder to make up lost ground tomorrow. Also the monster might call its bear friends over to maul me in the middle of the night.
I have a deadline. If I don’t shake the stones out of my boots, plow through these mosquitoes, and make it to that milepost, it’ll be just that much harder to make up lost ground tomorrow.
Reading schedules aren’t the one and only way to reach the peak of a literary K2. Just like you don’t have to stick to one metaphor in your writing — be it butchering beasts, hiking the Appalachian trail, or climbing into thin, terrifying air — a reading schedule for Proust might not be best followed with a reading schedule for (or even attempt at) Ulysses or My Struggle or some other craggy, forbidding epic. After all, no one does Annapurna 1, then heads straight for Everest. Nor does a reading schedule alone guarantee you’ll plant a flag on the cold, icy face of that last page. It’s nearly impossible to summit the highest mountains without a team, either at base camp cheering you on or climbing right alongside you. Getting a friend to read the book with you — or at least to walkie in every once in a while to keep your spirits up — is important. For my part, I’ve convinced my sister to go along with me, and even if she doesn’t make it to the end, even if I have to leave her behind, frozen to the side of the mountain like Flick’s tongue, it’s her there beside me (or behind me) that helps push me onward.
Sometimes I am ashamed Proust isn’t a walk in the park for me. I want to eschew the schedule, certain that it reveals me as a lesser nerd than I’ve always perceived myself. If I have to trick myself into getting through a book, if I have to implement rules, how is that different from being in English class? How is that real, joyful reading? Is the literary spirit dead within me? Why don’t I just admit that I’m not good enough for Proust, thank the book for acting as a mirror for my intellectual limits, and place it, Marie Kondo-style, into my bag of Goodwill donations?
While reading Swann’s Way, I finished Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange with no schedule at all. Amanda Smyth’s book is, almost literally, a Caribbean breeze to read. But if I had found it hell to read, I wouldn’t have judged myself for getting rid of it, and I certainly wouldn’t have made myself a schedule to ensure completion. I think that’s because, for the vast majority of books, even literary novels, ease of reading and pleasure of reading do in fact go together. Even long fantasy novels, epics in their own right with maps and family trees and invented languages, typically keep you rolling with action and suspense in the forms of fantastic creatures in far-off places doing exhilarating things. For me, if a book is so challenging to read as to make momentum difficult to sustain, it’s usually not because the book is as formidable as it is good. It’s either a bad book, a book for whom I am not the intended audience (something I am fine admitting), or both.
It’s Okay to Give Up on Mediocre Books Because We’re All Going to Die
But Proust, along with some of his high-brow brethren, exists outside that dichotomy. Those aforementioned day hikes and four-day, boat-supported, no-camping treks are great, but whither glory? Only in books that can break you, leave you at the bottom of the canyon sawing off your own arm to survive, are capable of providing glory. The glory, after all, isn’t in the beauty of the view at the end of the adventure, nor, for me at least, in the scarcity of the number of people who get to enjoy the view. The glory comes from proving to myself I had the wherewithal to get there in the first place, the cleverness to bring all the proper tools with me not just to ensure I don’t eat poisonous mushrooms or offend a bridge or tunnel troll, but also to help me muscle my way through and out all the quicksand, driving snow, and bellies of whales. Planning, temerity, and persistence — or knowing you can, canning, and having canned — that’s the trifecta of all great adventures and great escapes.
And that’s really why I’m tackling Proust — as both avoidance of and, hopefully, eventually, preparation to get back to my own writing. Since I published my first book, maybe even before that, I’ve been suffering from serious discipline block. I won’t go to the outfitters and fill my backpack; I don’t scheme or map; I can’t look at the Great Wall and think one watchtower at a time. Instead, I think about those glorious mountains I could be making my own — and I end up watching them on Netflix instead. I have made myself write in the past, and I know I can make myself again the future, but right now I cannot make myself write anything longer than this. What I can make myself do is read Proust. And when I capture the glory at the very end of it, like gold at the end of the rainbow, I am hoping to exchange it for what I really wish — the ability to make my own rainbows, my own gold, my own story.