In Search of Lost Time
(Remembrance of Things Past)
By Marcel Proust
Original French Title: A La Recherche du Temps Perdu
Originally Published: 1913 to 1927
Individual Titles: Swann's Way, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (Within a Budding Grove ), The Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah (Cities of the Plain), The Prisoner (The Captive), The Fugitive, Time Regained (The Past Recaptured)
Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Classic Fiction, Literature, Historical Fiction
A La Recherche du Temps Perdu has been published in English as In Search of Lost Time and as Remembrance of Things Past. Under any name, this classic by Marcel Proust intimidates many potential readers due to its mind boggling length of 3308 pages. Despite the length, this is not a difficult novel to read; it’s just long. In fact, the writing style is straightforward and doesn’t suffer from being pretentious although it does contain extended descriptive passages. In addition, the novel was originally broken up into 8 books so you can think of this as a long series of more manageable length novels. However, other than the first book, “Swann’s Way”, the rest of the books in the series don’t stand alone very well so if you read past the first book, you’ll be in it for the long haul.
Before tackling In Search of Lost Time, I need to warn you not to expect any kind of conventional plot. Instead, this is a first person memoir of the narrator as he comes of age at the beginning of the 20th century in the high society circles of Paris. In addition, the narrator is not strong and heroic; he is a sickly, sensitive young man who is a bit effeminate. This might not sound promising for a novel but when you dive into it, you’re in for an extraordinary experience. This is a work of literature that takes you right inside the mind and thoughts of the narrator in a way that has rarely, if ever, been equaled. Not only do you get to be privy to the narrator’s innermost thoughts during key events in his life, you also get to experience his everyday anxieties, daydreams, obsessions, and emotional ups and downs. It’s fascinating how completely you become immersed in a world that seems utterly real with characters that you grow to know just as if they were real friends and acquaintances.
There are certainly large differences between French high society in the early 1900s and modern society. However, the characters in this novel have the same motivations, personalities, character defects, and problems as modern people. The psychological issues of the early 1900s aren’t really much different than today. The characters in this work will undoubtedly remind you of people you’ve met and, after reading this novel, you’ll probably gain some insight into their personalities. I thought the depictions of people having a desperate desire to gain admittance into the upper level “salons” of Paris to be both entertaining and realistic. The social infighting, backstabbing, subtle slights, and sucking up were all described brilliantly. I’ve met plenty of members of the local country club who have the same social obsessions as the characters depicted in this work.
The most impressive aspect of Proust’s writing is his ability to describe perceptions, emotions, and epiphanies. Everyone’s heard the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Here, Proust shows repeatedly that, with a thousand words, he can describe things that can’t be captured in a photograph. One of the most famous examples of this is his description of how the taste of “madeleines” triggers deep memories and emotions. The first part of this passage is reprinted below:
“one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?”
Within In Search of Lost Time, Proust has ample opportunity to explore many themes. The overarching themes are focused on memory, perception, and the passage of time. There is also much examination of love in many forms, lust, friendship, faithfulness, honesty, dishonesty, social climbing, politics, aging, and death. In short, this is series of books about life with all its wonders, difficulties, and triumphs.
Much has been made of the depictions of homosexuality in this work as it is well known that Proust was a homosexual although the narrator of the novel is not. In fact, the narrator often reflects a negative view of homosexuality. But, for its day, this was probably a groundbreaking novel in that it has important characters that are homosexual and there are some long conversations and thoughts about homosexuality in both men and women.
At his best, Proust provides startling insights into the meaning of life. At his worst, he rambles on long digressions, not unexpectedly with a novel of this length. There are certainly more than a few sections that could have benefited from serious editing. The last 3 books of the series suffer the worst from excess bloat because Proust died before he completed his final editing of these books. I suspect the publisher was afraid to begin any serious editing of these works due to a fear of modifying the intent of the author. But overall, the bulk of the writing is so good that the excesses can be easily forgiven.
There seems to be some debate over which English translations of Proust’s magnum opus are best although it seems generally agreed that the more recent 1981, 2002, and 2003 translations are much better than the older translations. I read the translation titled Remembrance of Things Past by Terence Kilmartin and C. K. Scott Moncrieff published in 1981. This was the first English translation to incorporate changes made in the Pléiade French version which was published in 1954 when a French team incorporated materials that were left out by the original publishers. I thought the Kilmartin/Moncrief translation was outstanding. A further revision was made in 2003 when D. J. Enright incorporated changes made in a more recent Pléiade version and for this version the title was changed to In Search of Lost Time.
An alternate translation was commissioned by Penguin/Viking and was first published in 2002 under the title In Search of Lost Time. For this translation, a team of translators was used with different translators for each book and each translator worked directly from the Pléiade French version. The goal of this translation was to provide a more modern translation of the original work in order to connect better with modern readers. Arguments abound over which translation is more accurate or more faithful to the original. The latest translation has been accused of being too modern and of being too inconsistent from book to book as a result of using different translators. I plan to read the new edition of at least the first book, Swann’s Way. When I do, I’ll provide an update as to the value of this latest translation. My guess is that you can’t go too wrong, either way.
My recommendation for In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past is to start with the first book, Swann’s Way and be very patient with the slow start. You owe it to yourself to take the time to read at the least the first 300 pages. At that point you’ll know if this novel is going to be worth your time. If you find yourself drawn into the world of Proust, you’ll find that these books are quite addictive and you’ll have to continue to the end. Despite a drop in quality over the last 3 books, the very last book does a terrific job of bringing the novel full circle and should not be missed.