This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Marcel Proust's novel, In Search of Lost Time. I read it one summer while at university. You could say it was my first voluntary marathon. This seven-volume tome is the opposite of a page-turner. It is much like sledding: a lot of perseverance in pursuit of a few shining moments.
Like the subject of the book itself, reading In Search of Lost Time creates intense memories which can be recaptured. My madeleine (the famous tea cake that triggered Proust's pursuit of the past) might be one of the book's innumerable 1,000-word sentences: No one stacks dependent clauses one on top of the other like Proust did. Some authors never use semicolons; he reveled in them. Sometimes one sentence had dozens. Single paragraphs went on for pages and pages.
Swann's Way, the first volume that came out in 1913, was quite readable, as was the second volume, usually translated as Within A Budding Grove. Following, however, was a lot of tough slogging. I wished someone who had lived a more interesting life had taken on this task of trying to recapture the details of his past. By volume six, I was at the limit of my patience. If I had to wade through one more 100-page cocktail party in which nothing of interest happened, I was going to give up on Proust. Fortunately, by then I had reached the great last volume, The Past Recaptured, where everything came together and justified all the hard yards required to get to that point.
Proust was an aesthete, and one of the themes of In Search of Lost Time is how life can be relived by creating art based on that life. (Casanova also did this in his memoirs in a much more engaging, though less intellectual, way.) But, as a relatively new reader at the time, I also took away something else from this difficult book. Characters in other novels seemed fully formed. They might be alive, but their personalities were not in flux. But Proust's characters evolved over time, just like real people do.
Ever since Proust, I've looked at people through the dimension of time. Who someone is today may not be who they are tomorrow. A 30-year-old adventurer may be a stockbroker by 40. You just don't know. Adventure is a game for the young at heart, and since we all age at different speeds, it's impossible to tell the Peter Pans from those whose pursuit of Neverland will last just a few years.
One of the bracing multi-page paragraphs from In Search of Lost Time.
I've always had more trouble writing leads than endings. I figured that I was just better at endings, and my struggles with leads were just a personal weakness of craft.
I no longer struggle with leads, at least at first. I just jump into the story in any old way and return to work on the lead later, when the shape of the piece is much clearer. I wish someone had told me from the first that that's the way it should be done: It's easy to waste hours staring at a blank page trying to come up with the zinger or perfect anecdote to lead into the piece.
The new (April) issue of Reader's Digest here in Canada has a condensation of the story I wrote for Explore magazine on the 550 km winter journey Noah Nochasak and I did last year. They used several photos that weren't in the original, including the lead shot, below.
Speaking of Explore magazine, the new issue includes a piece of mine on the outports of southern Newfoundland seen from a converted fishing trawler called the Wanderbird.
A lot of travel writers ruin the goodwill they've built up with readers by interspersing their engaging adventures with a Coles Notes history of the place they're in. It's different if they have a personal take on a place's past, or are particularly knowledgeable, or give the history lesson in style. But usually the writers are not much interested in the subject themselves but feel obliged to burden the reader with it. These sections just scream Filler!
January 11, 2013
In a houseful of books, two of my favorite shelves feature some travel and travel-related classics, including:
Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger
Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
First Footsteps in East Africa, by Richard F. Burton
We Die Alone, by David Howarth
The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
The Seven Mountain Travel Books, by H.W. Tilman
The Springs of Adventure, by Wilfrid Noyce
The Ulysses Factor, by J.R.L. Anderson
Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de St-Exupery
Admittedly, the shelves also include some oddities: Slavomir Rawicz's The Long Walk is fiction pretending to be fact, but a great read nonetheless. Rory Stewart's The Places In Between is a fine book about the author's 2002 walk across Afghanistan shortly after 9/11; but how mature/old this guy seemed to be even in his twenties! Little wonder that he became a Conservative politician in his thirties. Some books, like The Road to Oxiana, are there out of duty: some readers peg this as the best travel book ever written, though I could never get into it. Every so often, I try again. The Worst Journey in the World is another common candidate for that esteemed laurel, and it really is great, except that it's 400 pages too long. The story of his winter journey and the last three or four pages are the parts of the book on which its reputation is based. Forgetable passages on the Scott expedition fill the rest of its 600 pages.
All words and images ©2008-13 Jerry Kobalenko. Unauthorized use strictly prohibited by law.