This is the first of three articles on Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past. The second and third follow in issues 57 and 58.
The first time my wife-to-be invited me round for a meal, and sat me down in her book-lined dining-room, my eye was caught by three thick volumes in a slipcase, in decorative blue, white and red dust- wrappers, bearing the name ‘Marcel Proust’ in large black letters at the top of each spine. ‘You’ve read Proust!’ I burst out, thrilled to be able to add to the array of charms with which she had already dazzled me that of having read the incomparable Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu).
‘Well, yes and no,’ she replied. ‘Part of it. The first part, in fact, the one about Swann. For some reason, I didn’t get any further.’ Looking more closely, I noticed to the side of the three-volume set a paperback edition of the first of the novel’s seven books, Swann’s Way, so well-thumbed it was nearly falling apart. ‘You have a treat in store, then,’ I said, ‘reading the rest.’ ‘Yes, I must get round to that – when I have time,’ she added, a note of hesitancy in her voice.
As it happened, an opportunity to read more arose not too long after this conversation. It turned out that my beloved suffered intermittently from insomnia. Normally, she would try to read herself back to sleep, with varying degrees of success. So, as an eager lover anxious to please, I suggested I read to her in the hope that this would lull her to sleep, as bedtime stories had in childhood. But what to read? We tried several writers, without success. One she found too exciting, another too childish, another – Henry James, if I remember rightly – too much of a syntactical puzzle to be restful. Then it occurred to me: how about Proust? We might be able to kill two birds with one stone, simultaneously combining the inducement of sleep with the completion of
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