Tuesday, November 13, 2012

For a Long Time...I Talk About Proust

It happened again. I stopped mid-sentence, my eyes re-focusing on the waitress who was clearing plates from in front of everyone around me. I looked down at my own half-eaten plate of cooling mac & cheese and I knew--I'd done it again. I'd gone off on another Proust rant that took me out of my time and transported me into another; for the past who-knows-how-long I had been completely unaware of those around me. Luckily, my listeners this time  were my fellow Proust Club members, meeting around the corner from Booksmith at Hops n Scotch, and Proust rants, while perhaps not relished by everyone present, were at least tolerated. I sheepishly passed around the Tupperware full of honey almond madeleines I had baked the night before, and felt immediately forgiven.

Ever since I first read Proust's seven volume, 3,000 page novel, In Search of Lost Time, almost five years ago now, I have not been able to stop talking about it. So when Booksmith happened to hire a fellow Prouster, Lydia, who is mid-sixth-volume, and Natasha in Used Books informed me she planned to read it all in a year, signing Shuchi up at the same time and somehow inspiring Carl in Used Books to make us beautiful little journals in which to keep our "Proust Club Notes," it was inevitable: we would form a Proust Club.

As this is the third Proust Club I have belonged to, and as I have already read Proust's first volume, Swann's Way four times, I decided that instead of reading along with the group, I'd take the opportunity to read supplementary material about Proust, and contribute what I could to the discussions. Lucky for me, in addition to the used books Natasha's been discovering,we've been inundated with a run of new books about Proust.

The most essential of these to our Proust discussions has undoubtedly been We Love Madeleines, a new cookbook by Miss Madeleine. The madeleine is a spongy, scalloped tea cake. When dipped in tea, this little delicacy has the power to transport Proust's narrator back into his days in a small village called Combray; from these memories his novel is born. For each of our Proust Club meetings, I've decided to sample a new recipe from We Love Madeleines. So far we've tried and approved the Pumpkin Spice Madeleine, the Brown Butter Bourbon Madeleine, and, our Proust Club favorite: the Honey Almond Madeleine. One of these days I'm going to try the Chocolate Bacon Madeleine.

The most heated discussion surrounding our Proust Club has been which translation to read. Until recently, Booksmith customers who were found puzzling in the "P" section of Fiction were always treated to a small, controlled Proust rant and then gently but forcibly directed to purchase C.K. Scott Moncrieff's translation. 

But now that Lydia has joined our ranks, anyone who comes looking for Proust will be privileged to witness a lively, friendly debate between Lydia--who prefers the new Lydia Davis translation--and me. Without going into all the reasons why you should read Proust through Moncrieff, I will say that a new, beautiful slim volume that Shuchi recently discovered containing Lydia Davis's words on her own translation, has at least made me appreciate her efforts as translator of Proust, even if I still believe them inferior to those of Moncrieff. Proust, Blanchot and a Woman in Red was published as part of the new Cahiers Series--check them out on our Staff Recs Shelf.

If you've already read Proust, you may be interested in some recent scholarly works on him, including Proust as Philosopher by Migel de Beistegui and Martin Hagglund's Dying for Time. Any attempt of mine at summing up these erudite studies of his work risks ending up like Monty Python's "Summarizing Proust Contest." Let's just say that I've spent a lot of time thinking about my chronolibido over the past few weeks.

And finally, a more accessible Monsieur Proust's Library by Anka Muhlstein was released just last week by Other Press. Muhlstein, author of Balzac's Omelette, explores first, how and what Proust read as a child, then the later impact that authors such as Baudelaire, Ruskin, Racine and Balzac had on the author.

That Proust knew these author's works intimately is evidenced in his pastiches, or imitative essays written in the style of a particular author, some of which have been collected in The Lemoine Affair, published by our friends at Melville House. Come to think of it, I believe it was Proust's incredible sensitivity to the spirit behind an author's works that may have set off my rant at Hops n Scotch. Madeleine, anyone?


Michael Leddy said...

So happy to see that there’s a blog for the bookstore, via a Google Alert for Proust. When I lived in Allston, Brighton, and Brookline in the 1980s, Paperback Booksmith, as it was then called, was the bookstore. Now I visit whenever I visit Boston, about once a year. Yours is a great bookstore.

I’d like to add a book to your list: Monsieur Proust (New York Review Books), by Proust’s housekeeper, Céleste Albaret.

Jodie said...

Thanks, Michael! Monsieur Proust is one of my favorite books about Proust. When I finished the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Celeste Albaret's words were a great comfort during my Proust withdrawal. Stop in again soon!