Our book today is a pretty little thing from the Penguin “Great Ideas” series, Days of Reading by Marcel Proust, here translated and abridged and pasted together by John Sturrock back in 1988. These “Great Ideas” volumes wonderfully relished in the narrow focus: a few essays, a few excerpts along key themes, and they were beautifully-designed enough to suggest that they themselves were great ideas, perfect little pocket-ponderings chipped from the larger works of some of the world’s greatest authors.
In this case, since we’re talking about Marcel Proust, the chips are chunks. Sturrock serves up some choice slabs of the Master ruminating on John Ruskin (specifically Ruskin’s gorgeous lecture “Of Kings’ Treasuries” about the glories of libraries and beetle-close readings of texts) and on the bright centrality of books and reading in his own childhood. It should come as no surprise to anybody who’s read Proust or tried to that in his childhood the call of the written word was significantly stronger than any of the more typical siren songs of boyhood, and needless to say, his reminiscences of those years are as much about reminiscing as they are about the years themselves:
There are no days of my childhood which I lived so fully perhaps as those I thought I had left behind without living them, those I spent with a favourite book. Everything which, it seemed, filled them for others, but which I pushed aside as a vulgar impediment to a heavenly pleasure: the game for which a friend came to fetch me at the most interesting passage, the troublesome bee or the shaft of sunlight which forced me to look up from the page or to change my position, the provisions for tea which I had been made to bring an which I had left beside me on the seat, untouched, while, above my head, the sun was declining in strength in the blue sky, the dinner for which I had had to return home and during which my one thought was to go upstairs straight away afterwards, and finish the rest of the chapter; reading should have prevented me from seeing all this as anything except importunity, but, on the contrary, so sweet is the memory it engraved in me (and so much more precious in my present estimation than what I then read so lovingly) that if still, today, I chance to leaf through these books from the past, it is simply as the only calendars I have preserved of those bygone days, and in the hope of finding reflected in their pages the houses and the ponds which no longer exist.
But re-reading Days of Reading just recently, I was struck by a greater seam of humanity in Proust than I’d tended to notice before. This is an author venerated to the point of idolatry by at least a dozen serious readers I’ve known in my life, and yet his magic has never worked on me, and the monstrous-whopping work for which he’s famous has always struck me as impenetrably dull. And yet, there were many points in Days of Reading where I found myself not only agreeing with him but liking him in ways I never had before, as a section where he almost grows irate at the callous ways authors sometimes dispense with their own characters, which have grown into real people in the mind of the receptive reader:
Was there no more to the book than this, then? These creatures on whom one had bestowed more attention an affection than on those in real life, not always daring to admit to what extent you loved them, and even, when my parents found e reading and seemed to smile at my emotion, closing the book with studied indifference or a pretence of boredom; never again would one see these people for whom one had sobbed and yearned, never again hear of them. Already, in the last few pages, the author himself, in his cruel ‘Epilogue’, had been careful to ‘space them out’ with an indifference not to be credited by anyone who knew the interest with which he had followed them hitherto, step by step. The occupation of each hour of their lives had been narrated to us. Then, all of a sudden: ‘Twenty years after thee events an old man might have been met with in the rue des Fourgeres, still erect, etc.’
Days of Reading reminded me that I very much liked Proust’s On Reading Ruskin when I read it a lifetime ago and made me wonder, for the hundredth time, if the hour had come for me to re-attack this author with a will and purpose … very much including that monstrous-whopping work for which he’s famous. No matter how that goes, Days of Reading, in its skimpy 100 pages, certainly always pleases.