A Reader’s Guide to Surviving—and Enjoying—Marcel Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time
By Lambda Award-winning author Jeffrey Round
I suspect there comes a point for all serious writers when they contemplate the immensity of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, and decide either to 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 having 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 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 former 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 based on Moncrieff’s version. I find Moncrieff’s rendering stiff, and prefer this revision by Terence Kilmartin. It feels like an original work, not a translation. It is so good, in fact, that French critic André Maurois jokingly suggested that French readers should learn English if they want to appreciate Proust at his best.
More recently, in 2002, Penguin published yet another version, by seven different translators, each tackling a separate volume. Not only is it the first major English translation not based on Moncrieff’s, 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 as well.
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 had 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 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
"…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 his 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.
"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 is 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 the narrator, while “wrestling” with Gilberte, 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 identity. 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.