Mention Marcel Proust’s a la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past) and the inevitable observation will concern its sheer length, three thousand plus pages and six or seven volumes depending on the edition. To have read it in its entirety, as few do (although many quote) is widely considered to be a monumental achievement. “I always wanted to read Proust” otherwise inveterate readers will say, as one might wish to run a marathon. Meanwhile I feel that the novel’s daunting reputation is misleading, that its better measure is abundance, rather than length. An even better word, coming from the author himself, would be prodigal, prodigal in its several senses: lavish, wasteful, spendthrift, and all these wrapped up in the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son.
In the course of our recently completed “Reading Proust at University Press Books” series, the word came up in discussing a passage describing an herbal infusion of lime flowers—the same beverage that famously figures into the earlier episode of the narrator’s dipping a crumb of madeleine in lime flower tea and having the taste inspire memories of his childhood in the French village of Combray. As we read the passage aloud in our meeting—a custom of which we’d become fond, the best way, we found, to savor such delicious prose—one phrase in particular jumped out at us. As Marcel looks into the tangle of blossoms and stems, looking more and more deeply, as with a dissecting microscope, into its layers, noting “a thousand, small useless details,” he refers to “the charming prodigality of the pharmacist” (who had prepared the infusion). We were puzzled by that word choice, common to the several translations we were reading from, and went to the French to find that it was indeed Proust’s word—“prodigalite.” Why just that word, not the one would expect in regards to a pharmacist? As we looked into the matter together, other shadings came forth, generous being one. Even after the discussion the matter continued to preoccupy us, and there was a subsequent string of emails regarding pharmacists and herbalists, lime blossoms and lindens, and inevitably, etymology. From the O.E.D.:
1 spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant : “prodigal habits die hard.”
2 having or giving something on a lavish scale : “the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream.” See note at profuse.
Wastefully extravagant, lavish, abundant, profuse: the prodigality of the pharmacist also stands for the sumptuousness of Proust’s prose as well as the equally extravagant luxury of reading it. (Who has the time anymore!) But whether indulging in a lavish dessert or lavish literature, the delight is doing so in good company. And so, in our readings and discussions we indulged in a prodigality of reading pleasures. A different approach, indeed, to that of the marathon. Reading our relatively brief selections (adding up to around 30 of the 3,000 pages, or 1% of the total), the matter of length did not daunt us, did not even occur to us. A word, a phrase, a passage, contains worlds. As Proust himself said of his madeleine epiphany, villages and churches, parks and rivers, emerged from his cup of tea.