Joys and Perils of Rereading

May 21, 2013 | By Elisabeth Ladenson

Elisabeth Ladenson teaches French and comparative literature at Columbia, where she is chair of the French department. She is the author of Proust's Lesbianism and Dirt for Art's Sake: Books on Trial from Madame Bovary to Lolita, and is currently finishing a book on Colette.  Her next project is on Jews, inverts and snobs in Proust.
Elisabeth Ladenson is currently organizing a colloquium with Antoine Compagnon, Proust Reread/Proust relu, which will take place at Columbia's Maison Francaise on October 4-5 2013.


Roland Barthes observes that when one rereads Proust one never skips the same passages.  I often think of this because as an academic a large part of my job has consisted in rereading, teaching, and writing about Proust. Barthes’s assertion seems to imply that it is something like impossible actually to read, or reread, his huge novel in its entirety, ever—some passages will always necessarily be skipped. I think this is true, or at least probable, and even perhaps advisable. It is unwise to approach Proust with too much reverence; one risks either not getting through the novel or else missing something essential, if not both.  For one thing, Proust is a great humorist, an aspect of his work that tends to get lost because of his exalted place in the modern pantheon. A few years ago a Columbia freshman who had spotted the Jacques-Émile Blanche portrait on my office wall confided that he intended someday to read Proust, in much the same tones in which he might have said his ambition was to scale the Empire State Building. I pulled a copy of Swann’s Way off my shelf and handed it to him.  A month or two later, in the summer, I received a message from this student announcing that he had finished the book, enjoyed it immensely, and was planning to start on the next volume.  He had one question, though:  he had found it very funny in parts, and was worried about this.  Perhaps he had read it wrong? I had the impression that he was prepared to reread the volume, this time finding it deadly serious, if necessary.

My own introduction to Proust came first via my bookish mother, whose enthusiastic recommendation was enough to put me off for some years (such are the unfortunate vagaries of adolescence). When I finally started reading Swann’s Way it was in French, in France, when I was meant to be working on something else entirely.  I was totally captivated, and luckily didn’t realize how seriously I was supposed to be taking it.  Still, getting all the way through that first volume was a bit of a challenge, and by the time I’d finished I felt sufficiently intimidated by all those other tomes in the series that I decided I’d have to read the first one again, sure I had missed too much to forge ahead.  It was not until I had started graduate studies in French literature and committed myself to writing a master’s thesis on Proust that I managed to make the leap into the second volume, by which time I had read Swann’s Way twice.  Since then I’ve reread the novel a number of times, I have no idea how many, and Barthes’s pronouncement about never skipping the same passages has held entirely true.  Proust’s work has lots of boring passages, some of which I always find boring—the rhapsodic nature descriptions, for instance (those tedious and embarrassing hawthorn blossoms! despite my best efforts I’ve always been impervious)—and yet somehow the book manages to have changed so much each time (and yes of course, Proust himself explains this phenomenon, I know it is I who have changed) that each time I pick it up I am surprised by what I find there. 

In the end I think Guermantes is my favorite part: the salon scenes are endlessly delightful, and the pre-Sodom depictions of Charlus’s deranged behavior never fail to entertain and instruct.  What I am sure of, in any case, is that the set-piece version of Proust—the petite madeleine, the disquisitions on the nature of Time and Memory—is far from what is most interesting about this writer and his work.  The middle volumes are, to my mind, the best.  It is where we least expect it that he has the most in store for us, every single time.      


Air France is a proud sponsor of 2013: A Year with Proust, a year long festival organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

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