The famously schadenfreudenizing Alain de Botton claims in How Proust Can Change Your Life that The Captive, the fifth volume of Proust's behemoth Remembrance of Things Past, contains a line that can wrap seventeen times around the base of a wine bottle.
Mr. de Botton neglected, however, to include the essential details of this frolic: What font? What size text, exactly? What vintage wine? What recommended blood alcohol level?
In an email, I asked Mr. de Botton to provide me with his precise methodology. I was keen, I told him, to see if I could duplicate his results. I confessed I was keen also to ease my growing boredom with the long-winded Mr. Proust; mummifying a bottle of Merlot with strips of his prose seemed a promising distraction.
Mr. de Botton informed me that he couldn't remember anything about his tête à tête with The Captive and wine bottles, nor how the two had come to be connected in his mind. I felt rather sorry for him -- stronger minds than his have been muddled by the perilous intersection of fermented grape juice and insufficient alcohol dehydrogenase. I assured him I would apply myself to the task and report the results for the benefit of posterity.
The slide show -- it's up there on the upper left, titled "Proust and Wine Bottles" -- displays my results. For the sentence, I was tempted to use the sort of fanciful font I imagined would appeal to Proust if he had rapped out Rememembrance of Things Past on his word processor -- Monotype corsiva, say, or Gungsuh -- but I decided that Mr. de Botton's "standard-sized font" must refer to the mundane but sensible Times New Roman. Printed out in size 10 font, the sentence measures 11 feet and 6 inches and just managed to wrap 14 times around a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Since I like to be thorough about these things, I also determined that the sentence can wrap 14 1/4 times around Merlot, 12 1/2 times around Chardonnay, 8 3/4 times around E & J brandy, 10 times around Gordon's vodka, and 8 times around my sadly empty Mother's Day present, a 1.75 L bottle of Hendrick's gin.
Mr. Proust, I think, would have applauded the spirit in which this revelry was conducted, if not the accusation made by generations of fatigued Proust readers that only the worst kind of pompous windbag would be conceited enough to produce a 446 word sentence and pronounce it good. It wasn't Proust's fascination with the sound (or look) of his thoughts on the page that moved him with the spirit of excessive verbosity though; it was more his determination to do everything -- examining sunlight, torturing girlfriends, pondering sofas -- without the least hint of haste.
Proust was a devout advocate of taking one's time about things: N'allez pas trop vite -- don't go too fast -- could have been his motto points out Mr. de Botton. And take his time he did, spending over 20 years writing Remembrance of Things Past, yielding a work that requires nearly as much time and, arguably, effort to read. "The sad thing," said Proust's brother Robert, "is that people have to be very ill or have a broken leg in order to have the opportunity to read Remembrance of Things Past."
Sad, indeed. Level what criticisms you will at Proust -- and you'll be hard pressed to find one that hasn't been worn translucent -- he is the ideal inoculation against that uniquely modern disease, Speed.
To read Proust is to participate in the literary equivalent of the Slow Food Movement: it is impossible to read Proust quickly. His writing is a bastion of mollusk-like contemplation, a viscous lava flow that makes continental drift appear recklessly breakneck by comparison.
Is it tedious? Yes. At times boring? Certainly. Labyrinthine enough to make the Minotaur stop and ask for directions? Absolutely. But in a world where no one can conduct a conversation for 30 seconds without texting their girlfriend or posting a tweet or buying pants from J. Crew, where longtime readers whine that books and longish articles just can't hold their attention anymore, where the thought of unplugging from their IV of e-info causes smart phone owners to break into tremors, sweats, and unexplained bouts of night weeping, Proust is a brick wall of a mental vacation. Beat on it all you want, it's not going to move any faster than the original Slow Read high priest wants it to move. Which is slowly.
Read Proust and you'll find your fast-paced existence zennishly submitting to pages spent pondering obscure art. You'll devote untold hours to connecting the subject and verb of a sentence, then trying to figure out what the hell it was you just read. You may even find you have the time to wrap sentences around wine bottles. N'allez pas trop vite -- not that Proust would allow otherwise anyway.