If you like your soap operas literate, breezy, quirky, and in book form, then the prolific Mr. Smith* has a few options for you. I settled into 44 Scotland Street a few years ago and get updates on comings and goings there with each new installment. But it was a complete re-read earlier this year that revealed something I’d missed earlier: Smith is a fan of Proust.
I’m beginning to suspect that Proust, like arithmetic**, is something you can’t get away from.
The 44 Scotland Street series starts with a young woman becoming a narcissist’s roommate in the Edinburgh apartment building of the series title. Like an oil spill, the books spread from there to suck in others: a retired anthropologist, a family whose 5-year-old son plays blues on his full-sized saxophone, a feckless but wealthy art gallery owner, an elderly artist whose dog has a gold tooth, a well-read cafe owner from Arbroath. And so on. Smith began writing these books as a weekly serial in the Scotsman, which explains the episodic nature of the books. As with real life, there are no actual plots — not as we know them from literature, with character arcs and denouements — just people plodding through their lives, making mistakes and only sometimes learning from them.
But let me get to where Proust comes in. The references are fleeting. In the first book, Matthew (the art gallery owner) asks Big Lou (the cafe owner) if great art requires a “surplus of wealth”. Big Lou answers that great art requires time, which is a benefit of wealth, and Proust is her example. He’d have had no time to write, nor anyone to write about, “if they had been obliged to do any real work.” When Matthew asks for a quick precis of RTP, Big Lou explains, “Not much actually happens …, or rather it takes a long time to happen. Marcel writes a lot about things that remind him of something else.” (44 Scotland Street, pp. 212-213)
In another volume, Proust is praised as the “ideal companion for a mangrove swamp.” Another character muses that Proust “saw everything, and then everything behind everything. Behind the simplest thing, even inanimate objects, there was a wealth of associations that only somebody like Proust could see.” The anthropologist posits that the title À la recherche du temps perdu, translated into Melanesian Pigin, might be Onepela Proust bilong Frans Holem Long Tingting (holem long tingting = to hold on to many things for a long time, i.e., to remember). (Love Over Scotland, pp. 111, 245, 305)
For the last reference I noticed, in The World According to Bertie, Smith takes a stab at Proustian style. The anthropologist, returned from Melanesia, has given up on finishing Proust: the sentences were too long.
Modern sentences are short. In Proust, we encounter sentences which appear interminable, meandering on and on in a way which suggests that the author had no desire to bring a satisfying or intriguing line of thought to any form of conclusion, wishing rather to prolong the pleasure, as one might wish if one were an author like Proust, who spent most of his time languishing in bed — he was a chronic hypochondriac — rather than experiencing life — an approach which encouraged him to produce sentences of remarkable length, the longest one being that sentence which, if printed out in standard-size type, would wind round a wine bottle seventeen and a half times, or so we are told by Alain de Boton in his How Proust Can Change Your Life, a book which has surely been read by most of those who have bought it, so light and amusing it is. (pp. 172-173)
Funny, but of course so completely unlike Proust’s sentences, which in fact do bring lines of thought to satisfying conclusions. The reader just needs patience and an infallible syntactic GPS for tracking main clauses.
The 44 Scotland Street series is ultra-light reading. Fun, but no real challenge. I keep up with it because I want to see the little saxophonist’s mother get what’s coming to her. There’ve been hints in Vols 8-10, but no satisfying conclusion yet.
*Smith’s website has info on all his books and series.
**See Preston Sturges’s first film, The Great McGinty (1940).