Switch off the phone, turn on the radio and tune into Proust | Alex Clark

In the age of the short attention-span, a 10-hour radio version of In Search of Lost Time is high-class therapy

Might Marcel Proust, on finding that BBC Radio 4 is to broadcast a 10-hour adaptation of In Search of Lost Time across the August bank holiday weekend, stretch his dictum that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”, so that it also includes ears? Or might a 21st-century version of him simply mutter “meh” and start streaming episodes of Euphoria or Glow, while tweeting about something completely different?

I’d like to think the former, though Proust, like Isaac Hayes’s Shaft, was a complicated man, and not amenable to second-guessing. Either way, though, the broadcast is good news for devotees of the author and of French literature, and to anyone wary of the often toxic brew of over-excitement, overindulgence and ennui that a long weekend brings. Under a Labour government, which would be committed to even more of the damn things, let’s hope for lengthy adaptations of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists and Germinal.

There is, of course, no mutual exclusion zone around In Search of Lost Time and Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling; you are at complete liberty to enjoy both and, in my experience, that’s a good route to at least temporary happiness. But there is something about classic literature, even when it has been adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker and comes garlanded with performances by Derek Jacobi, Simon Russell Beale and Frances Barber, that sets off the arduousness alarm.

Classic literature … Timberlake Wertenbaker.
Classic literature … Timberlake Wertenbaker. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Don’t listen to it. It is there to tell you that you, a person with limited time, emotional capacity and cultural bandwidth, could more effectively fill your schedule than by listening to a labyrinthine exploration of consciousness that appears, from what everyone says about it, to be primarily concerned with biscuit-dunking. It is there to insinuate to you that books are hard and telly is easy. It is there to warn you against having notions.

The other side of the pincer movement is the purist, who will tell you that listening is not the same as reading, and that 10 hours barely scratches the surface of the modern era’s greatest series of novels. Ignore that advice, too: you should read Proust because it’s a brilliant safari through sex, death and everything in between, but the world won’t end if you don’t. A Proust canapé is better than no Proust at all. Even if you don’t go in search of lost time over the bank holiday, whatever it is you choose to become immersed in, surrender to it. Do not scroll through Twitter at the same time, searching for others’ reactions and speed-forming your own. That way lies a life of apoplectically watching Question Time and raging at the dying of the polite. Do not set about refining your to-do lists or making a start on your taxes. If you are caught up in that other traditional bank holiday pastime, taking a rail-replacement bus, perhaps listen on catchup. There are some activities that can prompt a meditative state conducive to deep listening – ironing sheets is one of them – but they are not as numerous as wild-eyed multi-taskers would have us believe.

Proust himself was the ultimate exponent of the art of taking one’s time, because his subject was time; what it does to us, how it plays tricks on us and how its passage threatens our belief in an easily verified reality. For much of his life, his chosen location for contemplation was bed; his housekeeper once said that she never saw him write even the briefest of notes while standing up, and he preferred above all else to retreat to his cork-lined bedroom.

Proust: the prescient enemy of the quantified self, the fleeting gaze, the endlessly active; the champion of brooding and naps. What a guy. Would you really deny him 10 hours of your time?

• Alex Clark writes for the Guardian and the Observer


Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

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