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The Arkansas Way: Reading Proust on Trains

by Posted on December 17th, 2010 at 2:24 pm

The following is an excerpt from “The Arkansas Way: Reading Proust on Trains,” an essay by Ben Leubner appearing in the forthcoming issue of Southwest Review. The Review is celebrating its 95th anniversary this year.

I’m on a train (Bridgehampton-New York)
Darragh is with me, reading Proust
—in French, of course . . .
—James Schuyler, “People who see bubbles rise”

In the fall of 2008 I decided that I would read In Search of Lost Time in its entirety, between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. Rounding up, I gave myself ninety days total. As the whole work adds up to 4,200 pages, that’s 46.67 pages per day, hardly impossible, even if that is 46.67 pages of Proust. But it was easy, I knew, especially over the holidays, to lose entire days here and there, to get caught up with family, friends, and other encumbrances. It was therefore advisable, I thought, that I should make room for at least a few days in which I’d be assured of being able to read at least a hundred pages.

This wouldn’t be a problem, as between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day I would have to take several trips from my home in Boston: to New York City for Thanksgiving and then back; to Austin, tx; from Austin to San Francisco and back; from Austin back to New York; from New York to Washington and back; and from New York back to Washington again and then, finally, back to Boston. I would take several of these trips by train, because there aren’t many places where I read more efficiently than I do when I’m on a train. It was thus that I was able to read The Guermantes Way in a mere three days, on the long journey by train from Boston to Austin by way of Chicago. If you take that volume and those three days out of the equation, that leaves you with a mere 3,381 pages to read over the course of eighty-seven days: only 38.86 pages per day.

But I will come to my Guermantes Way Amtrak marathon and the experiences that led up to it shortly. First, I feel as though some defense of this entire undertaking is in order, lest it seem I’m simply one who set himself a somewhat absurd task merely for the sake of accomplishing it and without regard to the actual meaning and beauty of the work in question. No, I had the spontaneous insight that this would be the optimal way in which to read Proust: under rather strenuous and unique (and therefore memorable) circumstances. When I was a junior in college, a professor once regaled a class I was in with tales about the first time he read Ulysses, while serving in the United States military in the Pacific theater of World War Two. I imagined him lying on a cot in a barracks on some small island in the midst of an oceanic world simultaneously violent and peaceful, turning the pages of Joyce’s book in an anxious languor. I wasn’t about to join the military in order to read Proust, but I did feel the necessity of an original, or at least new, setting for such an endeavor. The momentousness of particular books demands that they be read in circumstances that are, if not equally momentous, at least unique, circumstances that might be specially, even if arbitrarily, designed specifically for the purpose of reading them. And on some occasions it may even be the books themselves that take charge of the design, leaving to us only the execution of the plan.

At nineteen I had bought a copy of Swann’s Way at a used book store. I had sat down with the book, tried to read it for a while, had been unable to see what was so special about it, and therefore promptly left it at the café in which I was stationed. I don’t think that this constitutes my first experience of reading Proust, for I am convinced that whatever it was I was reading that day, even if it had the words “Swann’s Way” and “Marcel Proust” written across the cover, it was not Proust. There were too many obstacles preventing Proust from rising from the page to my own eyes, ears, and mind, too many obstacles preventing us from meeting, as it were, not the least of which was my own general ignorance of how to read and where, especially when it came to certain types of books, or rather, to books that are their own types. It would not be until I was thirty that I would pick up a copy of Proust again.

Along the way there were several occasional jolts by way of which I recognized a growing imperative to read Proust, jolts that came while I was reading, for example, the poetry of James Merrill or the criticism of Randall Jarrell. Sometimes, then, Proust would hover about in my mind for a few hours or days, just another thing on my list of things to do that I hadn’t done yet: go to the grocery store, talk to my advisor, read In Search of Lost Time at some point in my life. But Proust was not in my mind at all, or at least, he was nowhere even remotely near the surface of it, as I was walking down Boylston Street in Boston one grey day in mid-November, 2008. I was about to be moved by what I would soon learn Proust himself had called “one of those presentiments we discern at times in the mystery of our organic life which remains so obscure but in which nevertheless it seems that the future is foreshadowed.”

I’m not ethically opposed to occasionally stopping in at a Borders or a Barnes & Noble bookstore, when the fancy to do so strikes me. And the fancy to stop in at the Borders on Boylston Street struck me fairly regularly during my walks in Boston, because one can enter the store on Boylston Street and exit it on Newbury, which not only makes for a change of scene, but also allows one, during the winter months, to warm up briefly before heading through the Public Gardens and across the Commons to the Park Street T-station. My forays into Borders on Boylston, then, were more often than not made with the intention not to purchase but simply to reheat while also taking something of a shortcut. When I was halfway through the store on that particular November day, though, I realized that I hadn’t yet chosen anything to read over the upcoming winter break. I was passing by the literature section as I had this realization, so, quite naturally, I stopped and looked at a shelf. Proust looked back. This, I believe, is what used to be called, and perhaps still is in some circles, a sign. Either that or the people who design the store layouts for Borders possess a frightening amount of knowledge.

The realization dawned on me that now was the time to read Proust, that the ten years of putting it off until this point were not years of procrastination on my part but years of preparation. I couldn’t have known then that this would also be one of the main themes of the novel itself: that what often seem like frustratingly barren periods of our lives, when we are most wont to be hard on ourselves for lack of productivity, are in fact periods when important preparatory work is being accomplished, only as it were subterraneously. Rainer Maria Rilke, who was born four years after Proust and who died four years after him as well, also understood this: after ten years of frustration, false starts, and what he at the time presumed was an agonizing incapacity brought on in large part by World War One, he was finally able to complete his Duino Elegies, after which all that had happened before suddenly made sense, was revealed as not barrenness, but necessity. Having meandered through the caverns of his being for a full decade, the poems emerged in a cataract of productivity: “It was a hurricane . . . . All that was fiber, fabric in me, framework, cracked and bent. Eating was not to be thought of.”

As I stood amongst the works of Poe, Proust, and Pynchon, it seemed as though an announcement had been made to me and I had been fortunate enough to heed that announcement, and thus no longer had to worry about missing it. In a state of calm excitement, I began to anticipate a minor destiny. Having bought Swann’s Way and walked out onto Newbury Street, I felt like a better person simply because I had Proust with me, along with a clear understanding of what I was now supposed to do. I didn’t start reading Swann’s Way right away, but instead contented myself with merely flirting with it for a few days, that is, stealing the occasional knowing glance in its direction as it lay on my kitchen table. Then it was time to pack my duffel bag for a ten-day trip to New York. I took Proust with me, just in case the inclination to start reading him at any time should arise.


Ireneo Funes, the central character of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “Funes, the Memorious,” is a young man who, following a riding accident that leaves him paralyzed, discovers that he suddenly has infallible perception and memory. As a result, he is able to perceive and recall everything perfectly, every thing, that is, at each distinct moment of its existence. This, of course, leaves him uneasy with and ultimately disgusted by human classificatory schemes that fail to take into consideration the kinds of distinctions he is able to make: “he was disturbed by that fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front).” To rectify such gross errors, Funes sets about creating, for example, a new system of numbers, not one that insults every number after nine by simply making it some combination of zero to nine but one that instead gives each number the respect it deserves as an individual entity: “in place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train.” He dies when he is only nineteen (though surely he knew his age by a different name), so that Borges’s insinuation is, as usual, at least twofold: both that human kind cannot bear this much reality and that human kind could really stand to bear a little more reality than it customarily does; that is, we might at least occasionally wonder, as Funes constantly did, at the singularity of everything that we generally tend to conceive of as uniform.

Alberto Manguel, in his recent book The Library at Night, picks up Borges’s theme and applies it to the act of reading: “We don’t read books in the same way sitting inside a circle or inside a square, in a room with a low ceiling or in one with high rafters.” And, later: “Don Quixote read after Kim and Don Quixote read after Huckleberry Finn are two different books.” Similarly, according to this logic, Don Quixote read by one person and Don Quixote read by another person are also two different books. This sort of thinking by no means need “threaten” meaning, as if it had ever been otherwise. We do not read books in the same way sitting inside a moving train car as we read them when in, say, a library or a café; our dispositions differ from one place to another, from one time to another, or, say, from one season to another, and it behooves us to take this into consideration when reading, lest we drape the entire concept and experience in a shroud of uniformity—that, one might say, is where the threat to meaning lies. One cannot read the same book twice. Swann’s Way begun on a certain Q Train of a mid-November evening in 2008 is the only book of its kind in existence, and I was the one who was reading it.

“Who in our day,” asks Kierkegaard in Repetition (the book from which Derrida learned that the only repetition is the repetition of singularity), “Who in our day thinks of wasting time on the curious idea that it is an art to be a good reader, not to mention spending time to become that?” I do not think that Kierkegaard necessarily has in mind here anything akin to New Critical close reading when he mentions the “good reader.” Or rather, if he did have something like this in mind, I think that he also meant one who is able to divine when circumstances are propitious for reading and when they are not, and, when they are, just what sort of reading they are propitious for. One cannot simply read Proust at any time, in any place. Circumstances, from the mundane to the cosmic, must align in a specific way: du côté de chez Proust, as it were. And while this specific way is by no means to be objectively determined but rather spontaneously stumbled upon and subsequently shaped and fashioned by each reader, it yet remains the case, or so I think, that the possible combinations of circumstances that make for good reading of Proust are finite in number and probably regularly feature, at least as often as anything else, a train…