“We can read Proust to find the meaning of existence”

The cross : The 150e anniversary of the birth of Marcel Proust, on July 10, raises the question of the status of his work: essential reading for some and yet inaccessible, even repulsive, for others. How to explain this paradox ?

Antonio Rodriguez: On the one hand, In Search of Lost Time is extremely valued by institutions, libraries, school, university, as well as by publishing. Many theses are devoted to it, including by foreign doctoral students. It is a monument of national heritage. On the other hand, it is a difficult work to democratize.

→ READ. Marcel Proust, through the seasons

The first reaction of my students, with Proust, is “Why is it so repetitive and boring?” “. They do not have the reading practices to access it. It is a paradox of our societies, where institutions place values ​​on difficulty while explaining that we must democratize our values. An injunction made of The research a romantic absolute but does not provide the means to achieve it.

What are the reasons for these reading difficulties?

AR : Not to the length in itself, specific to many works, but rather to its association with the complexity of the language, which is due to Proust’s writing virtuosity. He creates very dense pages which, for the most part, do not tell anything but describe: a fact of society, a relation to an object… These descriptions can be all the more confusing as Proust often gives the impression that he is repeating himself. .

Jealousy, homosexuality, Jewishness appear repeatedly. However, these “repetitions” are not. Together, they produce the strength of the novel. But to understand it, you almost have to have read it in its entirety. However, most often, only fragments are given to read at school. It is a way of remaining on the surface which is the opposite of Proust’s project. To his eyes, The research was to be the book of a lifetime and reveal the hieroglyphics of existence. This is all the complexity of his project, also a source of difficulty in reading.

What advice would you give for “getting started in Proust”?

AR: First, seek to live an experience instead of wanting to live up to an absolute. This is the condition for thwarting intimidation, justified because a whole society leads readers to it. Read Proust without having to read it! Then open up to this reading experience. Proust begins his novel with a character who seeks sleep and waits for his mother’s kiss. From the outset, he evacuates the intrigue for internal debates. We have seen a more captivating starting point!

But once the first hundred pages are passed, the rest of the first book and the second (On the side of Swann’s and In the shade of young girls in bloom, Editor’s note) read quite easily. Then you have to have the courage to go through the rest. Skipping fifty pages is not that bad! But you have to give yourself the time to play this game of reading knowing that it can sometimes be difficult. He plays on slowness, like music whose leitmotif would develop for weeks thanks to syntax and the desire to absorb all the arts.

His descriptions often relate to details. Isn’t that to the detriment of the plot?

AR: In the tiny, Proust discovers the infinite. When he scrutinizes language tics, it is to better understand the person, his objects of fascination, of rejection… But if the intrigue then seems to disappear, it is for something more essential. These details suddenly take on great significance. A play of echoes and analogies between them produces the final revelation: such noise of a spoon on the table recalls the scene of the madeleine, moments of stroll, of childhood, and basically, all that we saw through the novel.

The research has become ”the” novel to read ”

A layering effect makes it seem like all of these moments are happening at the same time. They are regenerated into an intense inner life. The fact of having existed then seems to be associated with that of feeling to exist and of being able to continue to exist. Past, present and future are one.

The research has become “the” novel that you must have read and, having acquired the mythical status of a literary marathon, reading it can bring a certain self-esteem. But it is a misunderstanding that echoes these scenes where Proust describes with irony the socialites of salons who quote painters and writers to shine. We have to ask ourselves why we are reading it. To say ” I read it ” or by quest for the meaning of existence? It can be a magnificent act when it comes to fruition.

What can this reading bring us?

AR: It is a progression towards a startling revelation, which is a wonderful trap. Without disclosing the ending, the narrator, who is not the author, begins to dream of writing a book and making a success of his life. However, it appears that this book is the one we have just read and that, at bottom, accomplishing this so complicated reading is a way to succeed in life.

Conversely, the other characters fail because they get lost in desire, mundane things and do not pay enough attention to art. In a way, we have just read the experience of revealing what literature can bring. It can give shape to life.


The context

On July 10, 2021, Marcel Proust would have been 150 years old. An anniversary which is the occasion of numerous publications, conferences, readings and visits around a “monument” of French literature.

The challenge

Presented as essential by literary institutions, In Search of Lost Time,
his flagship work, nevertheless remains a reading difficult to access, even repulsive for some, thus fueling embarrassment or regret to “miss” an essential work. How to explain this paradox ? Is it absolutely necessary to have read Proust?


Antonio Rodriguez is professor of French literature at the University of Lausanne. Having devoted several seminars to Marcel Proust, he is particularly interested in the act of reading and in works which claim to be “absolute” and are, therefore, difficult to access. Among them, The research but also the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, for which he tries to transmit
adapted reading practices.


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