Bedtime Stories

Nomadic Proust reading celebrates the centennial of 'Swann's Way'

Ira Glass.

Ira Glass. (Courtesy of Moleskine)

Ira Glass crawled into a king-size bed in a suite at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg last Friday night and began to read from the beginning of Marcel Proust’s novel Swann’s Way, published 100 years ago.

It was the first event in a nomadic, marathon reading, organized to celebrate the centennial of the first installment in the French writer’s seven-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, and the evening featured a number of Proustian devotees, including Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, comedian Mike Birbiglia, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux president Jonathan Galassi and Antonin Baudry, cultural counselor of the French Embassy, which planned the seven-day affair.

“When you hear someone read these texts, you get to know the person, how he thinks, how he feels inside,” Mr. Baudry told the Transom, explaining how he went about recruiting readers for the event. “I was curious about who they were.”

In many ways, the scene was fitting—“For a long time, I used to go to bed early,” goes the first sentence of the book—if a little cramped. Madeleines were served alongside plates of French cheese and charcuterie, and the wine flowed and flowed. Students of the School of Visual Arts sat on the sidelines, sketching the readers as they made their way through the first 100 or so pages of the book.

But there are reasons why a marathon reading of Proust’s work is inappropriate, especially in the digital age, when the last thing we need is to rush through a work that takes time to properly absorb. Proust’s sentences are so exacting, so meticulous, so tortuous—the longest, from the fifth volume, is just short of four meters long and would wrap around a bottle of a wine seventeen times, as Alain de Botton points out in How Proust Can Change Your Life—that they demand prolonged attention, time with oneself.

That is not to say the three-hour kickoff event, featuring both French and English readings, was a letdown. Mr. Stein was a delightful presence, interpreting the cadences of Proust’s lines with aplomb. And Paul Holdengraber, the director of the New York Public Library’s interview series, was hilarious as he brought out the humor in the passage in which the narrator anguishes over being sent to bed without a goodnight kiss from his mother.

“I nearly choked when I read this passage,” Mr. Holdengraber told us at the end of the night. “It’s so powerful.”

Still, on Friday evening, Proust wasn’t getting the attention he deserved, as attendees snapped iPhone photos and sent tweets—Proust’s natural enemy, one would think—out into the digital ether. Attendees also chatted distractingly in the back of the room, near the madeleines and wine.

“We are distracted from distraction by distraction. Proust asks for a form of attention that I don’t think we really have today,” Mr. Holdengraber said. “If you read Proust, you have to commit yourself to the act of reading something that you may not get.”

If we were going to appreciate Proust, it wasn’t going to be in a crowded eighth-floor hotel room in Brooklyn.

At one point, near the end of the night, someone in the back of the room accidentally activated the Siri personal assistant software on his iPhone, which spoke out loudly as a reader made her way through Swann’s Way.

“Sorry,” the phone said dryly. “I didn’t get that.”

Exactly.