Book too hard

I was feeling much better this morning, a-leaping out of bed with great ambitions to do things, maybe even to edit Trust! That lasted until I had to do difficult things like stand upright and eat breakfast. But even then I, ever the optimist, was thinking I might be able to engage in a demanding mental task (like editing Trust!). To test this, I picked up Marcel Proust. Five pages later, I acknowledged defeat.

Yes, I am reading Proust--I'm up to the third volume of Remembrance of Things Past (now more accurately translated as In Search for Lost Time). Rargh! I fear no Serious Literature!

I've been on a quest over the past few years to read works of literature that are so well-known that they've affected the culture I live in. Mainly that's led to my reading a lot of pop books that are merely OK (Valley of the Dolls, Mommie Dearest). I've also had to force my way through some real stinkers, like Flowers in the Attic and The Fountainhead. Seriously, if you are tempted to read Ayn Rand, I would suggest you read Starship Troopers first. They're both simple-minded political screeds masquerading as novels (so if you like the one you'll like the other), but Starship Troopers is several hundred pages shorter and somewhat less offensive. (I do not consider Heinlein's enthusiasm for, say, child abuse to be any less offensive than Rand's enthusiasm for rape. However, Heinlein spares the reader lovingly-detailed scenes of violent abuse, followed by the victim falling in love with her abuser, because being beaten and not experiencing any sensual pleasure was the best thing that ever happened to her. Honestly, I feel incredibly sorry for Rand.)

Anyway, after reading all these books that are famous but not very good, I decided to reward myself by reading Proust's massive novel, which is famous for being good. And difficult, although The New York Times makes the case that a good chunk of that difficulty is due to the fact that the first widely-available translation into English was simply not that great.

I'm enjoying it (in the new translation), but it is still a difficult book. It's not difficult the way the High Modernists (Pound, Eliot, Joyce) are difficult--Proust doesn't spend all his time making allusions to other works, and God help you if you haven't read them. The length is massive, and it's all one novel, so Proust will refer to a character you haven't seen for 900 pages (and, since he actually wasn't very good with details, the character's name or some other identifying feature has probably been changed), but that's not the main reason it's difficult. Mainly it's difficult because Proust was so damned smart. The book is largely about things like how we experience art and how we perceive reality, so it's like a million little philosophical and artistic essays crammed into one storyline. The essays are really good, and (unlike Rand and Heinlein) it's not just the same essay over and over, but it's taxing to read and process all those deep thoughts. Even when I'm not sick and dumb, Proust makes me wish I was more intelligent. Still, they are very insightful, and the rest of the book is funny and really well-written.