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Reading Proust until lunchtime

Uncover something new on Library Lovers' Day 2020.

 

Ben - Library Lovers' Day 2

Ben came into the Library last October with a clear goal. He had spent the year, between studies in Europe and returning to Australia, reading his way through the first four volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. In French! As it’s hard to find in Australia, he came to the State Library to find and finish the final three volumes.

Every day through summer, Ben walked to the Library, arriving in the morning and reading Proust until lunchtime. As he reached volume 6 Albertine disparue, he was delighted to find that the Library’s copy had belonged to Australian author Miles Franklin. He wondered whether she had ever finished it. Her pencilled-in translations of difficult French words ended abruptly halfway through. Ben did finish it, along with the seventh and final volume, two days short of Christmas. And in the meantime, he came to love the Library even more.

We first got to know Ben when one of our French-speaking staff, impressed that a 25-year-old would undertake such a reading project, asked him how he came to speak French. Originally from Melbourne, Ben majored in French during his Bachelor of Arts and went on to complete a Masters of Comparative Literature in London. His great passions are French and Russian literature. Last year he moved to Sydney temporarily, leaving his books behind. After some weeks in the Library, he realised he wouldn’t need to bring them up after all. All the books he could want were here, free for him to use.

Ben’s in awe of the service libraries provide and SLNSW is categorically his favourite. The vastness of the collection. The feel of the reading rooms. The friendliness and interest of the staff. He loves the egalitarian nature of a library. 

‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re a millionaire or homeless, you get the same service’.

He chooses to read in the reading room for the collective atmosphere created by the people around him. It’s comforting to observe others poring over old books, or large tomes that look important and imagine what they may be exploring.

‘Even if you don’t speak to anyone, you feel you are among like-minded people.’

Notes in book Albertine disparue

Handwritten notes in Albertine disparue / Marcel Proust.

Since finishing Proust, Ben has dabbled with many works of fiction, but says none have taken hold of him. So, he browses the open-access Critics’ Picks. The international scope of the Literature and Language shelves has inspired him to read more widely and explore more contemporary authors, especially works of poetry by new writers he doesn’t know.

‘It’s exceptional that you have the new Faber poetry books that even my Uni library in the UK didn’t have!’

Already embedded in a life of literature, Ben is committed to writing and reading as both something recreational and something to be taken seriously. He savours literature as a sanctuary from noise, a medium which provides a different view of things, a vital alternative to a purely news-driven picture of our world. He knows it’s important to see what has been done as he embarks on his own writing life.

He describes his summer in the library as ‘filling in the blanks of the things I haven’t read — which will never be filled, of course.’ He is building up to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the only Dostoevsky novel he hasn’t read. He is saving it. But has already discovered the Library has a Penguin Classic copy in its Rare Books collection.

‘It’s unique, isn’t it?’, he remarks. ‘There’s really nothing like a library.’


 

Mathilde de Hauteclocque
Library Assistant, Information & Access

Library Lovers' Day banner 2020

Jenny Williams

Was just logging on the library's website this afternoon to use the Ask a Librarian service in relation to my family history quest re my late mother and saw the post about Ben and his exploration of the world of Proust. When my Mum did her Honours thesis at Sydney University back in the 1930s, it was on Proust's work. Talk about serendipity! I totally agree with Ben's observations about the experiences to be had in exploring the treasures of the library and engaging with staff members.