DFLL Professor Gearing up for a Year Celebrating Proust
William Carter may have retired from teaching at UAB, but his internationally-recognized expertise on the French author Marcel Proust has him gearing up for a year of full-time immersion in Proustiana.
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of "Swann's Way," the first volume of what would become a sprawling seven-volume novel, Proust's masterpiece "In Search of Lost Time."
In preparation for surging interest in Proust, Carter will be updating and enhancing his Proust website, where subscribers can take a self-paced tour through the novel with Carter's lectures to guide them.
Next year three Proust-related books authored by Carter will be published. He expects to make a film, help plan anniversary events at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and travel around the country and abroad for anniversary celebrations.
"It's a labor of love," Carter said, "What can I say? Many of the things I get invited to do are just too good to turn down."
Even people who've never heard of Proust are likely to have heard of the scene in Swann's Way when the narrator tastes a madeleine dunked in tea and is overcome with an unexpected rush of memory taking him back to a moment in childhood.
Ultimately though, it's not the details of plot that Proust's novel is remembered for. It's the elegance of language, "tendrilous sentences" as John Updike described them, that left even great writers like William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf marveling at what Proust could do with language.
Novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote once said that, upon completion of a major project he rewarded himself by reading the complete work.
"C'est mon grand prix," Foote said. "I think I've read it nine times, now. It's like a two-month vacation because it takes that long to read Proust. I like it better than going to Palm Beach."
Carter hopes the anniversary will inspire others to take that vacation, as an escape or act of rebellion in this era of short-attention spans.
Proust, Carter said, isn't dated; in fact, he was writing at another time when technology and upheaval was reshaping the Belle Epoque society of France.
"I think part of the answer is that he is very modern in that he is fascinated by change," Carter said.
Modern technology also has made its easier to navigate the book, with Carter's help. One of Carter's students, Nicolas D. Drogoul, has become Carter's collaborator in building a Web-based platform they hope will serve as the hub of a community of Proust enthusiasts.
Carter's course, available for a $150 subscription fee, includes 30 one-hour multimedia lectures, taking readers through the 3,000-page book.
The website will offer forums and scheduled webchats so readers can interact with Carter and fellow readers. There also are free offerings of short films, Proust-related art and reference material, plus links to other sites and prominent Proust scholars.
The site has drawn 35,000 unique visitors since its launch and, through word of mouth alone, has drawn subscribers from the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, Australia, Africa and China.
"It's really a world-wide thing," Drogoul said.
Carter's three new books will include an updated version of his well-regarded biography, "Marcel Proust: A Life."
Yale University Press also will publish a new version of C.K. Scott Moncrieff's classic translation of Swann's Way, which Carter is updating and annotating. Yale plans to publish a volume a year until the entire novel is published in updated form.
And finally, Carter has authored a revision of the Proust volume in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
Planning hasn't really started for UAB's observance of the centennial, but there will be one. Thanks in part to Carter, UAB has the world's third-largest collection of Proust-related books, papers and publications, behind France's national library and the University of Illinois.
Proust isn't for everyone, but Carter encourages people to give it a try. He said that often after taking the book up at his recommendation, an individual will return much later and report that the experience changed his or her life.
"This is not an uncommon thing," Carter said.
(Story by Thomas Spencer, The Birmingham News)