In Search of Lost Remembrance

This blog post contains spoilers for In Search of Lost Time. If that’s a thing.

Back at the very tail end of 2012, I decided that my 2013 reading project would be Marcel Proust’s elephantine seven-volume masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu, known in English as either Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time – the title, as I would find, not being the only thing about it that’s difficult to get hold of. At the point of embarking on the first volume, Swann’s Way, my knowledge of the work was restricted to ‘something about cakes’ and the Monty Python sketch featuring the All-England Summarise Proust Competition. But I plunged in, intending to finish the whole lot by the end of the year.

Last weekend, I finally finished reading the final volume, Time Regained. So that’s only 7 ½ months behind schedule, which, considering how long it took Proust to write (13 years, and he wasn’t done with it when he died) ain’t bad going. And now, I can officially join the club of People Who Have Read Proust, the literary equivalent of completing the Ironman, but much less sweaty.

What’s the verdict? Well, mixed. Proust has his moments, for sure: his elegiac imagery, his memorable character portraits, his musings on such themes of memory, mortality, and the essential impossibility of truly knowing the mind of another. But boy, could he have used a swingeing edit. The seven-part novel is not only extremely long – over 1.2 million words in the original French – it’s also rambling, repetitive, and hopelessly self-indulgent. Better readers than I have given up in frustration when they realise that, yes, fifty pages later, he’s still going on about his bedroom ceiling. The narrator/main character – who is basically Proust himself – is not terribly sympathetic: whiny, lazy, self-absorbed and extremely jealous, he spends all his time stalking women or young girls, complaining (ironically) about writer’s block, and trying to worm his way into high society. The concept of doing anything actually useful with his life doesn’t occur to him until the final volume, and even then it’s only to capture his flashes of involuntary memory caused by madeleines and uneven paving slabs for the benefit of posterity. I spent much of Books 4 & 5 hoping that his girlfriend, the long-suffering Albertine, would give him a slap round the face and tell him to get over himself. Sadly, she never does.

Much more sympathetic is Charles Swann, father of the narrator’s first love, and hero of his own novella included within the first volume. A wealthy assimilated Jew who has made an unwise marriage, his position is both exalted and insecure, especially once the Dreyfus Affair exposes the tensions and underlying antisemitism in French society. The scene near the end of Book 3 where he, terminally ill and passionate about politics, is contrasted with his friends the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, caring only about the party they’re going to, is probably the most affecting in the entire novel. In many ways his is a much more interesting story than the narrator’s, and if you want to read it, I recommend The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which is both excellent and quite short.

In Search of Lost Time is easy to make fun of, less easy to read. As a book, it makes no concessions to the reader, expecting you to keep up with the narrator’s endless asides, and remember every detail about a character you last met a thousand pages ago. The plot proceeds at a pace of about one event per volume. It’s not what you’d call a page-turner. But having got to the end, I can say that I’m glad I’ve read it, experienced a unique voice, a key work in world literature and the development of the modern novel. I probably won’t ever read it again, but I think certain images and moments will stay with me forever. So I’ll drink a lime-blossom tea to that, and proceed with the next reading challenge.

In a fortnight’s time, I’ll be at the Fantasy Convention in York, so I’ll be updating this blog on Monday 8th September with my latest thoughts…

Wikipedia on the Dreyfus Affair:

Pyjamas and Gin

A fortnight ago, I announced that I was taking a leap of faith by quitting the day job in favour of taking up writing full time. Since then, it’s been a time of transition. I’ve had an emotional last day at work, and been treated to a parting gift of a beautiful pen set. I’ve had a leaving do, a hangover, some old friends for the weekend, and some more gifts – a bottle of Bombay Sapphire from an old university chum and a surprise bunch of flowers from an old colleague. It’s been a good time for getting presents. And on Monday, I pulled on my pyjamas and got to work. Yes, I wear pyjamas to work now. Because I can.

This picture sums up my life right now quite well. #livingthedream

This picture sums up my life right now quite well. #livingthedream

How’s it gone so far? Well, as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder once said (and I find 19th-century Prussian generals make the best life coaches) ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’. I had originally intended to try and get my daily dose of writing first thing in the morning, and then have the rest of the day free for such activities as going for walks, drinking tea with friends, cooking dinner, and looking for a part-time job. Disappointingly but entirely predictably, this hasn’t quite worked out – the writing has spilled over into the afternoon several times, and my health hasn’t co-operated either. But hey-ho – chronic pain is part of my life now, and I just need to manage it as best I can, and hope it gradually improves. And the good news is that, by making writing my top priority, the thing I do before I do anything else, I have so far managed to achieve my creative goals. Which was, after all, the whole point.

What were my creative goals for my first week as a writer? I reported here back at the end of May ( that I was considering various options for what to write next. I had been hoping that, by now, I would have a steer and be able to get on with churning out the first draft. As ever, things haven’t quite gone to plan, but I have received some feedback on my ideas which has enabled me to refine the list of options, and this week to revise the outlines for the two leading candidates. At the moment – and of course this could change – the front runners are Forever 27, a tale of sex and death and drugs and magic and rock ‘n’ roll, and The Silvergreen Sea, a fantasy novel about a heavily-forested land facing ecological disaster.

The Silvergreen Sea is a fairly new idea, currently very much at the planning stage, with nothing actually written so far. In contrast, Forever 27 was started back in November 2011 and I’ve spent quite a lot of time – albeit intermittently – on it since then. This week – with a little help from my friends at my writing group – I finally wrestled the outline into a shape I’m fairly confident will actually work as a novel, while remaining true to the original concept. The bad news is that this has changed it so radically that I’m going to have to chuck out everything I’ve already written. Oh well. So you could say I’m currently working on two projects, both with a wordcount of zero. Put like that, it might not sound like a great deal of progress, but I figure it’s better to have ideas and no words than words but no idea.