I have attempted several times to read the first volume of seven of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the novel by Marcel Proust. Even as I type the title, I feel overwhelmed. The first volume is Du côté de chez Swann, or Swann’s Way. I read about fifteen pages of it one summer; tried another summer to go past those same fifteen pages; and then a third attempt was even less successful. I do not recall if the final try was in the summer, or if I made it past those first fifteen pages. But I do enjoy baking madeleines in the summer!
This enormous work has been deemed respected, prominent, poignant, monumental, and unparalleled. How can I not agree?
The basic problem that I had with this tome by Monsieur Proust, other than his sheer abundance of words, was the confusing linkages to memories which then lead to further linkages to time and memory and on and on, down a path of non-linear connections. The use of flashbacks is fine, but the utter lack of structure within what is supposed to be involuntary memory tested my patience.
This reader got lost! The memories encircled me and I became claustrophobic!
The images and telling touches are impeccable and moving, but there is no perspective, or, at least, a unifying perspective that this masterful writer mastered. Tolstoy wrote that a work of art must have a kind of focus: “some place where all the rays meet or from which they issue.” This huge oeuvre is indeed resplendent, but the radiance emanates from too many different directions. The focus became foci that went loco (or loci!).
It has been said that after Volume 4 the writing became fragmented and “unpolished.” Proust also continued to edit (a compulsion that can get out of hand!) previous volumes. I think that Marcel thought of those volumes as gardens within his mind, plots of memory that had to be tended and weeded on a daily, if not hourly, basis. He was a writer of boundless creativity who composed seven volumes of a novel that was not plot-driven; lacks the single “vision,” or single point of view (a huge no-no in a novel); and which thrives not on action but on impressions emerging and connecting and performing the literary equivalent of a fade-out of one “scene” and fade-into the next “scene.”
The chapters contain symbols of memory within memory. Perhaps it all made sense to Proust, but this structure creates a labyrinth of images for the reader which, like the original Labyrinth in Greek mythology, threatens to contain a fearsome creature. That fearsome creature is utter frustration which is coupled with a sense of failure to understand what one has just read!
The writing of Proust evolved concurrently with the painting of the French Impressionists and the music of Claude Debussy: these art forms were all based upon sensory components and tonality. Thus there exists a definite correspondence among these French artists and their arts, a correspondence that made this art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries vibrant, muted, expressive, impressive, and fundamentally sensual and beautiful.
Proust wrote literary criticism that is as fluid and filled with evocative images as his novels. The criticism is superb, even if a typical sentence is a run-on paragraph of thoughts separated only by the breath known as a comma. Marcel was complex. His writing was in search of, not lost time, but the pathways through time, and the interconnecting roads, trails, and steps to those pathways. Long ago I was told that Proust worked in a cork-lined room. I believed it. This man was indeed confined during the last three years of his life in a cork-lined bedroom where he slept during the day and wrote at night.
Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust was born in 1871 in Auteuil, located in the 16th arrondissement of Paris which was, at that time, rural. He was a sickly child, plagued by asthma. He died of pneumonia at the age of 51. His entire adult life had been dedicated to writing; reading; publication of his writing; refining his theories of art and the role of the artist in society; and the attempted translation into French of two works by John Ruskin, the English watercolourist, art critic, prolific writer, lecturer, and professional “thinker.”
Alas! Proust was stymied by an imperfect command of English! His command of French was, however, perfect. He wrote with eloquent truth about the novelist’s vocation in “Time Regained”:
“A new light arose in me, less brilliant indeed than the one that had me perceive that a work of art is the only means of regaining lost time. And I understood that all the material of a literary work was in my past life, I understood that I had acquired it in the midst of frivolous amusements, in idleness, in tenderness and in pain, stored up by me without my divining its destination or even its survival, as the seed has in reserve all the ingredients which will nourish the plant. . . In one sense, literature had played no active part in my life. But, in another, my life, the memories of its sorrows, of its joys, had been forming like albumen in the ovule of a plant. . . Thus my life had been lived in constant contact with the elements which would bring about its ripening.”
Proust was an artist who was diligently, even reverently aware of the elements which were to be brought to fruition through the fortunate coincidence of catalyst and a creative, fertile temperament. His literary criticism is as analytical as it is abundantly splendid, alive with the rich understanding of a writer at the peak of his powers. To provide a sample of the textural talent of Proust, I offer the following excerpt of an excerpt from “Time Regained.” The use of ellipsis (the dot dot dot to omit words or a phrase) is mine. I have, however, retained the run-on form. This wall of magnificent text belongs to Marcel Proust.
“A picture of life brings with it multiple and varied sensations. The sight, for instance, of the cover of a book which has been read spins from the characters of its title the moonbeams of a distant summer night. The taste of our morning coffee brings us that faint hope of a fine day which formerly so often smiled at us in the unsettled dawn from a fluted bowl or porcelain which seemed like hardened milk. An hour is not merely an hour; it is a vase filled with perfumes, with sounds, with projects, with climates. What we call reality is a relation between those sensations and those memories which simultaneously encircle us – a relation which a cinematographic vision destroys because its form separates us from the truth to which it pretends to limit itself – that unique relation which the writer must discover in order that he may link the different states of being together for ever in a phrase. . . .Was nature not herself from the point of view, on the track of art, was she not the beginning of art, she who often only permitted me to realize the beauty of an object long afterwards in another, mid-day at Combray only through the sound of its bells, mornings at Doncières only through the groans of our heating apparatus. The relationship may be of little interest, the objects commonplace, the style bad but unless there is that relationship, there is nothing. A literature which is content with ‘describing things’, with offering a wretched summary of their lines and surfaces, is, in spite of its pretention to realism, the furthest from reality, the one which impoverishes us and saddens us the most, however much it may talk of glory and grandeur, for it abruptly severs communication between our present self, the past in which objects retain their essence and the future in which they encourage us to search for it again. . .”
I ended this exquisite, detailed, subtle rant just before Marcel adds “But there is more.” Indeed, with Proust, there always is more.
À la recherche du temps perdu was a definite, decisive, and perhaps defiant departure from the naturalism of 19th-century French novelists such as Emile Zola and Alphonse Daudet; and from realists like Gustave Flaubert, Stendhal, and Honoré de Balzac. One can only imagine the frissons of horror that Proust must have felt toward that emerging art and science of motion picture photography: cinematography.
If Proust sounds defensive in this excerpt, he was. He was defending his poetic vision of the world, a place which had become less poetic and artistic and, thus, less “real” for the sake of adjudicating society’s ills and blemishes. It was the beginning of the novelist as preacher, and the deformation of the art form into social medicine, mantra, mediocrity, and smirking banality.
Proust ended this literary criticism with even more honesty and truth:
“. . . I perceived that to express those impressions, to write that essential book, which is the only true one, a great writer does not, in the current meaning of the word, invent it, but, since it exists already in each one of us, interprets it. The duty and the task of a writer are those of an interpreter.”
Proust may have been limited in interpreting French into English, but he proved supreme in translating -- interpreting -- his experience into magnificent art.