The Proust Book Club: An Introduction

January 26, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 18 3 min read


Ten years ago, I purchased Jean-Yves Tadié’s definitive 720-page biography of Marcel Proust. I never ended up reading it; Tadié’s book stands on my shelf alongside my six volume set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I also never finished reading — although, to be fair, I have read a lot of it, thanks to a college professor who assigned about 75 percent of the book. We didn’t read the entire novel only because our professor wanted to leave time at the end of the semester to read another groundbreaking modernist, Samuel Beckett. I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven Beckett for not being Proust. After spending three months reading Proust’s conversational, musical, allusive, simile-rich prose, Beckett’s spare style struck me as miserly.

covercoverWhile in college, I promised myself that one day I would read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time after graduation. I made this vow, as all 21-year-olds must, knowing very little of the realities of full-time employment, commuting, and Sunday brunch plans. I also made this resolution at a time when my daily Internet activity consisted of checking my email and maybe, if I was really hungry, the dining hall menu. I had no idea that reading would one day become an activity that I would have to plan.

In my late 20s, I finally made good on my promise and read Proust daily for about four months. It was at this time that I purchased the Tadié biography. I bought it out of enthusiasm; when I started rereading In Search of Lost Time, I was enjoying it so much that I wanted to make sure I had more Proust on reserve after I finished. But my enthusiasm must have waned, because I stopped reading somewhere in volume four. I don’t remember when I gave up, or why; I don’t even remember feeling bored with the project. Looking back through my journal entries from that year, it seems that a new iPod shuffle was the culprit. Maybe the weather also played a part. I began my grand rereading project in January, when it was cozy to stay indoors and read during my lunch hour. But then spring and my iPod arrived and I started to use my lunch break to go for walks set to a soundtrack of my own design. I have to wonder what albums could have been better than Proust. And at the same time, I think that Proust, who briefly subscribed to “Théâtrophone,” a service that allowed him to listen to live opera performances via telephone, would have understood the temptation.

And so, here I am, 10 years (!) later, trying again to finish one of the best novels I’ve ever read, possibly the best novel I’ve ever read. (I’ll know for sure when I finish.) The world (i.e. the Internet) has only gotten more distracting and, having become the mother of a three-year-old, my daily responsibilities have increased and become less negotiable. At the same time, one thing I’ve learned over the past decade is that you can accomplish a lot by doing a little of something every day. You can raise a child, write a book, make a life with another person. Almost everyone I know who has completed In Search of Lost Time (and to be clear, most of these “known” people are those who have written about the experience, not anyone I’ve met personally) did it slowly, reading just 10 to 20 pages a day, usually in the morning. At a pace of 10 pages a day, it will take me about a year and two months to finish, a period of time that doesn’t seem as long as it did 10 years ago. If it’s not already obvious, I’ve decided to write about this reading project here on The Millions. It will be a book club of one — though if anyone would like to join me, I’d love the company. I’ll be posting monthly, (perhaps twice monthly, if the mood strikes) and I have no idea what I will write about, only that Proust’s beautiful novel will be my point of departure.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and Read more at or sign up for her newsletter here.


  1. Unfortunately, the Tadié biography is terrible. So you shouldn’t feel bad that you haven’t read it. (I read it in French and it was quite bad, but apparently the the English translation is worse, as it’s somewhat abridged.) Bill Carter’s bio is much better.

    As for reading Proust, go for it! I’ve read the cycle four times, once in English, then later in French. Not to toot my horn, but I wrote something on my website recently about re-reading Proust that might interest you:

  2. @Kirk I’m actually reading a version of Swann’s Way that is annotated by Carter, and it’s excellent, so maybe I’ll give his biography a try, too. Good to know I haven’t missed anything with the Tadie, though I do notice that it is often cited as a reference in articles, and in an recent short biography of Proust by Benjamin Taylor.

    Thanks for sharing your essay. It was interesting to hear how the original French compares, and interesting that you found it was closer to spoken French–I’ve always felt that way about Proust, that his sentences aren’t that hard to follow if you “listen” to them. Sometimes if I find myself getting distracted, I’ll read out loud for a bit.

  3. Ah, Hannah, I had to smile….you created a new iPod Habit!
    Proust’s wisdom on Habits made me look seriously at a few of my own.

    So pleased you are reading Carter’s “Swann’s Way,” as it is the only annotated edition in English. His second volume came out last year, “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” and “The Guermantes Way” is being printed by Yale University Press this year.

    “And so, here I am, 10 years (!) later, trying again to finish one of the best novels I’ve ever read, possibly the best novel I’ve ever read. (I’ll know for sure when I finish.)”
    Hannah, if you took a break while reading the fourth volume, and have now returned to begin again, you must know, intuitively, that Proust resonates within you.

    Please email directly, if you need any encouragement. ;)
    And Kirk is one our most generous gurus!

    PS I will be seeing Benjamin Taylor on Feb. 14th, at the 92nd St Y, New York.

    Here is his audio course on the novel (scroll down):
    Columbia University, Department of English and Comparative Literature
    Winter – Spring 2013

    A favorite:
    Antoine Compagnon’s 2013 lecture series on “Swann’s Way,” with English voice-over. Very detailed, one lecture just on the thirteen re-writes of the first sentence!

  4. Taking a slow pace helps. I did the entire thing 2 books per year (Fall and Spring) and took 4 years to complete. Easily the best novel I’ve read in my life (and I’ve read a number of them). And because it is so rich, endlessly re-readable.Looking forward to reading your posts.

  5. I quit reading after the fourth book because I found the character of Albertine so annoying I wanted to push her (and Proust) out of a window.

  6. I read it in English and at the same time listened to an abridged audio version. So I’d read a chunk and then listen to the corresponding chunk. Now I feel as if I know the book inside and out, so my current project is reading it in French, a bit each night just before I go to sleep. Seeing I know what’s happening I can just go with the French without having to try and decipher anything.

  7. @Hannah, I think the Tadié gets cited a lot because it has a lot of details. But it’s all details, there’s not much narrative. It’s not an enjoyable biography to read, it’s a biography for scholars. (And Tadié is criticized for his overly-scholarly approach to the current Pléiade French edition of Proust, where half of each volume is “notes and variants.”) I wrote a brief review of the book when it was published:

    @Marcelita: thank’s for the kind words! And thanks for pointing out the Taylor course. I recently ordered his book, and am looking forward to reading it, but his course might be interesting too.

  8. @Kirk, you would enjoy listening to the Columbia students’ perspective on Proust.
    Taylor assigns 250-300 pages a week!
    Taylor instructs them, “Read fast…..because the end is a life changing experience.”

    As a firm proponent of “reading innocently,” first-time readers should wait to listen, until they are well into the novel.
    Just re-played Class 1:

  9. @Marcelita Thank you for the links! I just listened to a bit of the first lecture and will definitely be downloading them onto my iPod ;) (Actually, I’ve transitioned to a smart phone, which is infinitely more distracting than that old iPod!)

    It’s interesting you mention Proust on habit because I found myself underlining a couple of his sentences on the subject in the Combray sections. I love how he describes Habit as “that skillful but unhurrying manager”. I’m about three weeks into reading now and feel as if I’m beginning to form a new habit, but it hasn’t quite taken hold yet.

  10. I tried to read it slow and had problems. I discovered that, for me, reading it faster worked better. Even reading it a little drunk is fine. I don’t think of it like a regular book. It’s more like hypnosis. If you skip a sentence, don’t worry. Just keep going. You’ll read it again later because you’ll end up loving it so much. You just need a general idea what’s going on. Swann’s Way is beautiful in itself. It can stand alone. The second book takes up another thread. The third book is, in my opinion, the most dull. And then the story really takes off in the fourth book. The last book is like a lover. It’s that gorgeous and bittersweet. Getting bogged down in the scholarly aspects of it when you begin can intimidate. Later, you can look at all that and discover prisms of other worlds. It can be enjoyed and not taken like medicine.

  11. If you speak French, there is a very good free audio reading of the whole of Proust. I am slowly wading my way through it. I will be very interested to read what you find reading him this time round. I’m sorry to say that he irritates me. He writes beautifully, but he does not know when to stop – but, in writing that, I think I’ve demonstrated how dreadfully I’ve missed the entire point.

    PS If you are interested, here is what I’ve thought so far about the audio I’ve been listening to, which I’ve been making slow progress through, (I’m resolving to follow your small-amount-per-day method):

    Gosh, fishing for those links has made me realise it’s more than a year since I listened. Thank you for inadvertently inspiring me to return to the task.

  12. When I was in the Navy in 1952 I found a two volume set of Remembrance of Times Past for $3 at a used book store in Jacksonville,.Fla., and I thought that was a bargain and bought the set. After I finished my Navy time and law school in 1955 I decided to read it. Started it on 27 or 28 April 1955 and finished it 7 August 1955. Some of it I liked but some I found utterly boring. Extensive quotations from my comments while reading it are in my “Review” of it on LibraryThing. I have over 5300 books listed on LibraryThing and I have read every one–since I never list a book until I have read it. And I have a “review” pf eveyone listed, and a rating of every one.

  13. I am part of a group which meets at Fullers Bookshop in Hobart. Over the past 3 years we have met Autumn and Spring.

    We meet for 2 1/2 hours each week to discuss and read together Proust

    We complete the Captive this week and commence the Fugitive next week.

    The experience has been heavenly and a way of “keeping on track”

    2017 will complete the journey.


  14. In Search of Lost Time is all one super-long novel, not a series of connected novels, so it’s probably best to start with volume one and read all seven volumes through in sequence, starting with Marcel as a boy and going step by step through his life:

    1. Swann’s Way
    2. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
    3. The Guermantes Way
    4. Sodom and Gomorrah
    5. The Prisoner
    6. The Fugitive
    7. Time Regained

    It’s possible to read the volumes out of sequence, of course, but Proust was never a fan of dividing the novel up into separate volumes anyway. If publishing would have made it feasible, he would’ve much preferred to bring out the whole story in a single giant book. The novel is clearly designed to be read from start to finish, since it’s main technique is to introduce a theme or image and then gradually deepen and change our view of that theme or image as the novel goes along and as Marcel becomes older and brings greater knowledge to his experiences. I think you’d lose a lot of that development if you read the volumes out of sequence.

  15. I had what I think is the same experience you described: a new book created a wedge that allowed me to break down my resistance to finally reading Proust. The book is a new one entitled Wagnerism by the New Yorker music critic Alexander Ross. Most of Chapter 9 is devoted to Proust.

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