In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust.


And so this is it, the final post for In Search of Lost Time! I began reading Swann's Way in mid-April, and on Sunday I finished Time Regained, so it's taken about six weeks. I have read a few other books along the way, but this has been my major spring project. Reading and then writing about each volume has been time consuming (and let me say now I'm grateful to those who commented on my posts), but it's been worth it and I've been looking forward to writing this post, though I scarcely know where to begin!

I'll start with the facts, I think that's best. In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu)  was written by Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust. He began in writing it in 1909 and it was published between 1913 and 1927. It is not, as is commonly believed, the longest novel written but the second longest, the first being Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, a 17th Century French novel consisting of ten volumes (13,095 pages). In Search of Lost Time consists of seven volumes (3,031 pages and 1,267,069 words):
1) Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann), 1913.
2) Within a Budding Grove (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs), 1919.
3) The Guermantes Way (Le Côté de Guermantes), 1920 - 1921.
4) Cities of the Plain (Sodome et Gomorrhe), 1921 - 1922.
5) The Captive (La Prisonnière), 1923.
6) The Fugitive (Albertine disparue), 1925.
7) Time Regained (Le Temps retrouvé), 1927.
Following a comedy sketch by Monty Python, there seems to be a trend to attempt to summarise In Search of Lost Time as quickly as possible (in Monty Python, contestants had to summarise Proust in 15 seconds, once in a swimsuit and once in evening dress!). There are many good and detailed reviews and commentaries online, so for the purposes of this post I will endeavour to give a brief Monty Python-esque summary (though in neither a swimsuit or an evening dress), and given the sheer length of In Search of Lost Time, it's surprisingly easy to do.

Proust.
In Search of Lost Time is narrated by Marcel, a young man suffering from anxiety who wishes to be a writer. In Swann's Way he recalls his childhood and his separation anxiety; his fear at being apart from his mother at night. In his fear he grows manipulative, which we see throughout the novel, more so in The Captive. Through Marcel, Proust writes about love, obsession, memory and reality and the impossibility of reconciling the two, and in doing so he writes about art, literature, and French high society during La Belle Époque ('The Beautiful Era', 1871 - 1914) and the early years of World War I. We learn of his influences; the people and the events that shaped his consciousness. If these seven volumes were to be summed up in one quote, I would suggest this -
Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
It's a modernist novel; experimental - a break from the realism of the 19th Century such as Gustav Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac, and Émile Zola. Virginia Woolf believed it to be one of the best novels ever written, writing to Roger Fry,
Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures—there's something sexual in it—that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can't write like that.
She continued,
Well—what remains to be written after that? . . . How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp.
Fortunately for literature, she went on to write Mrs. Dalloway, not finishing In Search of Lost Time until 1934.

Is In Search of Lost Time really that good? It was ground-breaking, for sure and it marked a break if not a severance from Victorian literature. For that it must be respected. And I have written often of it's beauty, a fragile web of Parisian culture in the Belle Époque, with a fragile, delicate, and acutely observant narrator. But the problem with In Search of Lost Time is its length. It is simply too long.

An element of art is communication, and in Time Regained Proust wrote,
But art, if it means awareness of our own life, means also awareness of the lives of other people - for style for the writer, no less than colour for the painter, is a question not of technique but of vision: it is the revelation, which by direct and conscious methods would be impossible, of the qualitative difference, the uniqueness of the fashion in which the world appears to each one of us, a difference which, if there were no art, would remain forever the secret of every individual. Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon.
To what extent has Proust succeeded? That is the question every reader would ask, those who read the entire novel, and those who did not get passed the overture. It is unreasonable to declare every book we give up on a failure, and discussing literature demands a degree of sympathy (books provoke different responses, and without sympathy and respect the book community would constantly be at each other's throats). But whilst Proust is regarded by many to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, he is also the most under-read. The length and scope, the hundreds of characters and plots, and the lengthy meanderings alone are off-putting. Did Proust communicate effectively? I realise this is an ugly question to ask of such a beautiful and highly regarded book, but I would be lying if I said I was enthralled. I've read a few bloggers write about the sheer trial of reading it, and I am one of them. Yes it was worth it, and yes it is great literature, but no, it is not perfect. It is a difficult trail up a rocky mountain and at times it was read out of stubbornness, a refusal to give up more than seeking truths. I recommend this book, but not because I am in love with it.

Albert Anker's Stilleben Tee und Schmelzbrötchen,
1897.
I am in love with the concept, though, which is very different. I love what Proust tried to do, I love the idea of inner monologues and the psychology of it, love lost, the reconciling of truth and image, and how memory can hinder their relationship. I love the thought of the Third Republic, Paris, society men and women, what lies beneath their beautiful and respected projections, the construct of self, and the construct of others, how they affect the self and how the self affects their image. It's a stunning endeavour, and if this appeals to you too then you must try it. Perhaps you will love the poetry of it, la douleur exquise et la tristesse. The best word for In Search of Lost Time, though, is not French or English but Portuguese: "Saudade", which describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.

It is a sad book, though not without some wit, even farce at times. It encompasses so much, too much for readers like me who are left overwhelmed, a little bemused, but still with respect and awe. The narrator Marcel is difficult, even unpleasant, and deeply self-involved. We learn about his mind and his life, and through it it is possible to learn of our own, but not without hard work and dedication. The question is, is the view we see when we reach the top life-altering? For some it most definitely is, and, again, I recommend this book for those with the patience and dedication to find out. I wish that I had not been left disappointed. I wanted to be in love with Proust, though I still remain greatly intrigued. For he or she who does fall in love, the first reading of In Search of Lost Time will mark the beginning of a fascinating journey. I still look forward to reading his first novel, Jean Santeuil, despite everything I've written.

So I'll conclude now with a few of my favourite quotes: it's true what they say, there are many gems within In Search of Lost Time.
... for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch epochs that are immensely far apart, separated by the slow accretion of many, many days - in the dimension of Time.
The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.
Because the dream world is not the waking world, it does not follow that the waking world is less real, far from it. In the world of sleep, our perceptions are so overloaded, each of them blanketed by a superimposed counterpart which doubles its bulk and blinds it to no purpose, that we are unable even to distinguish what is happening in the bewilderment of awakening.
At times the reading of a novel that was at all sad carried me suddenly back, for certain novels are like great but temporary bereavements, abolishing habit, bringing us once more into contact with the reality of life, but for a few hours only, like a nightmare, since the force of habit, the oblivion it creates, the gaiety it restores to us because of the powerlessness of the brain to fight against it and to re-create the truth, infinitely outweigh the almost hypnotic suggestion of a good book which, like all such influences, has very transient effects.
She has become literary since she’s been forsaken
My walks, that autumn, were all the more delightful because I used to take them after long hours spent over a book. When I was tired of reading, after a whole morning in the house, I would throw my plaid across my shoulders and set out; my body, which in a long spell of enforced immobility had stored up an accumulation of vital energy, now felt the need, like a spinning-top wound up and let go, to expend it in every direction.
May you always see a blue sky overhead, my young friend; and then, even when the time comes, as it has come for me now, when the woods are all black, when night is fast falling, you will be able to console yourself, as I do, by looking up at the sky.


Comments

  1. Replies
    1. Thank you :) I did feel bad criticising Proust, though!

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  2. More than any other series, this one scares me to death. I just need to dive in an tackle it sometime. Well done!

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    1. It *is* scary, but it's entirely readable. Do try it :)

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  3. Brava! I can't believe that you finished it in 6 weeks! Wow!

    I really appreciated the honesty of your post, yet you were able to give a positive outlook on the book as well. I'm looking forward to Swann's Way. I was hoping to get to it this summer but I have not been finishing books at the speed I'd like, so I may be using summer as a clean up time. Oh well!

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    1. Glad you liked it. As I say, I felt bad criticising it but I wanted to be honest about it as well, and it just didn't work so well for me. But all the same, I do recommend that everyone gives it a go :)

      Swann's Way is marvellous - I hope you like that one when you do get around to it :)

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  4. Congratulations on completing your re-read! I agree with you, whilst I think Proust is a beautiful writer, I would also say that reading his books are a bit of a chore. At least, I would never pick them up to read forleasure. I have only read the first two volumes, but I joked with my brother that I only like Proust when I am not reading it.

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    1. That's how I feel about him as well! There's a funny quote in Diary of a Provincial Lady that sums me and Proust up, it's actually with reference to VW's Orlando, but it applies here -

      "Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it."

      :)

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  5. Excellent review. You clearly enjoyed it more than I. I will definitely give Proust another chance, probably Jean Santeuil...but this, just a bucket list item for me. Glad I read it, more glad I'm done.

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    1. Jean Santeuil is wonderful, I hope you like it :) I'm planning on reading some more Proust this year actually - Against Sainte-Beuve And Other Essays. Hopefully they'll be interesting, Proust usually is. Devilishly hard, though!

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