Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Greer on Proust

In Sunday's Guardian, Germaine Greer asks "Why do people gush over Proust?" She begins her column with this barn-burner of a paragraph: "If you haven't read Proust, don't worry. This lacuna in your cultural development you do not need to fill. On the other hand, if you have read all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, you should be very worried about yourself. As Proust very well knew, reading his work for as long as it takes is temps perdu, time wasted, time that would be better spent visiting a demented relative, meditating, walking the dog or learning ancient Greek."

Greer goes on to criticize Proust's editors, translators, and gushers, but particularly his grammatical style: "If Proust did not make such a snobbish to-do about diction, it might be easier to forgive him for his battering of the sentence to rubble and his apparent contempt for the paragraph. He relies on commas and semi-colons to do what should be done by full-stops, of which there are far too few, many of them in the wrong place. Sentences run to thousands of words and scores of subordinate clauses, until the reader has no recollection of the main clause or indeed whether there ever was one."

Agn├Ęs Poirier responds, suggesting that Greer must have been knocked on the head by Proust's works while dusting her bookshelves. "What exactly is the problem with Proust according to Greer? It's too long, apparently, therefore too expensive to acquire, and impossible to read in the bath. Here is literary criticism of the highest nature." She takes issues with Greer's picking on Proust's grammar ("artistic style," she says), and with translations. Poirier concludes "I won't start defending Proust and praise his prose. You only need to read him to know that it won't be wasted time. It could even change your life."

Well. All I know is, having tried to get through about six pages of Proust and giving it up for temps perdu, I'm with Greer. But to each their own. If it makes you happy, read Proust. If it doesn't, don't. And if you're Greer and Poirier, keep up the exchange, it's entertaining for the rest of us.