Christopher Prendergast created this guidebook from remnants of a previous book, “a pile of unused jottings and scribbles set aside…on the theme of walks”. One is reminded of the shoemaker’s last pieces of leather transformed overnight into a very fine pair of shoes – these shoes walk the reader through Marcel Proust’s Á la recherche du temps perdu in great style.
Delving into the finer points of language, sentence structure and etymology, Prendergast’s approach feels Proustian in its scope and attention but above all in his witty response to the French novelist’s wicked sense of humour. Eschewing recent views of the classic novel he imagines Proust, “…choking on his croissant (which he much preferred to madeleines) when presented with the image of his book as a ‘Proustian guidebook’ serving ‘a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting [ . . . ]one’s life’”. That would have come as news to Proust’s narrator, who spends years exploring precisely what it is to experience “life” as the other meaning of the word “perdu” in the novel’s title – “wasted”.
And indeed it is Proust’s examination of the wasted side of our lives which Prendergast highlights with such flair and wit. Scholarly, rich and succinct, the book moves through chapters or “suites” on topics such as the body, gardens of paradise, crossroads, or the colour pink which explores Proust’s synaesthesia, his ecstatic “colorophilia”, tracing the influence of Ruskin, Baudelaire and the impressionist painters.
Might Proust be as good for you as some neuroscientists now claim? Prendergast is far more attuned to the pharmacy-obsessed Proust who believed that asking “pity of our body is like discoursing in front of an octopus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the tides, and with which we should be appalled to find ourselves condemned to live”.
The particularly fine section Death and Black Holes meets Proust’s view of death, its complications and ironies, with an equally sensitive wit, noting “One way of describing the novel is as one long tale of spasmodic resurrection, manifested in a wide variety of guises”.
This volume is bound to resurrect readers’ interest of Á la recherche du temps perdu – although it does contain plot spoilers for newbies. In Prendergast’s hands the return journey is irresistible.