The flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu takes almost six hours, so when I went with my family a few years ago, Swann’s Way went into my carry-on.
Days later, deep in the book, I wondered: What if Proust was Hawaiian? An aging man with an aloha-print shirt eating chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and lying in a cork-lined room to write his masterpiece set in France? And what do Proust’s Hawaiian readers make of his book? If authors can be surprised and even delighted at their readers’ various and unexpected readings of their novels, then I’m inclined to believe that each reader creates an personal canon and reacts to specific works of literature wholly in light of what she or he has read before.
Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past can be, and often has been, reduced to narrow contexts. It’s been treated as an overtly French work; it’s so easy to relish the names of specific cities and particular French customs. This certainly can be part of Proust’s appeal—the book covers I’ve seen have practically cried out, Pick up the book! I’m sophisticated and glamorous and French!—but to read it as a French souvenir makes the book deeply foreign. Even the different translations reflect this—the more literal translation, In Search of Lost Time, offers a far less dreamy perspective on the French text.
Or there’s the autobiographical reading (did the author really have to name his narrator Marcel?), which could structure the text into “fictional” and “non-fictional” sections.
The tropics revealed a great deal in Proust’s text that the man never would have envisioned. Proust critiques French aristocracy though the Duc de Guermantes’s vulgarities, and Hawaiian readers might well find a parallel to the disdainful divide between Hawaiian natives and non-natives, but the not-particularly-hierarchal relationship between those two segments of Hawaiian society certainly reframes Marcel’s role as an impertinent social critic. Marcel’s weaknesses of memory become both a metaphor and an indictment of Hawaiian culture’s unintentional failure to fully account for historical truth. And when I came across a mention of the high price of quality goods in France, I looked out the window and saw the bewildering price of gas on the island.
I’ve only touched on what might come to light if we looked at A Remembrance of Things Past from the wrong end of a Hawaiian telescope. This is the first in a series of (mis)readings, which will range from considering Victorian literature’s response to AIDS to how Crime and Punishment could be understood if it turned out to have been written by Borges. Keep your eyes peeled, and don’t hesitate to suggest your own (mis)readings in the comments.