Crawling Up EverestRussell Baker
On July 18 the two of us set out together to read Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. We have been reading it fairly steadily ever since, thanks to our stocked kits of smelling salts, and are determined to keep on reading until we either finish or die in the attempt.
Our first diary entries--of a Shackleton's expedition in literature--are presented below because this is a moment that cries out for public examples of heroism to remind us again of the greatness of which Americans are capable.
Few deeds can be more heroic than an attempt to read Remembrance of Things Past from beginning to end. Some persons will quarrel with this. Some will argue that true heroism lies in sitting through all of Wagner's Die Valkyrie. Others will hold that it consists in enduring a festival of Andy Hardy films. Every man has his Everest. None is so formidable as Remembrance of Things Past.
Remembrance of Things Past is longer than Everest is tall. When all seven volumes are piled together the stack is more than six miles tall. This great length is due not only to the incredible number of strained similes contained in the novel's seven voluimes, but also to the dense layers of tedium packed into almost every paragraph.
Reading it is a feat to test Hercules, Washington, Lindbergh, John Glenn or John Wayne. "Life is too short and Proust is too long," Anatole French is said to have explained when asked why he had not read it. Perhaps so.
To help in the struggle I have retained a Sherpa reader who is highly praised among his countrymen for his ability to read anything. His name is Tenzing. Once Tenzing read the inaugural address of Warren G. Harding in its entirety, and, to show that this was not a fluke, went on to read The Last of the Mohicans almost halfway through.
To protect ourselves against the temptation to cheat by skipping several volumes, we are reading aloud, every last word. The opening diary entries follow:
July 18: Would anyone believe 12,000 words about a man who had a hard time going to sleep when he was a boy? We read twenty-two pages of this before Tenzing gets ugles and say I have betrayed him by not telling him that this is a plot to bore him to death. Fortunately, I am asleep by this time and cannot take offense.
July19: Another twenty pages today. The narrator--Proust, I suppose--still couldn't get to sleep. In a sudden flurry of narrative action Proust drinks a cup of tea and eats a cookie, which remind him of his boyhood, especially an aunt and a church he associates with that age, and an inability to go to sleep.
July 20: Only six pages tonight. Proust remembers the church again and, in a plot complication, recalls a stained glass window. Tenzing revives my heartbeat with brandy after seven hours of reading the paragraph on pages forty-nine, fifty, and fifty-one. Our medical team pleads with us to turn back.
July 22: Our first crisis tonight. Lifting the book to begin, I was seized with acute indolence, which the doctors say is common in the tertiary stage of tedium gravis. It was brought on by my conviction that Proust was going to remember the church's steeple while my life ebbed away.
Recovered enough tonight to read again. Proust tells absolutely everything about a meal that was prepared when he was a boy--asparagus, chicken, potatoes, marrow, spinach, apricots, roast leg of mutton, biscuits, preserves, coffee, cream, pepper and salt, bread, butter, knives, forks, spoons, table cloth ... Tenzing says I must get a grip on myself.
July 23: Tonight we read for three weeks and finish nine pages. Proust reads in his garden and remembers veal.
July 24: Hurrah! Seventeen pages in just thirty-two hours tonight! Proust thinks of an invalid aunt and a musician who rather thinks he would like to play for some guests but is too shy to mention it.
July 25: Tenzing is in a deep depression. "That rotten Proust is going to think of the church again," he predicts at dinner. "Compared to Proust," he tells me, "Uncas, Chingachgook and Warren Harding are as much fun as Mae West." I take Tenzing to see an old Terry Thomas movie, which reminds both of us of brussels sprouts.
July 26: Refreshed by our night off, we plunge through twenty-seven pages about Proust's boyhood passion for hawthorn blossoms. Tenzing collapses in hysteria, cursing hawthorn blossoms, spinach, church steeple and stained glass windows.
Our medical team order us to take a week off. With 60,000 words behind us we have barely dented the book, but we feel heroic and American. Next week, says Tenzing, who has peeked ahead, the plot will thicken. He believes Proust is about to take a walk in the country. I already begin to look forward to it. Or is it merely anticpation of the ticker tape parade up Broadway?