Reading and Time

Regrettably, I must begin with the quantitative — the least Proustian of all categories. The six-volume Modern Library Edition of D.J. Enright’s revision of Terrance Kilmartin’s reworking of Andreas Mayor’s and C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is 4,347 pages long. At an average speed of two hundred and fifty words, or one page, per minute, it takes approximately seventy-two hours, or three days, to read it. But seventy-two hours represents a theoretical minimum and an unattainable ideal. Thanks to a few features of Proust’s distinctive style, reading In Search of Lost Time inevitably takes at least twice or even three times as long as this.  There is, first of all, the famous Proustian sentence, whose syntactic cascades of independent and subordinate clauses were compared by Walter Benjamin, one of his first translators, to the flowing of the Nile. The longest of those riverine sentences, at nine-hundred and fifty-eight words in the original French, could, if printed out on a single strip of paper, be wrapped around the base of a wine bottle seventeen times. No one, except perhaps the most gifted mnemonist, can retain so much information in their short-term memory. By the time anyone else comes to the end of a sentence of this length, having meanwhile pulled into the port of more than one semicolon for a pause, its subject has been long forgotten. To understand what has been written, the reader is sent back to the point of departure and this, in turn, causes the pages not to move, or to move in the wrong direction.  Then there is the attention that Proust lavishes on seemingly insignificant details and physical spaces, such as the lengthy description of the steeple of Saint-Hilaire in Swann’s Way; his stubborn willingness to stay

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