If students happened to drop by the Saybrook Underbrook theater anytime last Saturday, they would have found an intimate audience gathered in a full-scale recreation of Marcel Proust’s cork-lined bedroom. A single bed dominated the stage, sitting next to a chaise longue, against the backdrop of a projection of Paris to recreate the ambience where the famed French writer spent the last three years of his life.
Around 10 a.m., John Palattella, a literary editor for the Nation sat on stage before the audience, reciting a passage from “Swann’s Way,” the first volume of Proust’s seven-volume chef-d’oeuvre, “In the Search of Lost Time.”
Palattella was only one of 100 students, scholars and guests who took part in the Proust marathon organized this weekend by the French Department in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the publication of “Swann’s Way.” From 7:30 a.m. on Saturday to 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, Palattella and other illustrious guests — including Proust scholar William Carter, Egyptian-born writer André Aciman and Paris Review editor Lorin Stein ’95 — took turns reading their favorite passages from the masterpiece, each in a language of their choice.
The marathon reading was organized by French professor Alice Kaplan GRD ’77, administrator of the French Department Agnès Bolton, and two undergraduate students, John Sununu ’15 and Benjamin Mappin-Kasirer ’14.
“The Proust marathon is the big event of the moment,” Sununu said. “But it fits into this larger fabric of the French Department and is only one of the many brilliant events that the department sponsors.”
According to students and professors interviewed, this weekend’s 20-hour marathon of Proust’s masterpiece was only the last of a series of undertakings that highlight the close ties between Yale and French culture.
Given the University’s groundbreaking approach to teaching French, its curriculum firmly rooted in French literary analysis and its close-knit community of faculty and students, organizers said commemorating one of the masterpieces of the French literary tradition on campus seemed only fitting.
Recent events include a marathon reading of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina this September and a Shakespeare Sonnet Dessert last February. It was after the Shakespearean event that Kaplan first approached French majors Sununu and Mappin-Kasirer with the idea of a Proust reading.
Francophiles and Proust fans, both Sununu and Mappin-Kasirer were keen to see the marathon take shape: They visited the recreation of Proust’s bedroom at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris over the summer and started to work on this project upon their return to Yale this fall, Sununu said.
Although they had high expectations, the organizers said the Yale community’s enthusiasm for this project took them by surprise. When sign-ups were opened a few weeks ago, almost every of the 80 slots were filled within three days and organizers had to create a waiting list.
“We had people asking if they could read certain passages,” Sununu said. “People were asking things like, ‘Can I read from page 294 of the Montcrieff edition?’”
Mappin-Kasirer, who is writing his senior thesis on Proust, attributed the the event’s successful turnout to the “Proustian” aspects of the collegiate environment: Because of Proust’s emphasis on notions of memory, the passage of time and the ability to connect with people, his works are particularly pertinent to college students.
Kaplan echoed Mappin-Kasirer’s views, noting that “Reading Proust is a companion to introspection, and the age that college students are at is a great time for introspection.”
According to Annabel Kim GRD ’14, a graduate student in French who was involved in the marathon, the introspective nature of the piece comes from the “rich, dense and challenging” language of Proust’s prose. For that reason, Proust is considered by students and scholars alike an extremely personal read. “I think Proust touches everyone in a different way and everyone has a different moment that really speaks to them,” Kim said.
At the reading, the audience members each clutched their own dog-eared and well-thumbed copy of the novel, listening to the reader intently, laughing as they recognized their favorite passages. According to Kim, a woman drove up all the way from New Jersey to New Haven to read because Proust “changed her life” and wanted to show people how deeply his works had touched her.
Many members of the Yale community have been exposed to Proust academically: “Swann’s Way” is one of the fundamental texts taught in introductory literature classes as well as in Directed Studies, and the French Department faculty is full of Proust experts, Kaplan said.
Organizers of the event said the popularity of the Proust marathon can be attributed to a thriving French culture and the strength of the French Department at Yale.t. is home to the University’s widely recognized French Department.
For decades, Yale’s French Department has been the top-ranked department for French studies in the nation.
“We have this amazing amalgam of dedicated professors, we offer several courses in Paris every summer and we have this French In Action program which gets students speaking so rapidly,” Sununu said.
French in Action, a language-immersion program presented with a humorous teleplay with native speakers, was developed by French professor Pierre Capretz in the 1980s and since then has become a cultural phenomenon as well as one of the most widely used French language courses nationwide.
“In contrast to the structured, grammar-based way of learning languages that I’m used to, French in Action challenges me to engage in everyday situations and learn through observation,” Emma Fredwall ’17, currently a student of L1 French, remarked, adding that this learning process can be likened to the way we learn our native language as children.
The strength of the French Department and the French In Action method is also evident in the number of undergraduates who have decided to pursue a degree in French. Out of all the foreign language and literature majors offered at Yale, the French major has historically attracted the largest number of students: A total of 22 students across all four years declared French as their major last year, compared to four students majoring in Spanish and three students majoring in German.
According to both Kaplan and Sununu, the appeal of the major lies in its intensive focus on French literature and how the curriculum is designed for those who wish to study one of the world’s richest literatures in depth.
Because the French Department is so focused on literature, the curriculum is, in contrast to other foreign language majors, more academic and less preprofessional, Sununu said. Professors will regularly bring students to the Beinecke Library or the Art Gallery to study artifacts so that they are able to engage with primary resources on a deeper level, he added. As a result, the department attracts students that intend to engage with the literary analysis of French texts and delve into academic criticism of French culture, according to Sununu.
Despite its emphasis on academics, the French Department hardly leaves its students ill-equipped for the job market outside Yale. “People think, oh, if you are a French major, there will be fewer opportunities for you outside Yale, but I completely disagree. French has showed me that you can study what you love and still be successful with it,” said Sununu, who worked as a translator for the U.S. State Department for the past two summers in Quantico, Virginia between U.S. forces and African counterterrorist paramilitary forces.
According to Kaplan, French is also intellectually satisfying because it transcends cultural barriers: As she explained, the notion of French is expanded to the entire francophone world, encompassing regions like Quebec, Africa and the Caribbeans.
Kaplan added that the department nevertheless loves to teach the canonical books of France’s literary tradition, as a thorough understanding of these works is crucial to becoming an educated person and a skilled writer. “You’d have trouble finding an important novelist today who hasn’t read ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Swann’s Way,’” Kaplan said.
Because of its historical ties with French culture, the French Department at Yale has established itself as the epicenter of French studies in academia. “You feel like you are at a place that has contributed to the humanities in such a significant way,” Mappin-Kisirer said. While he admitted that this notion is consistent with the Yale experience in general, the French Department’s intimate environment and close-knit community offers a more “concentrated” version of that experience.
The Proust marathon is only one of the many ways in which the francophone community has been opened up to the rest of the Yale campus, and as stated by Kim, “has made Francophilia broader than just merely personal interest.”
Every day of the week, there is a French language table held in a dining hall, and the Ciné-club puts on film screenings once a semester. This year has also witnessed the relaunching and redesigning of L’Amuse Bouche, an undergraduate student-run French literary magazine that Sununu coedits alongside Mappin-Kasirer.
“People have always been invested in French culture,” Kim said. “But now there is even more of a forum in which to express that investment together.”