Beating Fear of Proust

By Rife, Susan L | Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 3, 2013 | Go to article overview

Beating Fear of Proust


Rife, Susan L, Sarasota Herald Tribune


If you've always wanted to read Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" (previously translated as "Remembrance of Things Past") and for whatever reason were too intimidated to begin the seven- volume journey, Elyane Dezon-Jones and Jocelyn Van Tuyl have some advice.

The two are organizers of this month's reading and film festival based on the first volume of the 1913 literary classic, "Swann's Way."

"Proust Project Sarasota --Swann's Way: A Hundredth Birthday Celebration" gets under way on Tuesday with a lecture at New College of Florida. Throughout the month of March, lectures, discussions and film screenings will offer points of entry into the French opus.

Proust (1871-1922) began working on "A la recherche du temps perdu" in 1909 and continued until the end of his life. The final three volumes were edited by his brother, Robert, and published posthumously. The entire work is somewhere between 3,200 and 4,300 pages long, depending on the translation, and has more than 2,000 characters.

So what's so intimidating?

"I am very aware that it is a difficult text for people," said Dezon-Jones. "Proust himself was very aware that he was not writing for everybody. The book is not about him, it's about the readers. It's a different way of writing, a different way of reading. That is, you are reading your own story."

Dezon-Jones and Van Tuyl, along with Vera Neumann Wood of Selby Library and Barbara Frey of Alliance Francaise, are behind the project. Dezon-Jones, a part-time Sarasotan, is a Proust scholar who has won two academic medals in France and has spent her entire academic career reading Proust. Van Tuyl, a professor of French language and literature at New College of Florida, fell in love with Proust 30 years ago, the summer between her freshman and sophomore years in college.

They offer sometimes contradictory advice on conquering fear of Proust.

"Just open the book. And skip the first 40 pages," said Dezon- Jones. "Really, I mean it."

Van Tuyl disagrees.

"The first 40 pages are so rich, so full of images," she said. "Proust has this condition that makes him explain things to excess. That adds so much."

The opening 40 pages of "Swann's Way," titled the overture, are a dissertation on the nature of insomnia. So, said Dezon-Jones, insomniacs will find themselves in that section. Readers who are not insomniacs might not be able to stick with it.

"There are little ways, little doors you can use to open the book," she said.

"The first one is, believe it or not, a cartoon book," illustrated by Stephane Heuet, first published in France in 1998 and a few years later in the United States.

Readers also might read the parts of the novel that reflect their own interests.

"If you're interested in music, read the musical part. If you're interested in painting, read another part, so your interests are in tune," she said.

Dezon-Jones also is the author, under the pen name Estelle Monbrun, of a murder mystery titled "Murder chez Proust" that may offer another point of entry into the main event.

"It was a way to introduce people who would not read Proust, to read Proust," she said. "Because the mystery genre is interesting to so many people, it's a way to introduce them to the work. Those are ways to go around the text until you are ready to plunge into the text."

"Plunging into the text" is exactly what Van Tuyl did 30 years ago.

"I had heard about Proust by reputation, so when I went off to Japan for the summer after my freshman year, I took one book with me'Swann's Way' in French. …

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