Monday, August 29, 2005

The problem with Proust (and Tolstoy too)

  • Salon's "Summer School" series wraps up with Jane Smiley's take on In Search of Lost Time.
I don't know what it is about Proust and Tolstoy, but they make other writers lose their minds, either out of exasperation or jealousy (probably a combination of both). Proust's digressive style, packed with sentences that loop and curl and flow and never quit, seems like it does something to people with an interest in, and love of, language. It's like they put down Swann's Way and run straight to the keyboard to write about what they've just experienced, to hammer out an explorative essay about Proust's style/themes/whatever, just to hang on to that feeling. It's next to impossible to recommend Proust to anyone because you have to preface your recommendation with something along the lines of, "Well, he's not really a storyteller per se, but he's an amazing writer," which makes most people's eyes roll back into their heads before the sentence has even left your tongue. Nonetheless, he's worth your time. (I've heard it said that Proust can't be truly appreciated unless you read the original French, but if you're an ignorant monoglot Yank like me, a halfway decent translation is about all you can hope for.)
Tolstoy is a similar matter, despite the fact that War and Peace is hardly the unwieldly behemoth it's at times made out to be. A high-concept, fast-food culture like ours doesn't know what to do with a novel that's 1500 pages long and appears not to have any one central character or storyline. And yet you pick up the thing and grimace at the weight and tell yourself, well, if it's a drag, then I'll try again in another decade or so, and before you know it Tolstoy's hooked you, the bastard, and you find yourself awake at 3am, ink-stained thumbs sore from flipping pages, screaming, "What's gonna happen to Natasha?!?" The many characters are vivid and memorable, the philosophical ideology of fate is endlessly fruitful and the dissection of the chaos and calamity of warfare is enlightening (particularly these days). Filter out all those scholarly exhorations and you're still left with a ripping good story, told with incredible clarity and confidence and nary a dull moment. When you do, in fact, put it down, you feel like you've just been reintroduced to the world.

1 comment:

dogdonut3 said...

Wow. I just finished War and Peace and it's like you read my mind! I said to my boyfriend the exact same thing; it's like being reintroduced to the world. Great minds think alike, I guess.
I'm working on Swann's Way now...not sure I like the curlicues of Proust's voice, but I'm hanging in there. His anecdotes about relatives are worth the endless analogies.
Thanks for the insightful thoughts!