By Maureen Smith 

When I was in college, one of my English professors told the class that reading Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past  would be life-changing.  His comment stuck in my mind and when I graduated, I requested this two-volume tome as a graduation gift.  Though I always meant to read it, for many years it stayed impressively on my book shelves. 

There were times when I picked it up with good intentions, but discovered that it is next to impossible to read Proust when you have small children, or when you have gone back into the work force, or when just about anything is going on in your life.

If you are not familiar with this work, it consists of more than 2,265 pages of very small print.  One thought can ramble on for pages.  He has inspired many an author who was drawn to his stream-of-consciousness style of writing.  One of his famous (or often referenced) passages is his reflection and memory of a madeleine cake. Even a chapter in a recent book, I Feel Bad About My Neck by Norah Ephron, refers to those famous madeleines.  In the movie Little Miss Sunshine, the suicidal brother was a Proustian scholar.  When the teenager of the family told his uncle that he wished he could just skip high school, he was informed that Proust felt the only real growth we experience is through suffering, and if you skip high school, you would be missing out on some of the finest suffering to be had. 

The word Proustian (pronounced prus’ tean) is an adjective in the dictionary, defined as:  “of, having to do with, or suggestive of the novelist Marcel Proust or his works.  As in ‘…I found myself remembering every detail with an almost Proustian clarity.’ ”  

Marcel Proust was born in Paris on July 10, 1871.  An asthma attack at age nine turned him into an invalid.  His wealthy parents doted on him and enabled him to enjoy the privileges of this chosen lifestyle without concerns for a livelihood. Despite his eccentricities, he was considered quite charming.  His writing has been compared to Shakespeare and Stendhal. 

Proust adored his grandmother and often spent his summers with her at the Grand Hotel in Cabourg, France.  I once stayed at this hotel in the room opposite the Proust Suite — might I say a small highlight of my life — and I even had a chance to visit the suite when it was unoccupied.  A proud moment was having my picture taken next to his bronze bust on the hotel’s desk. 

My friends wonder at my spending time with this book when even libraries are taking it off the shelves.  “Are you enjoying it?” they’d ask.  Although Proust was not an active participant in life, he was a keen observer of humanity.  He felt that it is only in our recollection of events that we experience the true meaning of an experience.  It is fascinating to me to read expressions from that time that are still being used in the 21st century or about character traits that are alive and well in people I know today.   

Reading Proust has turned into a priority on my bucket list.  Others have aspirations to climb mountains, run a marathon or achieve other ambitious feats, but each summer I am determined to plow through 500 more pages of Proust.  One of my book friends in Florida has encouraged me to give it up.  She even promised to throw the book in my coffin if my goal is not achieved.  What would we do without friends? 

I’m anxious to see how my life will be changed after having read it. By “life-changing,” perhaps my professor just meant I would be a lot older! 

Maureen did finish reading Proust on Friday, August 7, 2009 at 
10:52am.  She is now moving on to the next item on her bucket list – 
maybe a tattoo?
She can be reached at [email protected]

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