The celebrated literary scholar (Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts, 1999, etc.) and authority on Proust guides readers through one of the most complex works in literary history.
Shattuck acknowledges that the lengthy, labyrinthine Search `looked at first like a conspiracy against readers.` But he has identified in the 2,000-page novel a variety of useful signposts. First, he establishes that knowing Proust’s biography is essential; then he moves into a chapter (`How to Read a Roman-Fleuve`) that could just as well have been titled `Proust for Dummies.` (In a footnote he urges readers familiar with the novel to skip this chapter.) Employing a variety of charts and summaries, Shattuck makes visible the hidden chassis of the novel (settings, characters, plot). Next he provides an analysis of Proust’s humor (the novel, Shattuck asserts, is `overlaid with amusing scenes and details”). Following are discussions of Proust’s `optical images` (a subject Shattuck explores further in an appendix), `literary aesthetic,` and the overall plan of the novel. In a chapter called `Continuing Disputes,` Shattuck takes aim at his academic foes and delivers salvos of criticism about editions and translations—surely a satisfying enterprise for Shattuck but less so for his nonacademic audience. Ending the principal portion of the book is an interesting discussion of the value of literature; Shattuck argues persuasively that literature is a `virtual experience` that offers `a formative or preparatory role in training our sensibilities.` Among his many provocative observations is that Search resembles A Thousand and One Nights more than any other literary work. In a striking `Coda,` the author elucidates Proust’s theory of thought by employing a dialogue among persons planning a radio broadcast about Proust.
Although Shattuck occasionally leaves us to converse with (or assail) more erudite companions, he nonetheless remains a peerless guide to this most intricate of creations.