On Thursday afternoon, by an incredible coincidence, I finished two very long books that I have been reading for a very long time. They are Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (or ‘In Search of Lost Time’) and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Proust’s is considered one of the greatest works of modern literature;
a great work of fantasy. In nearly every respect they are the total opposite of
one another. In one respect though, they are the same – length.
Oh, and they both have the word ‘time’ in their titles.
I started reading The Wheel of Time (or WoT as its hoards of devotees call it) when it came out in 1990, twenty-three fucking years ago. Robert Jordan actually died in 2007 and they had to get another guy to finish it, which he did in January this year. It ran to 14 volumes and a touch over 4 million words. In contrast, In Search of Lost Time clocks up only 1.2 million (War and Peace, for comparison, totals 587,000) across a mere seven volumes. Strangely, I read the first volume, Swann’s Way at university, counted myself lucky that was all I had to persevere through, had it itch at me for a while, then started the whole thing again in around 2008.
So, were they any good? They were, but they’re so different I can make no real comparison between them. ‘Exile on
Street’ compared with Beethoven’s Ninth?
‘Terminator’ compared to Kieslowski’s ‘Blue?’ Jordan himself was an Episcopalian
nuclear engineer who served two tours of Vietnam
as a helicopter gunner (aside: Michael Herr to a door gunner in Dispatches:
“How do you kill women and children?” Answer: “Just don’t lead ‘em so much”).
Proust was an asthmatic social climber who spent the last three years of his
life confined to his cork-lined bedroom.
The Wheel of Time was epic fantasy of a sort I don’t really read any more – I barely read fantasy at all these days. It was done very well with a big cast of nicely drawn characters, an interesting world, neat descriptions of sword fighting, a novel conception of magic and a satisfying resolution. There was a certain amount of disconnect as the years between each book meant that I started each one with the plot for the previous volume as a dim memory. I do remember that some of the latter ones penned by Jordan, say volumes 8-10, were pretty dull, and having a new author brought in after Jordan died (possibly from RSI after all that typing?) was a definite breath of fresh air to get the whole thing moving and finished.
In Search of Lost Time was vast and infrequently rewarding. It forced me to read slowly and carefully due to its dense, multiply compounded sentences, sometimes running to more than a page. It drew me in with accessible portraits of, and ruminations on, obsessive love, then pushed me away with the tedious minutiae at play between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie at the world’s longest and most boring dinner party. It left me with an impression of Proust as an expert on memory (and what a fantastic thing on which to be an expert), modestly possessing a huge vocabulary, preoccupied with class and with homosexuality (or ‘inversion’ as he calls it), a pettily jealous mummy’s boy, a tender child filled with love for his grandmother, and someone deeply affected by flowers, particularly hawthorn blossom.
So, let me cheerfully roll out the usual clichés regarding high and low culture. The Wheel of Time was a plot-driven, fun read populated by shallow characters and showing a shallow conception of the world. In Search of Lost Time was disdainful of plot; a difficult book populated by multifaceted characters and displaying an almost painful engagement with existence. I mentioned before that besides being long they also have the word ‘time’ in their titles. A good summation then is the thesis put forward by each about the nature of time:
The Wheel of Time: ages come and pass, history occurs in cycles.
In Search of Lost Time: people change so radically from day to day and throughout their lives that there is no consistent ‘person’ left by the passage of time and the process of forgetting. This is only counteracted occasionally when some chance moment throws us back to the memory of an earlier time in our lives – this gives birth to a new being who briefly exists outside time who can look at the past and the present simultaneously from an atemporal perspective.