Living and Dying With Proust, by Christopher Prendergast

Review by Rob Spence

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is seen as a kind of literary Everest, to be attempted only by the brave or foolhardy. Conveniently, Proust’s work is divided into seven volumes, which has given rise to the notion that readers who complete the first volume will start volume 2, but only half will complete that; those who do, move on to volume 3 and the minority who manage that will complete the whole series. This reputation for difficulty is unfortunate, as it probably puts off potential readers who will therefore miss one of the great reading experiences of western literature.

Christopher Prendergast is an ideal guide to the work, a veritable Sherpa Tenzing for any reader who wants to immerse themselves into Proust’s world. Prendergast, Emeritus Professor of Modern French Literature at Cambridge, was also the general editor of the Penguin translation of the Recherche, and has written extensively on the subject. What he presents here, though, is not a dry academic text. Instead, by organising his thoughts around a series of quirky topics, allowing him free rein to explore the labyrinthine byways of the novel, he highlights some of the startling insights into human nature that Proust lays before the reader.

From the beginning, Prendergast is at pains to point out that his book is not another of those self-help books that claim Proust can help you how to live, his title notwithstanding. Rather, he explores the rich tapestry of Proust’s sensory world, which he calls the Proust sensorium, using particular aspects of the novelist’s acutely receptive encounters with nature and people. So, for instance, there is a chapter on Proust’s obsessive focus on the colour pink, which ranges over the work of Turner, Ruskin and others, as well as the author’s synaesthesia. The way in which Proust’s own biography is woven into the world of his narrator provides Prendergast with much material, often illuminating both our idea of the novel and our concept of its author. In other chapters, attention is paid to topics such as the prevalence of crossroads in the novel, or the way breathing features as a motif. It’s a revelation to wander around the book in Prendergast’s company, marvelling at each new insight.

A great joy of this book is Prendergast’s style. To use a cliché that he would doubtless abhor, he wears his learning lightly. The learning is certainly there, but the expression of it is constantly engaging. Who would expect, for example, that a whole chapter might profitably be devoted to Proust’s focus on cheeks in the novel? Prendergast is constantly entertaining, constantly provoking, and causing at least this reader to feel that, having read the Recherche, I now need to go back to it, with my understanding considerably enriched. I loved the little corrections to received wisdom that abound here. For instance, the iconic “Madeleine” episode is rightly given attention, but only in the context of Proust’s lifelong fascination with baked goods. Prendergast points out that croissants feature far more frequently. Other pastries are available.

This is a witty, urbane, entertaining guide to one of the glories of European literature. Any work on Proust that manages to mention en passant Fairport Convention, Kevin Kline, T.S. Eliot and Karl Marx is certainly one that is not hampered by academic convention. The publishers indicate that it will appeal to both readers already acquainted with the work, and those wishing to tackle it. I think I would caution those who have not read Proust before that this book will reveal all about the fate of the characters, so a spoiler alert might be appropriate. Having said that, the novel has such a huge cast of characters and a recursively complex narrative form, that perhaps it would not make much difference. 

At one point, Prendergast points out that the “perdu” in the title can mean “wasted” as well as “lost”. Maybe Proust intended the reader to bear in mind that secondary meaning, and certainly it is a suggestive idea. As far as this guide goes, however, I would recommend it heartily. You will certainly not be wasting your time.

Rob Spence’s home on the net is robspence.org.uk  You can also find him on Twitter @spencro.

Christopher Prendergast, Living and Dying with Marcel Proust (Europa Editions, 2022). 978-1787703513, 243pp., hardback.

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