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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_affair