MARCEL PROUST as a young boy
A concise reader’s guide to surviving—and enjoying—Marcel Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time
Text by Jeffrey Round © 2021 / Society photographs by Félix Nadar
I suspect there comes a point for all serious writers when we contemplate the immensity of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, and either compete with it or shy away completely. For me, that point came in my twenties. My writing has not been the same since. From what I’ve heard, readers have much the same accept-it-or-admit-defeat attitude when it comes to Proust’s epic work.
I took five years to complete a first reading. Once begun, there were moments when I wondered if I could or should finish it. I can’t tell you whether you’ll be glad you persevered as you turn those final pages. I only know that reading this work can prove as arduous and daunting as it does rewarding. At the very least, Proust will teach you to read differently than you did before turning to him.
The seven titles published in French between 1913 and 1927 comprise Proust’s marginally-fictionalized autobiography, chronicling his life from childhood almost literally through to his death. (He finished it mere months before, declaring himself ready to die once he’d penned the final words.)
The book’s primary theme is obsessive love—between parents and children, friends and lovers, masters and servants, citizens and country. Proust invites you to experience all this through his writing. It’s not enough to be involved in the story, however. It’s as though he wants to overwhelm you with his obsessions.
Remember this, for there will be times when exhaustion will set in—not just because of the sheer volume of words, but also the number of characters, length of sections, and correspondences between people, places and things—so much so that at some point you’re bound to wonder why you ever began the journey. When it comes to fiction, Proust’s is the ultimate marathon.
You will need to choose a translation. They are not all the same. Beginning in 1922, the first six books were translated into English by gay Scottish writer CK Scott Moncrieff. Following Moncrieff’s death in 1930, the final volume, Time Regained, was translated by British writer Sydney Schiff, a friend of Proust’s, under the alias Stephen Hudson.
Although Proust expressed misgivings over Moncrieff’s translation (particularly the titles, which the latter felt free to change at whim, so much so that for decades the series was known in English as Remembrance of Things Past), he nevertheless begrudgingly gave his blessing to the project overall.
In 1981, Penguin published an updated translation by Terence Kilmartin based on Moncrieff’s version. I prefer this revision. It feels like an original work, not a translation. It’s so good, in fact, that French critic André Maurois jokingly suggested that French readers should learn English to appreciate Proust at his best.
More recently, in 2002, Penguin published yet another version, this time by seven different translators, each tackling a separate volume. Not only is it the first major English translation not based on Moncrieff’s, but it also takes off from significant textual revisions (by Proust) of the original manuscripts, one of which was discovered only in 1986. A cursory glance gives this version a jaunty, contemporary feel. I look forward to reading it one day.
Apart from James Joyce, who claimed to feel no empathy for Proust’s work, and the eccentric Ronald Firbank, whose novelistic miniatures are the antithesis of Proust in every way, the 1920s Anglo literary world was particularly susceptible to Proust’s style, where it achieved a more succinct expression in books like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Here, it’s as if Proust’s languorous prose has been put through a sieve and refined to a high degree, distilling decades of experiential existence into a single day.
Still, while he has often been imitated, he has seldom, if ever, been bettered. Proust minutely and obsessively explores the tangle of human relationships like almost no other. At his very best, the sense of intimacy and heightened emotions evoked in these books makes for some of the most compelling reading I know. And that is why we continue to read him a hundred and fifty years after his birth.
COMTESSE ÉLISABETH GREFFULHE (1860-1952) Duchesse de Guermantes
“As the word church signifies not only the temple but also the assembly of the faithful, this Hôtel de Guermantes comprised all those who shared the life of the Duchess.”
With the end of the Great War, publication of In Search of Lost Time continued apace. Volume three initially appeared as two books, in 1920 and 1921, but are now generally presented as two chapters under a single title. It had been roughly eight years since the appearance of Swann’s Way and interest in Proust’s work had grown considerably at home and abroad.
In chapter one, the narrator, now in his twenties, has moved with his family to the fashionable Hôtel de Guermantes. He stalks the beautiful Duchesse de Guermantes—to his joy and her chagrin—and nurtures a friendship with her nephew, Robert de Saint-Loup, hoping it will lead to an introduction to his aunt, who has become M’s latest female obsession.
Saint-Loup is now in the army, where two things command his attention. The first is the highly contentious Dreyfus affair, which has taken the country by storm. The second is his tormented relationship with Rachel, a young actress and prostitute whom M previously encountered in a brothel. Unlike most of his military cohorts, Saint-Loup aligns himself with the pro-Dreyfusards, arousing enmity among other soldiers and officers, but endearing himself to the narrator for what he sees as his progressive views.
Like the Trump presidency in our time or the Watergate scandal in the twentieth century, the Dreyfus affair had torn the country apart with its implications of political corruption and, in this case, anti-Semitism. As important as the trial was at the time, however, Proust goes on far too long to sustain interest for contemporary readers, depicting the matter as one of France divided rather than of its more universal theme: racism. The death of the narrator’s grandmother provides a suitably solemn reprieve at the end of chapter one.
In chapter two, M is well on his way to becoming a society figure, having graduated from the lesser Parisian salons of hostesses like Madame Verdurin to the more highly esteemed gatherings of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. To his surprise, he now finds his company sought after by Madame de Guermantes, who reveals herself to be both snobbish and cruel—yet another youthful ideal to come crashing down on the narrator.
M attains the zenith of French social life, only to discover its habitués are petty and shallow. Their constant infighting over whose salon is greater, whose portrait is an original and whose is a copy, and who introduced Franz Liszt to whom is pursued with all the vitriol of feuding drag queens. In his long recounting of a dinner party, Proust’s wit is at its most scathing, with the small-mindedness of Parisian society its chief target. Fortunately for the reader, he delivers a far more amusing account of society here than in Swann’s Way.
Almost as a sideline, Proust now re-introduces Monsieur de Charlus. The imperious and Machiavellian baron attempts to take on the narrator as a sort of protégé, though with ulterior motives, before denouncing M in a ridiculously tempestuous scene worthy of Grand Guignol. It’s a good introduction for what will soon follow.
The Guermantes Way can mark the dividing line between the serious Proust reader and the dilettante. Despite its humour, for me it is the least engaging of the first three volumes. You would be forgiven for losing interest and giving up here, but hang on if you can, for Proust’s real story is just beginning.
DUC ARMAND DE GUICHE (1879-1962) Robert de Saint-Loup
“We find in everything the effect of her presence in the emotion that we feel; herself, the cause, we find nowhere.”
The Fugitive first appeared in 1925. This is my least favourite of the seven volumes and the one I initially found hardest to finish, though I enjoyed it more on a subsequent reading. Despite being the shortest, it’s the most problematic of the seven books, existing in several versions, each markedly different, the storyline subtleties not having been resolved before Proust’s death. In fact, the most recent version, discovered in 1986, is one-hundred-and-fifty pages shorter than the original. Whether Proust intended those excised pages to appear in different form in a later volume is uncertain, though probable, given his writerly tendencies.
As obsessive in death as in love, Proust’s theme transfers easily from one to the other with the sudden and unexpected demise of Albertine at the book’s outset. After asking his friend, Saint-Loup, to spy on his runaway lover and send reports of her life in exile, the narrator instead receives word that she was killed in a horse-riding accident. Despite his grief, M is tormented by subsequent revelations of her infidelities, even after she ceases to be capable of committing them.
To emphasize the profundity of M’s shock, Proust adopts the refrain, “She is dead”, repeating it obsessively throughout the book like a leitmotif. At the same time, he focuses on the stages of the narrator’s grief: 1) Guilt (“It’s my fault she’s dead”), 2) Denial (“I’m over her now”), and 3) Self-flagellation (“I’ll never meet anyone like that again.”) The results are at times mind-numbingly repetitive and less convincing for being so.
Once again, Proust seems to have run out of steam. Throughout the book he appears to be looking for new inspiration and material, but mostly unable to find it. (Had he lived to edit it, no doubt that would have changed to some extent.) It is not until the seventh and final volume that imaginative sparks will once again fly, due in part to seeing the world crumbling around him in the throes of war and finding himself writing about contemporary events, as much as to the enthusiasm he no doubt rediscovered in reaching the final lap of his exhausting race.
Nevertheless, it’s here that the rag-tag ends of Proust’s literary material start to come together. The narrator finally travels to Venice, a trip once postponed because of a childhood illness, and where, despite his grief over the loss of Albertine, he finds the city fully lives up to his expectations. It’s one of the few ideals M achieves without subsequent disappointment or regret. Also, on his return to Paris, he is reintroduced to his first love, Gilberte Swann, whom he barely recognizes. Now a society woman thanks to the remarriage of her mother after the death of her father, she is set to marry Robert Saint-Loup.
That marriage unites the Méséglise Way, symbolic of the outcasts of French society—the courtesan Odette de Crécy, the Jew Charles Swann, and the invert Baron de Charlus—with the Guermantes Way, symbolic of high society and ancient French nobility. Neither of these two Ways, however—as M has by now realized—are as grand or noble as he once imagined them to be. In a surprise plot twist, and despite his womanizing past, Robert de Saint-Loup turns out to be an invert like his Uncle Charlus.
CHARLES HAAS (1832-1901) Charles Swaan
“…the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”
The initial volume of À la recherche du temps perdu was published by Éditions Grasset in 1913 as a vanity project, having been turned down by a number of editors, including André Gide, who considered the work difficult and unwieldy.
On a first reading, it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of prose, storylines and characters. Proust knew very well what he was doing, however, and his sense of literary architecture on such a vast scale is second to none. Pay attention to chapter names: they will help you find your way.
Overture (Combray I) is an introduction to the narrator, M, including his early life, family, long-time servant Françoise, and especially his obsession with his mother, as it unfolds in the fictional village of Combray. It includes the famous madeleine and lime-blossom tisane scene that precipitates M's flashback to the memories that give rise to the entire book. It is the single-most famous example of what Proust called “involuntary memory,” which he considered his prime source of inspiration. By the time you have finished this chapter, you will be well immersed in Proust’s world.
Combray (II) gives further glimpses into the narrator’s childhood and introduces the book’s central characters, particularly the mature Charles Swann, a one-time friend of the narrator’s grandfather. Much of M’s reflection here centres on Swann’s Way—also called the Méséglise Way—an outdoor walk leading past Swann’s house. It lies in contrast with an alternate route, the Guermantes Way, which the narrator associates with a noble family of ancient lineage that will later consume his interest.
Swann in Love moves backward in time to tell of the tortured love of the young Charles Swann for the courtesan Odette de Crécy, later his wife. At the time of their meeting Odette is a familiar figure in Parisian salons, in particular one hosted by the autocratic Madame Verdurin. At times, Proust’s depiction of the corrupt and cynical social scene Swann moves in overtakes the love interest; nevertheless, it is Swann’s romance with Odette that provides the through-line here, and not Parisian society, which, though at times brilliantly rendered, tends to become tedious.
The final chapter, Place-Names: The Name, brings the story up to date with the narrator’s obsession for the now-married Swanns and their daughter, the whimsical and cruel Gilberte. Proust was fond of literary mirrors, and this is one: M’s youthful relationship with Gilberte precisely mirrors Swann’s tortured love for Odette. The narrator’s health being delicate at this time, his doctor forbids all travel, thwarting a long-anticipated wish to visit Venice, which must wait many years for its eventual fulfillment. Young M’s lesson is that true pleasures are always delayed, if they are experienced at all.
As many readers know, and all eventually learn, Proust was not overly concerned with plot or external action. What absorbed him was the inner, unconscious life of an individual, particularly as it transformed over time. It’s no surprise that Proust’s greatest powers of description are focused on his characters’ emotions rather than their physical attributes, although he was quite adept at describing their couture when it attracted the narrator’s attention.
While the secondary themes of art and music are never far off, Proust’s constant theme is one of love transmuted by memory. His romantic affairs, largely but not entirely homosexual according to friends and contemporaries, were complicated and obsessive. To view the book’s seven volumes as a romantic intermediary, even as a form of emotional foreplay for the author’s frequently unrequited feelings, would not be misguided.
Always playful and inventive, the writing seldom feels antiquated. The influence of musical composition on the work is never far off, whether as subject matter or structural and stylistic innovation. The idyllic themes sounded at the opening of the first chapter, for instance, artfully return at the end of the second chapter, now transformed and modulated to a higher, more-rarefied key. In the whole of the series, there is perhaps no finer writing than in these two passages.
COMTE ROBERT DE MONTESQUIOU (1855-1921) Baron de Charlus
“…there were no abnormal people when homosexuality was the norm…”
The fourth book also appeared initially in two volumes, in 1921 and 1922. It marks the last volume Proust edited fully before its publication. He had worried how its controversial subject would be received by critics and public alike. In fact, it aroused little controversy at the time. Rather, its straightforward depiction of homosexuality was largely accepted by all but a small faction of readers and critics.
Part One opens with a prologue originally appended to the end of book three. It contains some of Proust’s driest humour, as he describes a sexual encounter between Baron de Charlus and M’s neighbour, a tailor. M suggests that God erred in sending angels to sort out the homosexuals from the heterosexuals before killing all the deviants in the Cities of the Plain. The angels, Proust says, would be swayed by a man’s protests that he was a father or had a mistress, whereas a fellow Sodomite would know immediately if he was lying. Even then, gaydar seems to have been accepted and understood, at least by the initiated.
There follows a pseudo-scientific disquisition on the nature of homosexuality, with fanciful comparisons to the fertilization of flowers and a more persuasive comparison of the plight of homosexuals to Jews, fellow outcasts from society, although Proust, both Jewish and gay, never once gives away that his interests in either are personal.
Part Two is presented in four chapters. In Chapter One, while steadily climbing the Parisian social ladder, M attends a reception at the home of the Princesse de Guermantes, cousin to Madame de Guermantes. Here he meets the Prince de Guermantes and reconnects with the aged Charles Swann and Baron de Charlus. The writing flags noticeably. It may be that Proust despaired of ever reaching the end of his story as he parodies the same old social scene, letting ennui take over in place of genuine social criticism.
A return trip to Balbec recaptures some of the ecstasy of the place, as well as a return to Proust’s earlier writing fervour. At the beach, M finds the Saint-Germain society reconstituted in miniature, with the Verdurins hosting salons attended by the “little clan” of followers and sycophants. It’s here the narrator decides to resume relations with Albertine Simonet, formerly one of the “little band” of girls he met on the beach at the end of book two.
Proust once considered the title The Intermittencies of the Heart for his great series. He uses it here as the heading of a sub-chapter that bears notably on M’s recollections of time spent at the beach with his grandmother and of her death a year earlier, the full impact of which only now hits the narrator.
In Chapter Two, the emotional and sexual entanglements grow as M becomes aware of the complications involved in loving an attractive bisexual, which he has discovered Albertine to be. Exploring themes of love and sexuality further, Proust examines the various couplings he finds within this miniature recreation of Parisian society at Balbec.
In Chapter Three, the narrative sparks fully back to life as Baron de Charlus takes centre stage in his pursuit of a gifted young violinist, Charlie Morel. What Proust feared might outrage the critics of his day is in fact merely another instance of a “difficult” love match mirroring that of Charles and Odette Swann, Robert de Saint-Loup and his mistress Rachel, and the narrator and Albertine. Whatever the moral concerns of the time, French society—or at least literate society—had a far greater tolerance than Proust realized.
Many have noted the negative spin Proust places on homosexuality, particularly the unpleasant personality of Monsieur de Charlus, whom he took for his central character. When André Gide suggested he was trying to stigmatise homosexuality, Proust vehemently denied it. “I finally understand,” Gide was later to write in his Journal, “that what we find ignoble, ridiculous or disgusting, does not, to him, seem so repulsive.”
Perhaps to counter this perception, Proust would write somewhat belatedly in the second-last volume, “Personally, I found it absolutely immaterial from a moral point of view whether one took one’s pleasure with a man or with a woman, and only too natural and human that one should take it where one could find it.” Coming as it did only decades after the Wilde trial, this was a remarkably brave statement to make.
The chapter concludes with a magical passage evoking the return by train of the “little clan” to their various residences. The writing is reminiscent of the luminous passages that end volumes one and two, and caps the novel beautifully, as M decides it would be folly to marry Albertine. Unfortunately, Proust appends a short and entirely unnecessary Chapter Four. The writing is over the top and serves only to subvert the narrator’s amusing but self-deluding declaration in the previous section that he will not marry Albertine.
COMTESSE DE MARTEL (1849-1932) Mature Gilberte Swaan
“…the nimble shuttles of the years weave links between those of our memories which seem at first most independent of each other…”
The reader may experience a noticeable feeling of accomplishment on opening the cover of this, the final volume of a work started long ago. Rejoice, for you are close to your goal and there are great rewards still to come.
Finding Time Again first appeared in 1927. The prose is smoother, the lines less forced and self-consciously in imitation of writers like Victor Hugo. This is partly because Proust’s style has matured, but also because portions of this book were written years earlier, around the time of the initial volume, giving him time to perfect it. In fact, it’s not hard to see that he wrote the first and final volumes as a single work, adding the intervening books only after much rethinking and interpolation of the events of his life between its start and its finish.
All those years that Proust spent in exile in his study were not for nothing: World War I comes into view at last, giving the story an urgency and propulsion it has long been lacking. Gilberte Swann has married Robert de Saint-Loup, only now revealed as bisexual to her despair. Once again, an amorous affair comes to grief; it’s as though Proust could conceive of no other suitable ending for love. The issue remains unresolved, however. Still noble despite his flaws, Robert dies in the war. To my mind, his death is far more moving and shocking than Albertine’s, who, however charming and pitiable a character she is shown to be, is not particularly likeable. To me, this is one of the work’s major flaws.
Proust began his life’s work in 1909 while living at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. In 1919, he was forced to move when his aunt sold the building, delaying his writing and revising of the book until he eventually settled into 44 rue Hamelin, his final home. His health, never good, was now clearly on the decline in what would turn out to be the final years of his life. Nevertheless, he seems to revel in knowing the end is near, both with the book and his life, though he still needs to settle a few old scores.
There are the inevitable reversals of time as all the old faces parade by: the narrator mistakes Gilberte for her mother, while Odette has become old and forgetful. Former enemies have become lovers, while lovers turn into friends. Baron de Charlus’ young plaything, Charlie Morel, a deserter in the war, becomes a national hero by a trick of fate, while Charlus becomes a pitiable figure seeking masochistic sexual encounters in male bordellos. (In real life, Proust was a financial backer of one such brothel.) With the governmental pardon of Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason not long before the outset of the war, the subject of Dreyfusism is now seen as commonplace rather than the nation destroyer it once was.
Again, there are chronological and factual discrepancies in the story as changes crept into the working manuscript and were not edited out by Proust’s brother. One wonders how Robert Proust felt, having been his brother’s rival most of his life, not to be included as a character in his monumental work. It’s as though Proust, jealous of his brother’s favoured status, erased him in his writing to make up for what he couldn’t achieve in real life. Nevertheless, it was Robert’s dedication to the final three manuscripts that eventually resulted in their being presented to the world.
Some years after the war, while professing almost total indifference to the loss of Albertine, the narrator makes one final foray into Parisian social life. On his return, Proust’s sarcasm reaches its apotheosis with a jaundiced view of the salons of old. M is shocked to find the Guermantes’ fame faded, while Madame Verdurin, once an arriviste, is now a revered salon hostess. He is even more shocked to see his contemporaries aged, noting ironically how old grudges have fallen away as well.
Having had a final glimpse of society’s ultimate frivolity and emptiness, the mature M now resolves to turn down all future invitations and begin the book he has so long promised himself to write, one that will “furnish [readers] with the means of reading what lay inside themselves.” That book, we are given to understand, is the one we have just read.
JEANNE POUQUET (1874-1962) Young Gilberte Swaan
“We are, when we love, in an abnormal state…”
Publication of the second volume was delayed from 1914 to 1919 because of the Great War. In the interim, Proust took the opportunity to switch to a more esteemed publisher, Éditions Gallimard. He also transitioned from part-time hypochondriac to full-time asthmatic, spending entire days in bed. He “retired” from social life and waited out the war writing almost ceaselessly in his cork-lined study at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. It was worth the wait: the book won France’s coveted Prix Goncourt for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year.”
Presented in two chapters—Madame Swann at Home and Place-Names—The Place—here we find the narrator approaching adulthood. In chapter one he continues his adolescent obsession with Gilberte Swann. As with most relationships in Proust, it's a tortured one. “There can be no peace of mind in love,” the narrator tells us, “for what one has obtained is never anything but a new starting point for further desires.” In other words, it’s a sure-fire recipe for disaster.
This chapter contains yet another famous scene, in which, while “wrestling” with Gilberte, the narrator experiences orgasm and the onset of sexual awareness. M finds consolation for his unrequited love by cultivating a friendship with Gilberte’s mother, Madame Swann. As he becomes a regular in the Swann household, however, he comes to see the low social regard Odette is held in by others. This disillusionment with ideals just as he attains them is a pattern the narrator will repeat throughout the book. It is here that he finally breaks with Gilberte. To my mind this is one of the slower, least satisfying sections in the whole series.
Chapter two picks up the pace as the narrator travels with his beloved grandmother to Balbec, a ritzy beach colony, where he hopes to get over his love for Gilberte. Proust now develops M’s relationships with three major characters: the insidious Baron de Charlus of the exalted Guermantes family (whom he considered his main character, despite the fact that Charlus is not present enough overall to be a main character), the attractive and aristocratic Robert de Saint-Loup (Charlus’ nephew, and soon to become the narrator’s best friend), and Albertine Simonet, who will eventually become M’s grandest obsession. Ultimately, all three will turn out to have non-conformist sexual natures.
This is the most compelling and, at times, most annoying section of the book as we meet a “little band” of girls who roughhouse and tumble like acrobats when they’re not cycling or playing golf. One of them literally jumps over an elderly man reclining on the beach as the others cheer her on. The reader will be forgiven for thinking them more like a gang of rowdy boys, described variously by Proust as “thoughtless”, “bad”, “hard” and “Dionysian”, while the narrator contemplates which he will “choose” to fall in love with.
Considering the cumbersome apparel young women wore at the turn of the century, it’s difficult to accept that girls would have behaved in such a way. Add to this the fact that their names are often just one letter away from boys’ names and you begin to wonder. Though some hard-core Proustians disagree, much skepticism has been expressed over the band’s gender. Keeping in mind that this was not long after the trial and incarceration of Oscar Wilde, whom Proust had met, the rational for placing his characters at a further remove from his own life and sexuality is quite understandable.
On the other hand, Proust’s psychological acuity shines here in his observations of love, from the tritest through to the most profound. As well, this book has one of the most breathtaking summations of any novel ever written—no mean feat for a writer who started off as a society gossip columnist.
ALFRED AGOSTINELLI (1888-1914) Albertine Simonet
“I mean by love reciprocal torture.”
Appearing in 1923, The Prisoner is the first volume Proust did not live to revise before publication. This and the subsequent volume, The Fugitive, were originally intended as a departure from the three-volume series Proust initially conceived for Recherche. Together, they were known as “The Albertine novel.”
From this point on Proust’s brother, Robert, oversaw publication of the work. In part because of this, numerous textual discrepancies have resulted. To further complicate matters, chapter markers are dispensed with from here forward, the final three volumes presented as undivided texts, making for some pretty dense reading.
Now an adult, the narrator is living covertly with Albertine, to his mother’s dismay and his long-time servant Francoise’s disapproval. While attempting to keep their affairs out of the public eye, M prevents Albertine from having a social life that would expose her to the company of others, particularly lesbians.
The writing is a departure from previous books, notably in how the narrator intrudes with first-person statements such as, “My personal opinion is…” or “…the author would like to say….” At one point, Proust suggests he might call his narrator “Marcel”, speculating how readers will perceive this. There is a distinct modernist tone at work, at times reminiscent of Baudelaire, whom Proust admired but criticized for narrating from a first-person perspective rather than creating an arm’s-length fictional substitute, as he himself now ventures close to doing.
The music of German Romanticist Richard Wagner is expertly described here, giving strong insights into Proust’s own aesthetic. As well, the astute reader may pick up on a pronounced “gay” vocabulary, as when the narrator speaks of Monsieur de Charlus as “an affected old woman.” Proust’s self-described “hero” of the series, the baron comes to grief here, experiencing a fall from social grace when he overplays his hand and mistakes the extent of his hold over his lover, the violinist Charlie Morel.
The Prisoner contains one of the most remarkable passages in the entire work. In it, a famous author compares his writing with Johannes Vermeer’s acclaimed painting, View of Delft, concluding on his deathbed that he has failed in his artistic efforts. It was, in fact, this very passage that Proust was revising in bed when he died. That Proust was still far from perfecting his masterpiece is evident in that not one, but three characters he kills off here will later be brought back to life. It also shows just how much he revised and reworked his material.
M’s love for Albertine is further developed. As usual, it’s unhappy, marked by jealousy and subterfuge. As Proustians know, Albertine was based on Proust’s real-life secretary and chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli. A married man, Agostinelli died at age twenty-six in 1914 while flying the plane Proust bought him as a bribe to live with him in Paris. The emotional shockwaves the event caused were to have huge consequences for the course the book would take.
Proust met Agostinelli in 1907, not long before he conceived the idea for his epic novel. Given his predilection for unrequited love, it’s no surprise that his supreme attraction was for a man he could never truly call his own. To my mind, this is the real story he intended to write.
You may experience a sense of relief at the relative brevity of this volume, in part because of how close to the end you have come, and also because it will by now have dawned on you how tiresomely manipulative the narrator is. This aspect of Proust’s personality was noted by a number of his friends, particularly those on whom he based his characters, often importuning them for information about their lives then later denying the connections when they showed up in his work.
Overall, the material feels rawer, precisely because it has been considerably less worked over. Because of this, however, it reveals far more of the writer than we have seen till now. The book ends on a distinctly sombre note with the abrupt departure of Albertine from the narrator’s home and life after a decisive argument, but one the reader feels was a long time coming.
MARCEL PROUST (1871-1922) on his Death Bed by Man Ray
On 18 November 1922, Marcel Proust died at home in his bed at fifty-one, having completed his life’s work. When he began In Search of Lost Time, at the age of thirty-seven, he was considered a mere socialite whose writing consisted largely of gossip columns and essays. By the time of his death, he had become an international sensation. News of his passing swept the literary world and was greeted with the sort of reaction later ages would accord the death of beloved pop stars.
Proust’s life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s no coincidence that he conceived and wrote his epic work around the time composers like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, in a post-Wagner world, were expanding the possibilities of musical form. Roughly speaking, it was the end of Romanticism and the beginning of Modernism, and the line demarking the two was occasionally a little blurry.
Much had changed outwardly in the world since his youth. Electricity had been harnessed for public use, while the telephone, automobile, phonograph and aeroplane were invented. The world grew smaller as the universe expanded. In 1905, Einstein published his theory of special relativity concerning the relationship between space and time, a concept that would revolutionize both physics and philosophy. It was also not long after the invention, in France, of the first motion picture, in which photographic images assumed the added dimension of time.
None of this was lost on a writer who would spend the latter part of his life searching for lost time. In his great work, Proust attempted something like a theory of general relativity, an amalgamation of “natural” laws that would connect such disparate elements as emotions, politics and art through an inner awareness on the part of the individual. His technique, as he claimed in a letter to friend and translator, Sydney Schiff, was like pointing a telescope at the stars “to reveal to consciousness unconscious phenomena … sometimes situated far away in the past.”
In Time Regained he wrote, “…the true paradises are the paradises we have lost.” Only not entirely lost, because for Proust writing was a way of redeeming his life and validating his years of renunciation. Where his contemporary, TS Eliot, wrote “in my beginning is my end”, believing that all time was eternally present, for Proust it still needed to be found and reclaimed. And whereas Eliot concerned himself with absolutes like Good and Evil, Proust felt that truth lay in the personal and subjective revelations of time. “An hour,” he wrote, “is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates…”
Throughout À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust shows himself enamoured of paintings, citing more than two hundred artists and their works. “My book is a painting”, he wrote to fellow writer Jean Cocteau. If there is one work that exemplifies this, it is Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, in which a single figure is portrayed through a progression of movements before finally arriving at itself. In Contre Sainte-Beuve, his hybrid work of fiction and literary criticism, Proust declared that art’s purpose is to recreate the world “each time a new [and original] artist arrives.” That, no doubt, is how he saw himself.
In our time-challenged world, readers may wonder if it is enough simply to read the first volume, Swann’s Way, and presume to know Proust. Yes, because that is a significant enough sample to get a feel for what Proust achieved. By then, presumably, you will know whether you are a Proust-o-phile who must continue to the end. But then again, no, because you won’t have experienced the height and breadth of the work. You will merely have grasped the immensity of an Everest by gazing at it from a distance, but without having conquered it. If you are a climber, how high do you need to climb? No one else can determine that for you.
Jeffrey Round is author of the Lambda Award-winning seven-volume Dan Sharp PI series, the ReLit Award-nominated poetry collection In the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci and the ReLit Award-nominated war novel, The Honey Locust.