Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Is Proust Necessary? Fatigued by "Sodom and Gomorrah," Volume IV


 For some years I have tried to read Proust's In Search of Lost Time, or, as I prefer to call it, Remembrance of Things Past (the original, more elegant translation of the title).  I can attest that Swann's Way is a masterpiece:   I have read it thrice, because thrice I have started and abandoned the project.  Two or three years ago I finished The Guermantes Way, Volume III, and then took a  long break. A very long break. And now I am reading Book IV.   

 Yesterday my deluxe Penguin copy of Volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah,  dominated the breakfast table.  It was propped against a stack of cookbooks so I could read while I ate.  I told my husband I was "finally" starting Volume IV. 

"So far I hate it."

"It's not one of the best."

 He tells me it is better in French. And, ironically,  I could easily have learned French in the time it has taken me to get to Volume IV.

The English title of Sodom and Gomorrah used to be Cities of the Plain.  What was wrong with that?  I sat down with my modern edition, and found the narrator's musings on "Sodomites" dull.  His speculations about Sodom and Gomorrah are inspired by his observation of a homosexual pick-up: the Baron Charles de Guermentes and Jupien, the family's former tailor, make some obvious flirtatious signals, and  then retire indoors to consummate their flirtation.  Later, the narrator attends the Princesse de Guermantes' party.  That keeps us busy for long time (the baron, M.  Charles, is there, too.)   Finally, the narrator, who is a semi-invalid, goes to Balbec on vacation and again embarks on a relationship with Albertine.

Now that we're at Balbec, it is becoming more interesting, but I disliked the Sturrock translation and switched to an old Modern Library copy.  It actually is better - for me at least.

Here's what you do when you're committed to reading a book but dislike it.

1.  You watch an hour of Slow Horses on Apple TV.  
2.  You decide to ride your bike to a bookstore to buy the book Slow Horses, but unfortunately it is too windy to bike.
4.  Then you loiter over making the perfect cup of coffee.  The first pot is too strong, so you spend 20 minutes cleaning the coffee machine because nobody has used it in a long time. 

It occurs to me that my approach to Proust is "checklist reading." My only reason for continuing Vol. IV is to finish it so I can read Volume V. 

Is Proust necessary?  Perhaps I shall skip to Volume V.


  1. I made my way through all of In Search of Lost Time thanks to a pandemic-era "group read" on Twitter, though I can't say I read it all very attentively. I would not (could not!) have finished without the group. I did find humor and beauty but I also found the endeavor very maddening at times, partly because of the "stuffy atmosphere and long boring passages" that Clare Shepherd mentions. The main reason I'm glad I (sort of) stuck with it is that it's had so much influence on Russian literature. (I read Penguin translations from volume two on.)

    Anyway, good luck, Kat, if you do continue!

  2. Between the pandemic and foot surgery early in February, you'd think I'd have time to read Proust or Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, two goals I've had for years. But because of the pandemic and the foot surgery (and an on-going recovery), I haven't been able to concentrate on much of anything except mysteries. One of these days, or maybe not.

  3. I read the revised Moncrief translation of Swann’s Way and then made it halfway through Book 2. I remember I was enjoying it but it was so long — this was before I made the discovery of a system of reading multiple books at once, especially if one of them is a massive tome. This came about when reading Anna Karenina (the Rosemary Edmonds translation, because, you know, Penguin ;-) — and I first discovered this wonderful blog when trying to figure out which translation to go with and will read the Maude translation of War and Peace when I decide to finally tackle and enjoy it!)

    I read the first section of the Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way a few months ago and look forward to returning to it soon and starting over. It felt very clear and enticing to me. Then, maybe I’ll move along with my two books at a time system (with a few short stories in the side, like a fruit tray next to the meat and potatoes [a metaphor since I don’t eat meat]) and work through all of Proust which I hear really is worth it as the grand design emerges.