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Posted at 12:08 PM ET, 07/10/2012

Happy Birthday, Marcel Proust


I was hoping to find a picture of the Big (Madeleine) Dipper himself, but none was forthcoming. (Naxos AudioBooks)
This is the most obnoxious essay you will ever read.

On Twitter, the Humble Brag is a genre of its own.

“Wow, I’m embarrassed,” you say. “If I’d known 16 million people would watch my series debut I’d have worn better shoes!”

“Oops,” you say, “I think I did something weird to my knee while giving Kate Upton what she described as ‘the best night of my life.’ ”

“After eight years, I have to clean this embarrassing mess in my apartment!” you say, “Otherwise I’ll have nowhere to put all these Pulitzers!”

“I can’t come in to work today,” you type, “I just finished Proust and consequently my ability to structure short, declarative sentences is completely shot!”

And before there was Twitter, there was the day you tried casually to announce that you had finished reading all of Proust. For me, this came on Saturday.

At no time in your early adult life is the fact so forcibly borne home that you do not receive medals for anything as it is the moment when you finish “Remembrance of Things Past” or “In Search of Lost Time” or whatever we’re calling it now.

“Hey,” you yell, “I just finished Proust!”

Nothing. Your refrigerator makes that noise it always makes in the middle of the night, a noise that Proust would probably have a great term for it, like an “electric clearing of the throat.”

“I’m done with Proust!” you text your friends.

“That’s okay,” they text back. “Clearly, he wasn’t the one. You deserve a man who appreciates you.”

Proust has these miserably long, convoluted sentences that sound like refugees from the 18th century, and the effect of reading him for any length of time is to leave you prostrate beneath several tons of subordinate clauses. “I can’t write simple declarative sentences today,” I tried to tell my boss. “I just finished “Remembrance of Things Past,” and my sentence structure is going to be laid up for the rest of the week with sandwiches having to be brought in.”

I told you this would be obnoxious.

In my defense, I’ve been reading Proust off and on for years. I started a decade ago, at summer volleyball camp. After lunch, I trekked to the lobby of the camp building and sat at a small table with “Swann’s Way.” This was, as you can imagine, equally good for my volleyball game and for my popularity with the other campers.

“Let’s go work on setting,” everyone would say.

“Yes,” I would murmur. “Setting. Combray. Madeleines. How numinous is the written word!”

Everyone wisely decided to stop passing balls to me.

I grew with and around the books, setting them down for years at a time and then picking back up where I’d left off. No doubt they poisoned my capacity to form stable relationships. When you spend 10 years slowly pacing through a seven-volume opus by a mildly neurotic Frenchman, it does things to you. And when the book’s central themes are love, society, the power of habit, the force of memory, the vicissitudes of the heart and the tricks of the mind, it tends to put a bit of a dent in your social life.

“Don’t think of this as my breaking up with you,” I told guys. “Think of this as the death within me of the self that had come to love you, if only through the concatenation of circumstances brought on by habit and — ”

“Look, it’s fine, I’m going,” they would say. “Please stop talking.”

“Don’t get into equestrian accidents!” I yelled after them.

Today is Proust’s birthday.

There was a mania sometime in the late ’90s for Proust Appreciation. It has since somewhat waned. “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” Alain De Botton’s Literary Appreciation Classic, remains in print, and every so often people go into raptures over a new Proust translation. But slightly inaccurate autobiographies are a dime a dozen, these days. Even the president has one. What makes Proust different?

Well, EVERYTHING, I am supposed to exclaim now.

Every so often when people on the subway noticed me reading Proust, they would ask whether they should read it, too. Admittedly, they only noticed because I kept poking them with my elbow and coughing and murmuring, “Ah, ah, the vicissitudes of the heart! Proust! I’m reading Proust! What wisdom, what dearly bought wisdom! Ah, the little cork-lined bedroom!”

“I see you’re reading Proust,” they would say, rolling their eyes.

“Well,” I would say, demurely, lowering my eyes, “I’m not NOT reading Proust, if you take my meaning.”

“Should I read it, too?” they asked, no doubt sensing that this was their cue.

“Yes!” I would reply, clutching the book rapturously to my bosom. “It is the only truly three-dimensional novel! It’s like living an additional life!”

When Kennedy got to the White House, he quipped that the biggest surprise was finding that things really were as bad as he’d been saying they were. The biggest surprise with Proust is that he really is as good as everyone’s been saying he is.

Proust understood and illuminated the human mind in a way no other writer ever bothered to do. His lucid and meticulous prose casts light on all the intimate daily processes you had ceased to think about. What is it like to forget a word and then try to remember it? How does love work? What is it like to read an article you have written in a newspaper?

Near the very end of the final book in his series, he poses a question to readers: Is it like that? Am I describing how it is for you, too?

And the answer is overwhelmingly yes.

They say a classic is a book that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read. And I admit I began by wanting to have read Proust, to be able to go around sneering at people on the subway and murmuring, “Yes, but you haven’t read “The Captive”!

But now that I’m finished, I wish I had him to read again. He really is that good. Happy birthday, sir.

By  |  12:08 PM ET, 07/10/2012

 
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