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Black Lamb


Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.


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Mighty Marcel

June 1st, 2003


Call me a Proust snob. Whatever. I’d rather be that than one of these “well-read” people who’ve never had the experience of A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) or who tell you proustcartoonthey’ve read “some of it,” meaning three of the thousands of pages. No. You’ve either read it or you haven’t. Reading “some of it” is like reading “some of” a James Patterson novel, or watching “some of” a movie or a World Series game. You might have a sense of it, but that’s all. In the case of Marcel and A la recherche, you’re nothing but a poseur. Hey, it offends me. And I feel bad for you, because you don’t know what you’re missing.

Not that no one’s read it, not by a long shot. In the Book of Lists, years ago, A la recherche du temps perdu was voted one of the ten greatest works of all time, as well as one of the ten most boring (boring for people who like bombs, blood, and bimbos). All the scholars have read it, as well as millions of lowbrows like me. Well, thousands, maybe. Because, like I say, you don’t count unless you’ve read the whole thing.

You gotta want it to get through the beginning, even, the Overture. As a French editor named Marc Humbolt wrote in 1912, in a famous rejection letter, “I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”
Not only that — no murder, no car chase, nothing — there’s the style. No one, before or since, has written like Marcel. And no one ever will. No one ever could. Marcel was a freak, far above and beyond mere mortals. Yeah, but as my sister Sarah, a good reader, asked me after quitting on page three, “Why can’t he write a sentence and a period, and a sentence and a period, and like that?”

Well, because Marcel was so far beyond that. Have you ever been to the museum in Barcelona where they’ve got all those paintings Picasso did at age thirteen, fourteen? He was a master of representational painting at that point and then moved on. You think Marcel couldn’t write a simple, Hemingwayesque sentence? If you want Hemingway, read Hemingway, but Marcel was way on out there, replicating consciousness, which is a most complex business.

I was nineteen, a college dropout reading everything that wasn’t nailed down, when a respected prof from my single year of higher learning called and intoned, most solemnly, “Jim, I believe you’re ready for Proust.” For who? I went out and shoplifted Swann’s Way, the first of that seven-volume, pastel-colored, soft-cover edition, sky-blue, with the tiny print. It opened: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.”

This is great stuff? I could write something like that. And then on and on about this guy trying to sleep, those endless sentences, words and words and words. I tried and tried but couldn’t get past page three. I told my pal Todd Grimson, an aspiring novelist, what Dr. White had said, and Toddy read the whole thing in the next few months and talked incessantly about “Marcel,” his new hero, but I couldn’t get past page three.
I tried again and again over the next few years, picking up that sky-blue softcover and staggering through endless sentences about this guy trying to sleep, but I got nowhere. Was it me, or was it Proust?

It finally happened for me several years later, while I was staying with my folks in North Carolina. I’d had my wisdom teeth removed, I was on Darvon, and I picked up that same sky-blue copy of Swann’s Way… and, whoa! Ten pages one day, ten the next, and suddenly this stuff was starting to sing. Hey, nobody ever wrote like this! What was this guy on?

At first I couldn’t read more than twenty pages a day. The style was so unusual, I had to concentrate so hard. But once it started to sing, I got up to fifty a day. It took a while, because a sentence might include fifty clauses, and if you spaced out and missed one you had to reread the whole thing, but after a while I was so hooked I never spaced out. I read and read and read. Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way.

It took weeks and weeks, of course, and I ran out of Darvon and got a construction job, but I would come home and make a pitcher of frozen daiquiris and read until I fell asleep, lost in the world of the narrator Marcel and the Guermantes clan and the incredible Baron de Charlus, the greatest character in all of literature, and dozens of others. The characters! The style! And most of all, the rendering of consciousness, of memory! That’s all we’ve really got, right?

Cities of the Plain, The Captive, The Fugitive, and finally, finally, after some 3,500 pages — when I’d started thinking This is too short, I don’t want it to end! — the incredible Time Regained, with the big party where the grownup Narrator, Marcel, mistakes Gilberte for her mother, the Princesse de Guermantes. What can I say? There’s nothing like it anywhere else in literature.

The Search (as it’s known to us idolaters) changed my life. How? Hard to explain. All I know is that I was never the same afterward. The world never looked the same. Fifteen years passed and I had a chance to spend a year in Italy. I didn’t have money for books for that long, so I bought a new translation of the Search at a bookstore in Rome, knowing it would last me most of the time. That year, I sat in my bathtub at night and lived it all again, thrilled and energized again even as I was made to feel small again by the genius, the freakishness of Marcel — Marcel Proust, not the Narrator Marcel.

The Man. The Work. If you’ve gotten into it, you know. If not, make the effort, even if you’ve tried five times before. It’s all there.

If it doesn’t work for you, I’m sorry. Your loss. Just don’t come back saying it’s Marcel’s fault. I’m telling the story, and I know stuff, and I know Marcel is the Muhammad Ali of literature: The greatest of all tiiiiiimes! •

Posted by: The Editors
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