Can't Get Enough of That Proust

Proust group members and friends from left, Amanda Rifkin, Dan Chandler '08, Cody Westphal '08, Scott Flaherty '08, Jason Oberholtzer '08, Natalie Kennedy.
Proust group members and friends from left, Amanda Rifkin, Dan Chandler '08, Cody Westphal '08, Scott Flaherty '08, Jason Oberholtzer '08, Natalie Kennedy.
Although he has read it once before, Jason Oberholtzer ’08 wants another crack at a book that he says “nobody” reads.

His claim is not without hyperbole. Of course, a handful of diligent and pedantic scholars have read Marcel Proust’s colossal work, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) – but outside of the literati, it is rare to find someone who has had the patience and requisite gusto to finish all seven heaping volumes of prose.

“How many novels gain you bragging rights by their very completion?” Oberholtzer asked. A course on Proust, taught by Professor of Comparative Literature Peter Rabinowitz, granted him those rights while he was still at Hamilton. Oberholtzer says that those who have read In Search of Lost Time can be a part of an “exclusive conversation.” The endeavor, though, is taxing for virtually anyone, especially the first time around.

“The text's depth and relevance was far greater than my ability to engage with it, and its intellectual endurance far outlasted mine,” Oberholtzer admitted. So this year, he has resolved to reacquaint himself with Proust, but not on his own; Oberholtzer enlisted a few of his friends and family to read along with him. Their goal is to read 100 pages a week over the course of the year, and by December, they will have polished off all 4500.

What makes this reading group special is that many of the members are also former Hamilton students. Of Tara Eckberg ’08, Scott Flaherty ’08, Dan Chandler ’08, Cody Westphall ’08, Ben Price ’08, Dan Chandler ’08 and Michael Simonelli ’07, only Price and Simonelli have had past experience with Proust. Others participating include Oberholtzer’s mother, girlfriend, high school AP English teacher, and a few relatives.

Because Oberholtzer’s project has attracted more than just former Hamilton students, the people involved feel that it is all the more impressive. “I don't think of my participation in this possibly foolhardy task as an act of collaboration with former Hamilton students,” Flaherty said. “Rather, it’s a coordinated act on a much broader scale. Yeah, it's great that some alums are getting together for this purpose, but for me, it's much more surprising that Jason was able to get some of the other folks involved.”

Oberholtzer, too, is astounded by the reception. “Clearly, without the guidance of Professor Rabinowitz and the rest of the Comp Lit department, I would not have been equipped to tackle In Search of Lost Time, and I would not have had the hubris to believe that I could help other people through it. At Hamilton, you are rewarded for being interested and, especially in the Comp Lit department, you are responsible for the education of your peers as well as yourself.”

What is so invaluable about a collective literary experience? Rabinowitz noted, “Reading the novel takes so much time – and so much emotional and intellectual energy – that you naturally want to have friends with whom you can share the experience. And once you've shared that kind of experience, the nature of your friendship changes.”

Simonelli also noted that this project, in particular, demands it.

“Something as daunting as Proust? I need other people for support and I'd like to think that they need me,” he said. “At Hamilton I felt not just responsible for my own learning but also for the learning of others. If I missed the reading for a class I'd feel like I was short-changing myself as well as my classmates. In certain classes, getting to know peers and professors was part of the learning experience.

On the best days, people made themselves vulnerable and spoke their minds without pretense. Providing a sound interpretation means putting everything out there for people to see. For me, this is only possible in smaller classes where a professor and class nurture a secure, respectful, and trusting intellectual environment. I seldom experienced this kind of academic intimacy after Hamilton. It is something I really miss and so I’m reading this book in an attempt to recapture that kind of learning.”

Flaherty, on the other hand, is looking for something to inspire him. “I'm doing it out of some misguided sense of adventure and curiosity,” he said. “If I find even one small nugget of understanding or transcendence, or am taken aback by the language of just one passage, I'll think it was worth it.”

Reading Proust, according to Oberholtzer, is a “uniquely intense experience.” Besides transforming his understanding of how the arts play a role in everyday life, Proust may have even made him a smarter, more thoughtful person when he read it the first time. Unfortunately, life after college graduation is no less confusing and frustrating than one of Proust’s page-long sentences, and Oberholtzer was in need of a distraction.

“I need an intellectual endeavor at this point in my life, a year and a half out of Hamilton,” he said. “So much of my mental energy is going into the emotional necessities of the early 20s transition – learning how to fully manage moral perspective, aspirations, sense of self, priorities, and obligation to others. Add on the challenges of forming more mature relationships with friends and family, and this is a period of wild change. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and shut off from intellectual exploration, but giving in to that ignores the incredible energy change provides, and it is on that energy that I would like to capitalize.”

Just as Proust’s narrative feeds off of the daily trials and joys of life, Oberholtzer and the other members of the group hope it will enrich their own intellectual narratives in the months to come.

Oberholtzer noted this connection between literature and a reader’s own life. “I hope that this year of Proust will rekindle what feels stifled and provide some structure to this important period of transition.”

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