Analysis of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

The reclusive French writer Marcel Proust, now considered by many scholars as the greatest novelist of the 20th century, labored for more than 14 years and died while still adding to what would eventually be a seven-volume masterpiece. The novel is so singular, so complete, and so monumental that it has become the brilliant exemplar of modernism and the distillation of 20th-century aesthetics. Proust’s admirers included great thinkers and writers such as José Ortega y Gassett, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, André Gide, Jean Genet, Gérard Genette, Roland Barthes, Ralph Ellison, and many more. His work effaced the realism of the 19th-century novel and set a standard for narrative fiction. In Search of Lost Time is a brilliant treatment of the universal human condition, of the quest of the individual for the meaning of life, of the birth of the artist, and of the transcendence of art.

In the original French, À la recherche du temps perdu is a verbal tour de force, an exquisite rendering of the narrator’s perception and apprehension of a shifting universe and of the incalculable losses to time. From the very first line, the novel draws the reader into the conscious and unconscious realm of a speaker who is author-narrator-protagonist and who exists alternately and simultaneously in all the times and places of his life.

Since 1922, À la recherche du temps perdu has been read in English as Remembrance of Things Past, in the translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, which immediately became the basis for other translations. Moncrieff took the title from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/ I summon up remembrance of things past,/ I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,/And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste”). The Moncrieff translation is poetic but much wordier than the original French. Moncrieff had a tendency to give several synonyms for many words and to gratuitously embellish, and his focus on rumination and memory in the title does not allow for the multiple possibilities of wordplay inherent in the original French. In 1993 the Modern Library edition (the translation of C. K. Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D. J. Enright) recast the work more literally as In Search of Lost Time, a title now universally preferred.

In Search of Lost Time consists of seven volumes, although the various editions and translations have split the work in different ways. Proust did not readily find a publisher for his work (André Gide rejected it for publication by the Nouvelle Revue Française, which later became Gallimard). The first volume, Swann’s Way was published by Grasset in 1913, at the expense of the author, as the first of a two-part work. The Guermantes Way, originally the title of the second part, was scheduled to appear the following year; however, World War I (1914–18) intervened. Grasset closed its doors, and Proust continued to expand and enrich the text. In 1919 Gallimard published the entire, much longer novel, beginning with Swann’s Way and continuing with Within a Budding Grove (or In the Shadows of the Young Girls in Flower; À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1919), which was awarded the Prix Goncourt. The Guermantes Way (Le côté de Guermantes) and Sodom and Gomorrah (Sodome et Gomorrhe) appeared in 1922. The remaining volumes came out posthumously under the direction of Marcel Proust’s brother, Robert Proust. The Prisoner (La prisonnière) appeared in 1923; The Fugitive (La fugitive, 1925) was first published as Albertine disparue to differentiate it from another book with a similar title; and, finally, Time Regained (Le temps retrouvé) closed the cycle in 1927, at a total 4,300 pages.

The French text now considered the most authoritative is À la recherche du temps perdu, edited by JeanYves Tadié (Gallimard, 1987). The finest and most ambitious English translation of the entire masterpiece is the Penguin UK Modern Classics edition, which came out between 1996 and 2001, based on the Tadié 1987 Gallimard edition. Under the general editorship of Christopher Prendergast, each of the seven volumes of Proust’s novel has been translated into English by a different scholar. The first volume, Swann’s Way, is by Lydia Davis; In the Shadows of the Young Girls in Flower is by John Grieve; The Guermantes Way is by Mark Treharne; Sodom and Gomorrah is by John Sturrock; The Prisoner is by Carol Clark; The Fugitive is by Peter Collier; and Finding Time Again is by Ian Patterson, a translation that John Updike calls sublime. The first four parts have been published in New York by Viking (2003–04). The remaining three volumes are not scheduled until 2019, due to revised American copyright laws.

In Search of Lost Time in any version is a literary masterpiece that has dissolved the boundaries of genre, incorporating the elements of musical and artistic composition. The novel combines reflective essay, autobiography, and panoramic human comedy. Originally conceived as two books, each in two parts and orchestrated, some say, in homage to the four-opera Ring cycle of Richard Wagner (1813–33), the novel achieves Wagnerian fullness and amplitude in its fully developed score. Critics see the template for In Search of Lost Time in Parsifal’s quest of the Holy Grail, with its symbolic swan, attendant flower maidens, and the Gurnemanz, leader of the Grail Knights. In Search of Lost Time, like Parsifal, is the epic story of a young man who, through trial and suffering, is destined to restore harmony to his world and direct the mind to a higher divinity.

In Search of Lost Time has become the seminal work of modernism and the novel that best exemplifi es the narrative style of the early 20th century. Proust destroys 19th-century novelistic conventions of chronology and causality while incorporating Freudian psychology and the subjective apprehension of time and sensation into the narrative. The novel dramatizes the vast panorama of Belle Époque society, with recurring characters in the style of Honoré de Balzac’s Human Comedy, in sharply drawn vignettes and set-pieces as memorable and comic as those of Charles Dickens but with the modulations of perception and shading of a Henry James. This work is a wonderfully nuanced application of impressionism to novelistic narrative; it sheds the vestiges of photographic realism by shredding light and color into component wavelengths, the multiple superimposed impressions of the narrator. It is a bildungsroman, a novel of growth and development, but from the inside out; it advances from a narrative stance in the present of the adult narrator and moves backward in time in a series of images and recurring motifs. Gerard Genette says that the narrative is polymodal (both internally and externally focused) and polyvocal (both in the voice of the internal narrator Marcel and the heightened voice of the external narrator Proust) and, therefore, stretches the literary genre and enlarges the possibilities of fiction.

The chronology of In Search of Lost Time corresponds essentially to the life of the narrator, who is remarkably like the author, even in first name, except that the main portion of Swann’s Way, “Swann in Love,” takes place before the births of the narrator and his first love, Gilberte, in the 1890s. The last episode of Time Regained, the afternoon at the Guermantes, takes place in 1925, after the death of the author, as does perhaps the very beginning, the “Overture,” which introduces the very book we are reading, but from the vantage point of the future, after Time Regained.

The work begins with that famous reflexive line: “For a long time, I went to bed early” (Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure). This is followed by recollections of awakenings appearing as free associations but subtly intertwining a series of leitmotifs that end in the resurrection of the village of Combray through involuntary memory, the episode of the madeleine cakes dipped in a cup of tea. “Combray 2” goes back to the childhood family walks through the country gardens, differentiating the two main paths, the path by their neighbor Swann and the path by the Guermantes, the haughty aristocrats. The next section flashes back to a time before the birth of the narrator, to Swann’s infatuation with Odette, to their affair, to Odette’s poses, to Swann’s jealousy, to the ironies and cruelties inherent in every aspect of love. Swann is rich and Jewish and has artistic ambitions, but he squanders his talents on the pursuit of society and the love of a woman he does not even like. The last part of the first book is devoted to dreams of place names and to the meeting in the Champs-Élysées, the main thoroughfare in the middle of Paris, of Gilberte, the little girl with red hair who is the narrator’s first love. The last is an image of Mme Swann in the Bois (park) one late autumn morning, the memory which becomes a regret for the lost moments and places as fleeting as the years.

Within a Budding Grove includes “Madame Swann at Home,” in which the narrator as a boy makes friends with Gilberte Swann and begins to experience stirrings of longing, jealousy, and desire. The Swann’s household opens to him, and he has glimpses of Odette, Swann, the artists, the concerts, and the exhibits then current, while getting varying and often opposing critiques of both personalities and performances. The narrator’s parents wish he would do something useful with his life, but he continues a dilettante in pursuit of society and pleasure. From Gilberte, he first hears of Albertine. The narrator has snatches of revelation: In love, happiness is abnormal; love secretes a permanent pain. In “Place-Names: The Place,” the narrator leaves for the seaside town of Balbec with his grandmother. There among the visits, the names, the seascapes, the churches, the dinners, he meets the little band of beautiful young girls, today’s young buds, and has a glimpse of future ugliness. He makes friends with Charlus, his alter ego, and begins his fixation with Albertine.

The Guermantes Way, named for the alternate walk in the village of Combray, was once planned to be the counterpart to the volume of Swann’s Way and a middle section before Time Recaptured. In the finished work, The Guermantes Way forms a two-part treatment that begins with a move of the narrator’s family to a new apartment in Paris. It encompasses a variety of social episodes that underscore the narrator’s fascination with nobility and are punctuated by the grandmother’s illness and death. The Guermantes Way has an accretion of themes, among them death and loss, notations on theatricality, role playing, social aspirations, snobbery, and sexual ambivalence. The narrator is essentially recording the world of dispersion and dissimulation and the distractions of social life to his creative energies.

Sodom and Gomorrah, sometimes translated as “Cities of the Plain,” begins with a forty-page essay on homosexuality, “the race of inverts,” in Proust’s words, both beautiful and repellent. It concludes at a reception at the palace of the prince de Guermantes, the pinnacle of aspirations for the caste-conscious narrator, though he is now aware that every level of society is swarming with illicit lusts. Sodom is to be understood as synonymous with the affinity of men for other men, and Gomorrah with lesbianism. The narrator is haunted by his suspicion of Albertine’s preferring girls, and the entire book is redolent with the illusive nature of love and the spectacle of man turned into slave through obsessive passion.

The Captive and The Fugitive (sometimes called The Sweet Cheat Gone) narrate, in almost 1,000 pages, the relationship between Marcel and Albertine, an epic love story totally devoid of idealism, glamour, romance, or enjoyment—except as suffering. The sleeping Albertine evokes lyrical descriptions but awakes only exquisite pain. Love for Proust is an exercise in futility because it is never requited, and although the loved one can be captured, the captive can never be held. The universe is ever changing and the personality ever fl eeting. The narrator says that we love only what we do not wholly possess; he is physically ill, discouraged with life, and disillusioned with society.

Time Regained begins years later in a world dramatically altered, a world that the old literary forms can no longer reflect accurately. This is underscored when the narrator, a guest at a lavish estate, reads a pastiche of pages purportedly from the Goncourt Journals, which describe an earlier time in a “realistic” style, a description which differs markedly from the experience of the narrator. Marcel, dejected and ill, withdraws from society to a sanitarium and returns to Paris in 1916 only to capture in potent satire the continuing search for pleasure, luxury, and dissipation in the midst of the bitter and bloody war.

Yet amid the pessimistic details of daily life during this time of wrenching upheavals, in the tasting of tea and madeleine, the narrator experiences a great joy, a glimmer of the past, long lost. He experiences through involuntary memory a repeated pattern of revelations, of illuminations through the medium of sensory perception that can unite the present to the past. He becomes aware that in these favored moments, he is liberated at least temporarily from the passage of time, and he reflects that he must capture these sacred moments into a literary creation. The narrator has to work against time, as his illness is progressing, but he is elated that now he has a literary vocation. He is finally able to detach himself from society and to produce in the ensuing time and short space available to him a voluminous novel, the most lyrical and compassionate treatment on the human condition.

In Search of Lost Time is not easily read, especially in the sequential order advised by critics and informed readers. It is long (seven volumes) and longwinded (4,300 pages). The prose is a labyrinth, the sentences transcontinental, the plot seemingly motionless, and the author one of the great megalomaniacs of literature. Yet Roger Shattuck, a most incisive reader of Proust’s work, says that neither the novel form nor human nature remains unchanged after Proust has passed. The endless reflections and contradictions found In Search of Lost Time contain the multitudinous self, the fragmentary nature of perception, the conflicting aspects of reality, and the fluctuations and partial realization of the personality.

Reading Proust has afforded wisdom, pleasure, and satire, as well as self-discovery. The now-classic Monty Python comedy troupe paid homage to Proust’s novel in a sketch first broadcast on November 16, 1972, called The All-England Summarize Proust Competition. The winner was the contestant who could best summarize À la recherche du temps perdu in 15 seconds: “once in a swimsuit and once in evening dress.” Many others have attempted to summarize the novel in as few words as possible. Here are some worthy examples: Gérard Genette in Figures III: “Marcel devient écrivain” (“Marcel becomes a writer”). Vincent Descombes in Proust: philosophie du roman: “Marcel devient un grand écrivain” (“Marcel becomes a great writer”). Gérard Genette, again in Palimpsestes: “Marcel finit par devenir écrivain (“Marcel ends up becoming a great writer”). A Web site temps lists many other reductive summaries and invites submissions.

In 1977 Alain de Botton created another distillation of Proust’s novel and an affectionate view of the brilliant and often bizarre author in a best seller, How Proust Can Change Your Life. He reveals Proust’s ideas on, among other things, how to revive a relationship, how to select a good doctor, and how to turn suffering to advantage. Alain de Botton says that Proust’s book is a search for causes behind dissipation and sloth. Far from being a memoir tracing the passage of a more lyrical age, it is a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting time and start appreciating life. The object of reading Proust is to come away with a heightened sense of perception that can be employed wherever you are and in whatever time you live. Though many of us have traditionally been concerned with the pursuit of happiness, far greater wisdom lies in pursuing ways to be properly and productively unhappy.

Readers find In Search of Lost Time a dramatization, or perhaps a novelization, of many, if not most, of the ideas and the aesthetic approaches that define the 20th century. Among these—this list is not exhaustive—are the scientific studies of light, matter, memory, and sensation; the feelings of alienation, disillusionment, and ennui; the fragmentation of consciousness; Henri Bergson’s élan vital, the life force, that stresses duration and the fluidity of time; Freudian psychoanalysis, Gestalt psychology, and Jungian collective unconscious; Einstein’s theory of relativity; and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, more accurately called, as it pertains to pinpointing reality in time and space, the theory of indeterminacy.

Proust’s novel also serves as an exemplar of the techniques and the modes of modern art. It explains Belle Époque decadence, synesthesia (the interplay of the senses), symbolism, impressionism, cubism, montage, telescoping, stream of consciousness, epiphany, objective correlative, even magic realism. In The Proust Project (FSG/Turtle Point Press, 2004), André Aciman, a distinguished critic, asks literary figures from our time to select a passage of three or four pages in length from In Search of Lost Time and to respond to it. The comments of prominent literary figures tell us something about Proust, and a lot about our own era. Aciman remarks in his preface that In Search of Lost Time is a novel about intimacy, but its long and densely populated story is filled with brutality, with malice and envy, with lacerating desire, with jealousy and betrayal, with all sorts of little cruelties.

Proust saw the underside of humanity and the nothingness of society and depicted it with incisive intelligence and understanding, but he was not a nihilist. A passage in the last volume of the novel may serve as manifesto: “Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature, and life thus defined is in a sense all the time immanent in ordinary men no less than the artist.” Edmund White has remarked that Proust was no ordinary man: Proust happened to live at one of the high points of culture and civilization; he had unusual natural gifts of eloquence, analysis of psychology, and assimilation of information; and he was willing to sacrifice his life for his art.

Barthes, Roland, and Gérard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov. Recherche de Proust. Paris: Seuil, 1980.
Beckett, Samuel. Proust. New York: Grove Press, 1931.
Booth, Wauce C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; London: Penguin, 1983
Bouillaguet, Annick, and Brian G. Rogers. Dictionnaire Marcel Proust. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2004.
Brée, Germaine. The World of Marcel Proust. Boston: Houghton Miffl in, 1966.
Genette, Gérard. Palimpsestes: la littérature au second degré. Paris: Seuil, 1982. Hindus, Milton. A Reader’s Guide to Proust. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1962.
Kogten, Igor van. Proustian Love. Asterdam/Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger B.V., 1992.
Landy, Joshua. Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Proust, Marcel. The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Translated by Carol Clark and Peter Collier. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
Rogers, B. G. Proust’s Narrative Techniques. Genève: Librarie Droz, 1985.
Scholes, Robert. Structuralism in Literature. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.
Shattuck, Roger. Proust’s Binoculars: A Study of Memory, Time and Recognition in À la recherche du temps perdu. New York: Random House, 1963.
———. Proust’s Way: A Field Guide in Search of Lost Time. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
Tadié, Jean-Yves. Marcel Proust/Biographie. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.
———. Marcel Proust. Translated by Evan Cameron. New York: Viking, 2000.
Terdiman, Richard. Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Trouffaut, Louis. Introduction á Marcel Proust. Munich, Germany: Max Hueber Verlag, 1967.
White, Edmund. Marcel Proust. New York: Viking, 1999.
Wilson, Edmund. Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930. New York: Scribner, 1931, 1948.

Categories: European Literature, Experimental Novels, French Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: