books / Proust & Me Blog / teaching proust & his world

Teaching “Proust and His World”

June 24, 2013 | By Larry Bensky
Proust Lu © Véronique Aubouy

Larry Bensky began to read Proust at Yale, as a student of the legendary professor Henri Peyre. He read the complete In Search of Lost Time for the first time while living in Paris during the 1960's where he was Paris editor of The Paris Review. He now maintains the "Radio Proust" website (www.bard.edu/radioproust) and teaches "Proust and His World" at the UC Berkeley Osher Lifetime Learning Institute.


I’ve maintained the  “Radio Proust” web site for almost six years now, and have concurrently been teaching a course called “Proust and His World” for the Osher Lifetime Learning Institute at UC Berkeley.  One of the major obstacles I’ve encountered, which seems to be shared by many Proust admirers, is how to engage those who have little or no knowledge of Proust in his magnificent work? 

Fortunately, now there is a perfect way!  Recommend that people read and look at the newly published, big format book, “Marcel Proust in Pictures and Documents.” (Edition Olms, Zurich).  In fact, even the most dedicated Proust lovers will find many hours of pleasure in this relatively brief collection of writings by and about Proust, and in the extremely well chosen selection of photographs and paintings that illustrates Proust’s story.  Written by Mireille Naturel, who directs Proust graduate studies at the Sorbonne, and edited with an eloquent preface by Proust’s great grand-niece, Patricia Mantes Proust, the book is expertly translated by Josephine Bacon.

Before each class begins, there’s a big meeting in downtown Berkeley, where several hundred people listen to instructors describe their courses.  When I begin, I ask for a show of hands from those who’ve started to read, have always meant to read, or feel guilty for not having read “In Search of  Lost Time.”  About ninety percent of those in attendance raise their hands.  For them, what I recommend  is that they don’t necessarily begin at the beginning.  Rather, that they pick up any volume, any translation, and start reading anywhere.  That they resolve to read ten or so pages.  and if  they’re engaged, continue reading.  If not, start somewhere else, and do the same thing.

Once the class begins, I usually recommend that they find a paragraph – and there are many from which to choose - in which Proust cites a writer, a composer, a painter,  and/or a work of architecture.  That they then do some research – including listening to the music, and looking at the visual realizations - into those creative spirits, and extrapolate for themselves what Proust’s narrator might have been thinking and feeling.  This can help appreciation of the depths of creation, spirituality, irony and above all, imagination that Proust brings to his pages.


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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