First pages in the book, you desperately try to make sense of its chaotic lengthy structure when suddenly you get struck by this:
“But it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was deep and allowed my mind to relax entirely; then it would let go of the map of the place where I had fallen asleep and, when I woke in the middle of the night, since I do not know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was; I had only, in its original simplicity, the sense of existence as it may quiver in the depths of an animal; I was more destitute than a cave dweller; but then the memory-not yet of the place where I was, but of several of those where I had lived and where I might have been-would come to me like help from on high to pull me out of the void from which I could not have gone out on my own; I had crossed centuries of civilization in one second…”
How amazing a description of this state of confusion between sleep and wake, like the first moments after you awake from a dream, when you try to make sense of who what where are you…and as the seconds pass this progressive formation of memories is that helps you, you are in a room, in a bed, your bed, your room, oh it was a dream and you woke up, you are you, confusion goes away. Then it must be true, if you didn’t have these extensive memories to help you, this linking ability of past and present, you can imagine how a goldfish may feel, you can “quiver in the depths of an animal”. Yes, this is truly the closest you can get to the basis of the existence, the foundation of you. Brilliant. You are hooked on reading now.
And then? And then the same style of long sentences follows, and if you are patient you can notice (appreciate?) the strange (beautiful?) syntax while trying to figure out whether you should focus on the story finally and not the words on the paper. Having that in mind you keep reading and reading, page after page, when you realize no sense is unfolding, it is 30+ pages of description of objects, people, trivial childhood memories and places and no sign of all these connecting somehow into something meaningful, storylike. Desperation! Where is the book about memories and self-contemplation you thought it to be? You start wondering whether you are losing your time with it (temps perdu indeed!) or whether it’s you that you can’t get it (most likely!) whilst slowly but surely your attention drifts away and you begin in your mind a “recherche” for what your next book will be. And ironically, on page 42: “when I read, I often daydreamed, for entire pages, of something quite different”. No wonder, Proust. No wonder.
Anyway, you make a connection with the author, you think maybe all those pages were intentional to ease you into a story which is coming. And just when you thought you ll give up, indeed the episode with the tea & madeleine cookie begins. It’s such a nice description of the formation and recall of memories triggered by drinking just a cup of tea. But it’s even more amazing that Proust intuitively figured out that memories of smell and taste last longer than any other memories (it is scientifically proven nowadays). And as if that’s not enough, the chapter ends with another great metaphor: “And as in that game enjoyed by the Japanese in which they fill a porcelain bowl with water and steep in it little pieces of paper until then indistinct which, the moment they are immersed, stretch and twist, assume colours and distinctive shapes, become flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable, so now all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lillies of the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this which is acquiring form and solidity, emerged, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea.” Makes you want to read more.
And that’s exactly why this book is so annoying. You know there is so much in it, but it requires so much patience, attention and dedication to uncover it. When you read it fast you feel you are missing something, when you read it slow you feel you are spending so much time for it! Especially when there are other more pleasant novels waiting on your to read list. It’s just…finishing only one chapter of 45 pages, took me so much time trying to focus my attention, so much effort and mental strain that, to put it mildly…it is terrifying to consider there are 400 pages more.
And this is only the first volume.