Sincere Tuesday Questions, Balbec edition

Once, long ago, I decided that I would one day read Proust.  I had some vague notion that doing so would mean one was truly “well-read,” and being considered well-read was one of those things that seemed important.  (“Not being a pompous ass,” a somewhat more vague notion, was apparently less so.)  Marcel Proust went on my literary bucket list.

Around a year ago, one of my very good friends came for a visit and told me he’d started “Swann’s Way.”  That was reason enough for me to tick “read Proust” off my “to do” list.   Lo these many months later, any time LOOG chum Jaybird asks “what are you reading?” it’s always the same for me.  Proust.  I’m finally within spitting distance of the end of “Within a Budding Grove,” and then I will finally take a break.

It’s not that the books aren’t enjoyable.  Parts are drily hilarious.  His social observations and insights are impeccably detailed and show an amazing understanding of human psychology.  I am often astounded by some amazing passage that expresses something true about people, and in a gorgeous way.

And then there are the pages and pages and pages of exquisite, finely-wrought musings on the position of a mirror, or the afternoon light in a seaside hotel room, or a bunch of hawthorns.  Those passages make me want to shoot myself in the face.  My eyes glaze over and I have to shake myself awake, then remind myself that he’s rhapsodizing about, say, a chair.  On and on and on about it.  And on and on and on.  The wonderful parts, about the way a beautiful woman walks down an avenue or makes jokes at a party, are wonderful enough to make the tedious parts worthwhile, but only just barely.

So this week’s question is actually sincere — what have you read or done that you knew was edifying, and that you enjoyed on some level, but was also tedious or laborious?  It has to be something voluntary, that you stuck with through your own choosing.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. The first time I read The Satanic Verses, it was like that. It was a chore.

    A few years later, after the first bombing attempt on the WTC, I remembered something or other (the magic lamp, the story of the unforgivable thing) and I thought I should try it again.

    The book had magically changed. It was no longer a chore but a comic romp as light and deep and funny as something Douglas Adams would have written.

    • I love, love, love “The Satanic Verses.” One of my favorites.

      The story of the villagers’ pilgrimage to Mecca through the sea is one of the most beautiful in literature, by my lights.

  2. Proust is in acquired taste. When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate wine, but as I became familiar with it, I started realizing just how complex it can be. I’m fortunate to be able to read Proust in French – I’m a lapsed New Yorker, and my first read of Proust, in the early 80s, inspired me to learn French, then move to France – and it’s some of the finest writing I’ve read.

    As you read, you get into the mood of Proust. Those long sentences are, indeed, eye-glazing at first, but over time you realize that they are often a combination of Joycean stream of consciousness and Emersonian mysticism.

    La Recherche is an entire life. Proust lived what happened in the books, and wrote down much of his own life. He used it as other writers used journals, but crafted it as finely as a complex arabesque. References and foreshadowing abound, and once you’ve finished reading it, you want to start again.

    In short, give it another chance.

    • I’m probably coming off as too negative in the OP. I really am loving large swaths of it. I particularly enjoyed “Swann in Love,” and am really enjoying how Odette’s character in particular is developed and shaded as the books go by.

      I think part of my problem is that I like almost all of the characters so much more than I like the narrator, who I find precious and stuffy and affected.

      • I’d call the narrator detached, but certainly affected. He wants to be part of the high society, but, as you’ll find out if you get to the end, things don’t turn out as he expected.

        Of course, Swann in Love is a unique section of the novel (by novel I mean the whole 7 volumes). It’s the only part that does not directly involve the narrator. Stylistically, also, it is different, because it is in the third person, and there is less introspection by the narrator.

    • References and foreshadowing abound, and once you’ve finished reading it, you want to start again.

      This is how I feel about “Infinite Jest.”

        • It’s worth another try. The first few hundred pages are the most inscrutable, and it gets much easier after that.

          I liked “V” and “The Crying of Lot 49.” I have been completely unable to get into any other Pynchon, and threw up my hands in disgust when I made a relatively recent attempt to make it through “Against the Day.” Thickets upon thickets of verbiage, heaped up all over each other with no clear meaning or purpose. Bleah.

        • I got about a third of the way through Mason & Dixon before tossing it aside as utterly unreadable.

  3. I read Ulysses–it took me several months–and probably only understood about 10% of it (I didn’t even realize that Molly Bloom was having an affair with Blazes Boylan). Maybe I’ll re-read it some day, with a guidebook to tell me what’s going on. (I’m obviously not the sharpest intellectual on the ‘net.)

    • Right there with you, PC. (I’m enjoying Proust vastly more than I did “Ulysses.”) I tried to read it sans guide, thinking any great work should be appreciable without the need for one. If I try again, it will be with a guide.

  4. Ulysses is certainly another book that benefits from multiple reads. And there are, indeed, several good guides to Ulysses that can help.

  5. I ate olives. At the time, I thought olives tasted like feet, but so many other people enjoyed them, I forced myself to go back and try again.

    Now I like the black ones. Not in large quantities, but I’ve come to like the salty, aromatic taste and the granular texture.

    I suspect Proust is like that.

  6. I might have two answers to this question, one for literature and one for music.

    There are a lot of things I loved about the Brothers Karamazov, but reading it wasn’t among them. The themes it considers, the way it uses a single family to juxtapose differing ideas about faith, doubt and rationality are done in a way I find immensely clever. But there is something about the style and the need to plod through multi-paged paragraphs that for me made it a thoroughly unenjoyable read. In retrospect, it may be the one book in my life where I might have enjoyed it more had I just bought the Cliff Notes and read them instead.

    The piece of music that I have this issue with is Blood on the Fields. If you’re not familiar with this work (and not many are) it is Wynton Marsalis’s oratorio on Slavery and Freedom, which clocks in somewhat shy of four hours. It won the Pulitzer for Music, the first time a jazz based work was ever given the honor. (Ellington had been elected a winner decades earlier but the Pulitzer Board stepped in and refused to let him receive it, deciding instead to have no award given that year.) Parts of it are brilliant, soaring, and the work itself touches upon all the things that made Ellington so transcendent. And for me Marsalis is a hair below Ellington and a step above Gershwin atop the list of Greatest American Composers – and my assumption is he will be the greatest before he is finished. So what’s not to like? Well, Blood on the Fields, actually. The year it came out on CD I listened to it twice, and in both cases I forced myself to sit through the whole thing. I suspect there will never be a third.

  7. I’ll third Ulysses, but it’s a cheap entry, too easy. I’ve read the Bible twice and it’s got a lot of filler in it.

    I’ll see if I can come up with some better ones 🙂

  8. In books, I think tediousness is often a fatal flaw (stuff by Joyce, Bros K, most of Steinbeck). One where it isn’t is Middlemarch, which is tedious and which I really did love. In film, almost any Italian neo-realism (in Bergman and Rohmer, the ponderousness is a fatal flaw). In TV, the second season of the Wire (legitimately enjoyed the rest). Also, international stories on NewsHour.

  9. I mulled this over while having a cavity filled today, a good time to reflect on tediousness.

    Few of our entertainments require as much time commitment as books. For me, Go Down, Moses is probably the best example. I slogged through it in college, spending most of the time utterly bewildered by the language and style. If ever a book needed an instructor-led discussion, it’s that one. At some point, the book started to click for me; I’ve read it twice since and loved it more each time.
    Another one that was hard at first was Winter’s Tale. It wasn’t really laborious as tedious – I really could only get through 5-10 pages in a sitting. I loved each of those little doses but it took me almost a year to get through the entire novel.

  10. One thought for you, Russell: you haven’t finished yet. And, depending on how deeply felt the book is for you, I might say (no spoilers) you are about to have your world rocked.


  11. Getting through the second half of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a bit like that. I’m a classics nerd, so the first half was just fascinating through and through, but when Gibbons goes on and on and on about Charles the Fat being deposed by Arnolf the bastard son of Carloman, etc, etc, etc, I had to power through it because I had already invested so much in the text, and I’m glad I got through it. At the same time, Decline and Fall remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’ve got quotations and quotations marked down somewhere that I’m planning on going through in detail some day when I don’t have all these fires of urgency telling me not to sleep.

    Watching the last few seasons of Lost was like that as well, in a much more vulgar way.

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