For a long time, I read Proust while on the job as night-guard at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I commenced it sometime in the spring of 1983, and concluded in the fall of that year after moving back to DE. Thus reading Proust bridges a key moment for me, ending one phase and groping toward the next. It's the 'youth here has end' period of twenty-three to twenty-four, and, at the time, reading Proust brought into keen relief the prospect of retrospect. Not that looking back hadn't been more or less the way I spent most of my time, but Proust and mid-twenties arriving at the same time gave me leave to believe that there was now a significant distance between those earliest days of childhood imagination, and the pre-adolescent days of first writing, and the present. True or not, my first foray through the first volume of the two volume set mainly set off states of vigorous recall.
But this isn't about me, it's about Proust. Which became quite evident as I continued on to the end. This was a fiction that quite overwhelmed one's own attempts at lucidity. This is writing of such richness, such verbal excellence, such knowing observation, amusing anecdote, suggestive analogy, psychological, temporal, existential insight and oddity, aesthetic resonance and philosophical purpose that it pretty much beggars anything you want to set beside it. My first go-through was with the old Moncrieff translation, even though the revised version had just appeared. I thought the latter was simply an update in type and packaging, so opted for the old Random House in clothbound boards, and serviceable it was. The cadences of Victoriana that clung to the diction didn't distress me too much once I got into it, they even lent it a certain charm.
Later, in graduate school, around 1990, I re-read Du côté de chez Swann, Sodome et Gomorrahe, and Le Temps retrouvé in French, with the revised Moncrieff to steer by, and subsequently, c. 1992-93, the second novel and segments of the fifth and sixth while prepping for a dissertation chapter on Proust. Eventually, in the summer of '98, I read the entire 1981 edition, matching quotations to the 1988-89 Pléiade edition for the purposes of an expanded version of that chapter, still languishing on my computer at about 63,000 words.
I've already commented elsewhere on this blog about my experience of reading Proust, as for instance here, and have evoked him many times. What I'd like to add to that is a comment on Proust and writing. The sheer brilliance of the Proustian world is such that it dwarves most anything else you'll read, and almost certainly write. That's the reason it's best to avoid supreme masters like Proust if you really want to write. For while the initial experience of reading him may fill you with the giddy feeling that this is what writing is all about and that you too are positively ready to live for that alone, you come to find that what Proust is all about is a literary achievement that is so astounding it tends to ruin lesser efforts.
That may well be true of any great writer -- Cervantes, Tolstoy, Joyce, tend to be the masters of fiction who sometimes top Proust on lists of the great -- but what is particularly pernicious about Proust is that you don't read him, as you read those others, because of an engagement with fictional characters primarily. You read him with an effort to be as self-knowing as his narrator is, to be as capacious, to be truly 'one on whom nothing is lost,' to use the Jamesian phrase, to be as candid about experience and one's acquaintances. Tolstoy may be as all-knowing about his characters and their society; Joyce, with the interior monologue, purports to make the mind's undisclosed contents available, but neither master a truly epic conception of experience through the first person alone. And even Joyce doesn't keep the interior monologue functioning for the duration of Ulysses.
This means that the reader of Proust is generally beguiled by the narrator-as-writer, tending to believe that what is stated is coming from Proust as the achieved figure of both. After studying the novel closely for the sake of my own argument about it, I don't believe that's so, and so I do understand the novel as a novel, as perhaps the supreme fiction of that form. But that doesn't stop the sleight-of-hand from happening, and it's precisely because it does happen that I award the palm of highest distinction to Proust for the great achievement of narrating while not seeming to be narrating.
Everything that becomes so cumbersome in most fiction -- the effort to tell the story, to make it work and seem real -- seem magically dispensed with, and all we are privy to is the endless fascination of an incredibly self-obsessed writer explaining himself to himself. Along the way, he also explains everything, it seems, we need to know about his family, his friends, his enemies, the society of which they are a part and the changes it undergoes as the arisocracy becomes steadily democratized and abased après la guerre, the art and political issues of the times, and the mores and matings of a vast cast of homosexuals, bisexuals, and heterosexuals, deliberatively portrayed to a degree that was unthinkable in the English or American novel of the time (witness the banning of Joyce and Lawrence). And it's in part the frankness about how sexual desire infuses life that makes Proust such a towering modernist and makes us believe we are getting "the real story" -- because, unlike the parochialism of Joyce and Lawrence, sex in Proust isn't "dirty" or "heroic", it's the constant pulse of the flow of time, it's desire as more amorphous, sustaining and frustrating, oppressive and ecstatic, self-negating and enhancing, conscious and unconscious, bodily and mental and spiritual than it can ever be in Freud.
It may be hard for the 21st century reader to find a knowledge of her state -- in all its showy immediacy and glut of interconnected wonderment -- contained and demarcated in the Recherche. The novel may seem too much a tedious history lesson by an insomniac with total recall, and it may be the case that our time couldn't possibly sustain the degree of scrutiny that Proust brings to bear upon his own, but that's just surface phenomena. The nature of time, we learn as students of Proust, is a constant, and seeing ourselves in the past he provides us, and seeing that past in our present, is a mighty lesson that makes other mighties lessen in comparison.