Olimpia Zagnoli

Reading Proust on My Cellphone

I glided through sentence after sentence, volume after volume, on my Android in the nighttime darkness. The experience was remarkably ... Proustian.

A long time ago I was hopelessly hung up, and not in a good way, on a certain passage in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The offending passage, obstructing all the rest of Proust for me, lay in the very middle volume, the fourth of seven, which was then called Cities of the Plain (and has since been retranslated, with more accuracy and more filth, as Sodom and Gomorrah).

There was no reason I should have been waylaid there. This was the volume that thrilled Colette: “No one in the world has written pages such as these on homosexuals, no one!” It was the volume, according to Proust’s newest biographer, Benjamin Taylor, that outraged and possibly killed Count Robert de Montesquiou (the supposed model for the sneering gay aristocrat Baron de Charlus). And it was the volume that André Gide abhorred for its sneaky, secretive, un-Greek view of homosexuality.

Here is a scene from that volume. Standing by a window, behind shutters, the narrator daydreams about a bee buzzing near an eager flower, its stamens “spontaneously curved so that the insect might more easily receive their offering.” Now his focus shifts to the tryst unfolding below, between Charlus (also known as Palamède de Guermantes) and the Guermanteses’ ex-tailor, Jupien, who is younger and of a lower class. The narrator describes how each man was transformed once he was sure no one was watching him.

M. de Charlus had relaxed that tension in his face, deadened that artificial vitality, which the animation of his talk and the force of his will kept in evidence there as a rule … He seemed already carved in stone.

As for the tailor,

Jupien, shedding at once the humble, honest expression which I had always associated with him, had—in perfect symmetry with the Baron—thrown up his head, given a becoming tilt to his body, placed his hand with a grotesque impertinence on his hip, stuck out his behind, posed himself with the coquetry that the orchid might have adopted on the providential arrival of the bee.

How could I possibly be stuck in that volume? But I was. And as the years wore on, my shame at not being able to move on prevented me from returning to that volume so that I could move on. Of course, there was no cause for shame; I had effectively made it to the base camp of Everest and turned back on account of bad weather ahead. I had trotted gaily through the first part of my silver paperback Moncrieff and Kilmartin edition, which included Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove (the volume now called In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower). I had scrambled, then slogged, through the social-climbing scree fields of The Guermantes Way. I had covered plenty of ground.

And then I hit the roadblock in Sodom and Gomorrah. This moment reminds me of a scene in Seinfeld when Elaine tells her friends about her desperate drive to Kennedy airport to get rid of a guy she’s had a fling with:

I was going faster than I’ve ever gone before … I was challenging the very laws of physics … I had it. I was there. And then I hit the Van Wyck. They say no one’s ever beaten the Van Wyck, but gentlemen … I came as close as anyone ever has. And if it hadn’t been for that five-car pileup on Rockaway Boulevard, that numskull would be on a plane.

Yes, I would have made it to the Proustian equivalent of JFK had it not been for the five-car pileup that followed the sexy scene between Charlus and Jupien.

Little did I know then (I learned it only recently from Nathan Brixius, who blogs about data analytics, sports, and, apparently, Proust), but I was stuck on what seems to be the longest sentence in Remembrance of Things Past—a 958-word colossus. That is more than twice as long as the sentence Alain de Botton, in his short, witty book How Proust Can Change Your Life, claims is the longest and can “stretch around the base of a bottle of wine seventeen times.”

The gist of this lengthy, almost unparseable sentence is the remarkably pungent observation by Proust, who was both gay and part Jewish, that in society, homosexuals are

like the Jews … shunning one another, seeking out those who are most directly their opposite, who do not desire their company, pardoning their rebuffs, moved to ecstasy by their condescension; but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism that strikes them.

I really don’t know why I was stalled. Perhaps it was simply the length. Perhaps it was the content. (Was Proust the first intersectionalist?) In any case, I turned away and did not come back for 15 years.

Around 2005, a couple of years after my son was born, I returned to Proust ready to make my final ascent. By this time, the Shakespeare-inflected English title, Remembrance of Things Past, which Proust disliked, had been changed to In Search of Lost Time. And there were more translations to choose from: D. J. Enright’s improvements on Terence Kilmartin’s improvements on C. K. Scott Moncrieff (which have since been improved upon again and annotated by William C. Carter), and also Lydia Davis’s fresh translation of the novel’s first volume, Swann’s Way.

Plus there were new biographies of Proust, including one by Carter and one by Edmund White, and the monumental Marcel Proust by Jean-Yves Tadié. There were books about reading Proust, including André Aciman’s The Proust Project and de Botton’s little volume. There was even a “field guide,” Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way, which includes a footnote telling you which sections are essential (and implying which you could skip and still say you’d really read Proust).

I confess I studied that footnote, making smug mental check marks beside the passages I’d already traversed: Most of Swann’s Way (the sections titled “Combray” and “Swann in Love”). Done. The Balbec section in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Done. The death of the narrator’s grandmother in The Guermantes Way. Done. In Sodom and Gomorrah, only the first 30 pages, about Charlus—kind of done!—and also the last 30, about Albertine, the woman with whom the narrator has a long, tortured relationship over the course of a few volumes. Well …

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Feeling plucky, I abandoned Shattuck’s list and plotted a confident new goal. No shortcuts for me. I would read the whole novel in time to tell my father, then nearly 90, before he died. (My father, a Proust fan, had read it all, twice, and saw it as one of life’s great experiences.) Maybe bed was key. As Proust’s own brother, Robert, wrote: “The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time.” Pffft. I didn’t need a broken leg. I just needed a bed. Check.

Quickly, however, I spied a new impediment. My paperback had fallen apart into two sections. Split down the middle like a shabby dime novel, right about where I’d been stuck, it was no longer monumental. To make matters worse, if I opened the book, the pages peeled off in protest, one by one. Again I turned away.

Fast-forward to 2011. Smartphones were now everywhere, and I noticed that the entirety of Proust’s novel—every volume but one in the original Moncrieff translation—was available to download for free on my cellphone, an HTC Incredible, thanks to Project Gutenberg Australia. I quickly downloaded all seven volumes. Finally, in the fall, shortly before my father turned 95, I began where I left off, in Sodom and Gomorrah, reading Proust on my cellphone at night when everyone else in the house had gone to sleep.

Marcel Proust (1871–1922) at about 20 (Corbis)

When I tell people this, they look at me like I have drowned a kitten. And when I tell them that not only did I finally finish all of Sodom and Gomorrah on my cellphone, but the rest of Proust’s opus, too, and in time to tell my father, they back away from me very slowly.

I do like books, real paper books. I have shelves full to prove it. But reading Proust on my cellphone was, I have to say, like no other reading experience I’ve had before or since. It was magical and—dare I say it?—Proustian in a very peculiar way.

Here are my instructions. Make sure no one else is awake. Turn off the lights. Your windows can stay open. Now turn on your phone and begin reading. Repeat as necessary each night. Do not stop until the very last word of the very last volume, Time Regained.

Soon you will see that the smallness of your cellphone (my screen was about two by three inches) and the length of Proust’s sentences are not the shocking mismatch you might think. Your cellphone screen is like a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night. There is no shore. There is nothing beyond the words in front of you. It’s a voyage for one in the nighttime. Pure romance.

In a curious way, I think reading Proust on your cellphone brings out the fathomless something in the novel that Shattuck calls “the most oceanic—and the least read” of 20th-century classics. It makes you feel like Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo in his submarine, which is just right. As Benjamin Taylor notes in his biography, Proust: The Search, this is how Jean Cocteau described the writer at work in his bedroom, the cork-lined retreat on Boulevard Haussmann that Proust called “a little bottle stop” muffling the sounds of the world.

Although Proust knew exactly where he was heading when he put together his masterwork—he began with the first and last parts, then turned to the middle—the same cannot be said for his readers, no matter how they tackle his text. They are at sea. This is what makes reading the novel such hard going, particularly in the middle. It is also what makes the experience extraordinary.

Knowing where you are, physically, in a bound book keeps you from feeling this oceanic feeling quite so much. It keeps you grounded. But reading the book on your cellphone emphasizes your own smallness, your at-sea-ness, in relation to the vast ocean. There you are, moving along without any compass. How brave you are in your little dinghy, adrift and amazed.

My friends are amused: “But how many times do you have to swipe through those tiny pages on your cellphone to get through a single Proust sentence?” they ask. Sometimes many. Sometimes not even once. Even that record-breaking sentence, which stretches over two and a half pages in my old paperback, takes fewer than a dozen swipes. And turning the page, strange to say, is one of the nautical joys. Each finger drag is like an oar drawn through the water to keep the little glass-bottomed boat moving. After a while you’re not even aware of rowing. You’re simply looking through the glass into an endless ocean, moving silently, blindly forward.

I really missed only one thing while sliding through Marcel Proust’s novel, which follows the life of the narrator, Marcel, as he stumbles his way from childhood to middle age and finally finds the shape of his book (the very book we are reading) in his own human failings. What I lacked was the tactile sense of where on the page certain passages were, so I could return to them.

But here too I found compensations. If I could remember a phrase or even a word of the passage I wanted to go back to, I could search for it. Even better, I could send myself a message in a bottle and cast it out into the night. That is, when I came to a phrase I knew I would want to return to later, I could highlight it on my phone and paste it into an e‑mail. In the morning, I’d have a little postcard from Proust in my inbox, telling me where I’d been and what had impressed me in the vast ocean the night before.

Here is the first postcard I sent, from Sodom and Gomorrah: “I was therefore assured that I had slept profoundly, had dreamed the reverse of what had been in my thoughts overnight.” It may not be the most spectacular sentence Proust ever wrote, but it had meaning for me, and still does. I love the simplicity, the counterintuitiveness, of this thought: You will not dream what you think about as you go to sleep. This Proustian idea has now become a bedtime practice for my son and me. We list the things we do not want to dream about in order to not dream about them. And it works. Proust (though he never read Freud and wasn’t tempted to) knew dreams, and knew sleep.

When I first began my cellphone adventure I was quite choosy, sending myself only the most Proustian or un-Proustian, funniest, freakiest, filthiest bits. In the fall of 2011, I found that I’d sent myself a passage from Sodom and Gomorrah about a nouveau riche woman who, just for fun, leaves turds in hotel rooms and cabs as a kind of “keepsake” for the help to clean up, commenting: “There will always have to be the poor so that now I’m rich I can s—t on them.”

On another morning, I received a pithy little line from Charles Swann, the tragic Jewish sophisticate who shares some features with Proust himself. The line, from The Fugitive (formerly called The Sweet Cheat Gone), was: “Quality doesn’t matter, what I dread is quantity.”

I picked my passages carefully because, after all, sending yourself a message does interrupt your reading a little, much as writing a postcard interrupts a day on vacation. You have to step back, step out of yourself, think of the folks back home on solid ground.

It was strange to pick up these postcards in the morning, to see passages of Proust scattered in with the headlines, the ordinary news from friends, and the junk mail. On the morning of November 20, 2011, I was delighted to see that I had a postcard from Proust. I opened it up. It was a tidbit I’d sent myself the night before from his fifth volume, The Captive—some dialogue between the narrator and his girlfriend Albertine:

“It had to be; you were unhappy here.”

“No, indeed, I was not unhappy, it is now that I shall be unhappy.”

“No, I assure you, it is better for you.”

“For you, perhaps!” …

“Listen, Albertine, you say that you are happier here, that you are going to be unhappy.”

I remember reading this passage with my son looking over my shoulder and asking why there were so many unhappys on the page. He had picked up on something. The passage is perversely insistent both in language and in meaning. As the narrator ostensibly tries to convince Albertine that she is unhappy and that they should break up, his real motive is to make her love him more and never leave him.

I felt a little queasy reading this maddening, mannered conversation cheek by jowl with the day’s headlines: “Libya Says It Has Captured Qaddafi’s Son Seif al-Islam,” “Sectarian Strife in City Bodes Ill for All of Syria.” But the full, and disconcerting, strangeness of the juxtaposition didn’t strike me until, in the very last volume, I reached a passage about the spoiled saloniste Madame Verdurin as she read about the sinking of the Lusitania. In the middle of World War I, during butter shortages, she had somehow managed to secure herself a source of croissants. As she dipped one of her pastries

into her coffee, she arranged her newspaper so that it would stay open without her having to deprive her other hand of its function of dipping, and exclaimed with horror, “How awful!”

That was me 100 years later, dipping into my precious passage of Proust while watching the world implode.

When I sensed I was nearing the far shore in my Proustian voyage, I stopped being so picky about my postcards. I paused more and more to post messages to myself, and toward the end of the last volume, Time Regained, I had to hold back from sending myself the whole book by e-mail. Many of my postcards concerned World War I, which was raging while Proust worked on parts of his novel.

On the night of January 20, 2012, I found myself feverishly cutting and pasting one screenful of text after another from the Proustian war front in Time Regained:

During the raid of the evening before the sky was more agitated than the earth, but when it was over, the sky became comparatively calm but, like the sea after a tempest, not completely so. Aeroplanes rose like rockets into the sky to rejoin the stars and searchlights moved slowly across the sky divided into sections by their pale star dust like wandering Milky Ways.

The writing just kept building. There seemed to be no proper end. And then I saw that Proust had stopped reporting the look of war and had turned his attention to the fancy wartime parties. He put his thoughts, ranging both forward and back, into the mouth of the aristocratic dandy Charlus:

These fêtes represent what will be perhaps, if the Germans advance further, the last days of our Pompeii. It only needs the lava of some German Vesuvius (their naval guns are not less terrible than a volcano) to surprise them at their toilet and eternalise their gesture by interrupting it; children will later on be educated by illustrations of Mme Molé about to put the last layer of paint on her face before going to dine with her sister-in-law, or Sosthène de Guermantes finishing painting her false eyebrows … What documents for future history! … What similarities force themselves upon one.

And so at last, I found myself staring into space, with my little glass-bottomed boat in my hand, looking forward and looking to the past, thinking about how far I’d come since I was first stuck in Sodom and Gomorrah and how the endless voyage was going to end very soon. My long moment of reading Proust had itself become a Proustian moment, a bittersweet mixing of past and present, real life and reading life, being adrift and being amazed. Perhaps that was because I had made my way to the end so slowly. Or perhaps it was because of my habit of reading in the night, and then looking back in the cold light of day to see exactly where I had been.