Not many people dare to read Proust, that most intimidating of writers, let alone a high school kid.
But Bolinas artist Eric Karpeles scaled Proust's 3,000-page mountain of a novel, "In Search of Lost Time," more commonly known as "Remembrance of Things Past," when he was a teenager.
"I was fortunate to have a very perceptive teacher when I was in high school," he said. "He knew that I was a reader, that I should be exposed to the first volume of the novel. It was such a remarkable experience, I went on to read the whole book."
Since then, the 54-year-old painter, who lived in France in the 1970s, studying on fellowships at la Cite des Arts in Paris and the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, has read the great French writer's epic about art and memory once a decade.
To help less-courageous readers of all ages, he spent four years writing "Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to 'In Search of Lost Time,'" published last year by Thames & Hudson, a prestigious British company.
At the 28th annual Northern California Book Awards on April 19 in San Francisco, he was honored with a special recognition award for his efforts.
An esoteric hit, the first printing of 6,500 sold out in seven weeks at $45 a copy, and private sellers on Amazon.com have been asking as much as $285 for a first edition book. A second printing at the original price will be available this month.
Illustrated by more than 200 reproductions accompanied by the passage that references the painting, Karpeles' book is an easy reading coffee table guide to the artists and the works that Proust referred to in his long and winding narrative.
The New York Times said "it fills a long-standing gap in the huge shelf of books É devoted to navigating and understanding the novel."
In its review, the Wall Street Journal wrote that "anyone who has devoted any time to reading 'In Search of Lost Time' will be grateful for the chance, at last, to look closely at the painterly sources of so many allusions. But there is no need to know the novel or its characters to admire the prose or the visual display, or to grasp the interpenetration of the two É each made vivid by Mr. Karpeles' matchings of text and art."
A reader reviewer on Amazon.com wondered "why nobody had the idea before."
Karpeles asked himself the same question, and found that, for whatever reason, such a book didn't exist.
While rereading "In Search of Lost Time" after turning 50, he decided that he was as qualified as anyone to write the book, filling the void between the intersection of Proust's literature and his novel's visual aesthetics.
"I started at the beginning of the book, and every time I came across a reference to a painting or a painter, I made a note of it," he explained. "When I was done, I had over 300 slips of paper in my book. Half of them were paintings I knew, and half I didn't know. I'm somebody who spends my life in museums and I'm a painter myself, so I figured that if I didn't know all of them, other people aren't likely to know them either."
It wasn't practical or affordable for Karpeles to travel all over Europe, tracking down paintings so he could look at the originals. So he did most of his research and detective work online.
"It's the kind of book that would probably not be doable before the Internet without a huge allocation of funds for travel," he said. "A lot of this stuff is in France and Italy.
"But it's interesting to note that Proust didn't see all the original paintings he was writing about, either. He wrote this at a time (1909 through 1922) when art journals and monographs were first coming into print. So he benefited enormously from reproductions."
Probably the most famous example of that is in the love story between the tortured character Charles Swann, who falls for the faithless courtesan Odette de Crecy because she resembles a woman in a Botticelli fresco.
"That fresco is in the Vatican, but Proust never went to Rome, so he never saw it," Karpeles noted. "So here's a painting Proust knew by reproduction only. And just as I wasn't able to see every painting in the book, nor did he see every one. He was writing 100 years when there was enormous technological change in the world, just as we're going through now."
Karpeles recently gave a talk on "Paintings in Proust" for 150 people at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station, sparking the formation of a Proust reading group.
"The feedback I get on the book from so many people is that they never expected to read Proust, but my book breaks Proust down into a digestible format, so that you begin to see what it's all about," he said. "And if you really like what you're reading, it might prompt you to read the whole thing. As an advocate of reading Proust, that's a great secondary effect."
TAKING ON PROUST
For more information on the Proust reading group,e-mail Arianne Dar at firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at email@example.com