Lost Time?

Surely, I’m not the only one who, when asked, “What are you reading?” answers shyly, almost apologetically, “In Search of Lost Time.” Of course, I absolutely dread the next question, “What is it about?” as much as the quizzical look my admission inspires in the first place. As if the eyes politely blinking before me were a-twinkle with an obvious truth, “Well, I bet you’ve found it—lost time, that is.” Harumph. It’s not that my friends are dilettantes and philistines. It’s just that they don’t read good, imaginative literature. They read books on finance, politics, economics, biology, and other non-fictional reading fare. Once, in a desperate bid to find common ground with a history buff, I suggested he read The Good Earth, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and even Cold Mountain, which given his interest in Civil War history wasn’t a half-bad book recommendation. But damn him to hell, he just smiled, serene and satisfied, “I like historical history.” One of the splendors of Proust is that he teaches us why reading fiction is not merely pleasurable and entertaining but also a highly important and relevant pursuit.

At times the reading of a novel that was at all sad carried me suddenly back, for certain novels are like great but temporary bereavements, abolishing habits, bringing us back into contact with the reality of life.

Although habits and the comforts of familiarity help sustain our identity, they also create no-eye zones, where vast stretches of richly textured experience get lost in an oblivion of awareness. Witnessing Marcel’s jealous mania, sentence after long, unfurling sentence, or Huck’s moral education on the river or Humbert Humbert’s sexual obsession and seductive, word-wielding power (say that three times fast) disrupts habitual ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling. So next time you catch yourself sheepishly answering, “I’m reading Of Time and The River,” lower the boom, instead. Roar like a lion on behalf of narrative fiction, that you’re getting in contact with nature and people, with the world, life, and reality! True, I won’t do it. No way in hell. But I’m pathetically craven that way. Not you.

8 Responses to Lost Time?

  1. R. T. says:

    You say, “One of the splendors of Proust is that he teaches us why reading fiction is not merely pleasurable and entertaining but also a highly important and relevant pursuit.” Harold Bloom (THE WESTERN CANON) would be proud of your assessment. As for me, I lost momentum after the first volume of Proust’s novels (a number of years ago) and never moved on to the others. Perhaps, while time remains on God’s earth, I ought to revisit the man and his memory of cookies.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Shattuck, in Proust’s Way, offers a concise little reading map that shortens one’s tour of duty, if that’s how we choose to imagine it, in the Search. I’ll post it early next week. I’ve been scratching away at Proust now for a year and a half, and I still can’t say with any confidence, or intelligence for that matter, how I feel about this unusually long novel, except to say that I read it with pleasure, in particular the bit on his grandma’s death, which is a wonderful stretch of fiction, some of the best stuff I’ve ever read.

  2. Colleen says:


    Also, read Wolf Hall.

  3. Kerry says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Seems there are several bloggers whose work I enjoy who are reading Proust. Maybe now is the time to bite the bullet. I hate to miss out on all the fun.

    Those last five lines. Laugh out loud, funny.

  4. Kevin Neilson says:

    Hi Kerry, thank you. I’m glad you stopped by — I’m an admirer of your blog, so much so that I self-consciously chose another WordPress theme, only to grow tired of it and revert to Contempt. Later this week, I’ll post Shattuck’s reading map, which subtracts about 2,000 pages of the Search for readers who want its essential glories. Best.

  5. Kerry says:


    Thank you very much for the compliment. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Alas, the theme is not my own.

    But, your content is absolutely outstanding. My visits have been sporadic only because I had not developed a habit, but will be regular now that I see you consistently put up great content. I really like your distinctive style. I will keep in mind your trick for writing an effective riff. It couldn’t hurt.

  6. […] new blog with superb riffs on literary subjects. Right now, he is working on Proust (“Lost Time?“) and, as part of his project, provides a summary of Roger Shattuck’s guide to Proust, […]

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