Guys, I did it. I finished Proust. All six volumes and 4,217 pages of him. I did it.
And it didn’t comprehensively suck.
Some of it sucked, I’ll admit. Proust is a true test of reader stamina, especially when he veers into complex and (occasionally) nonsensical musings on philosophy and social interaction. In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927) is dense, and abstract, and low on both action and dialogue.
But it’s also thoughtful, and insightful, and extraordinarily crafted. And when Proust veers into relatable and (thankfully) sensical musings on philosophy and social interaction, it’s mesmerizing in a way I had never encountered before.
In Search of Lost Time is, at its core, a reflection on the nature of time and memory. One of Proust’s central themes is what he calls “involuntary memory,” a phenomenon in which an everyday object or activity evokes a specific memory of the past. (Involuntary memory occurs in contrast with voluntary memory, or the deliberate recollection of past events.) The most famous scene of the novel occurs early on, when the narrator dips a madeleine into his tea and suddenly remembers doing so years earlier, as a child, at his family’s country home in Combray.
But there’s much more, of course, filling up Proust’s 4,000+ pages. Proust ruminates, alternately, on snobbery, jealousy, deceit, grief, art, identity, and homosexuality. His tone is intensely intimate and immersive—a sort of six-volume showcase of introversion and introspection. For all that, though, Proust’s style is largely accessible; it’s the sheer length of the average sentence, and the work as a whole, that poses the greatest challenge.
Because, yes, In Search of Lost Time is mercilessly long. Proust died, apparently, not before he finished writing it, but before he finished revising it—otherwise he might have seen, and fixed, some of those “tl;dr” notes his editor surely left in the margins. ISoLT contains one of the longest sentences in literature, at over 900 words, and Proust doesn’t hesitate to spend the better part of an entire volume on just one or two scenes.
So, yeah—it’s long. It’s slow. It’s the opposite of a Tweet, or a meme, or a soundbite, or really anything we love about 21st-century communication. I spent a year reading it, off and on, charging through two volumes in 2-3 months and then taking a much-needed breather before diving back in to the next two. Take it from me that your ROI will be disappointing unless you’re prepared to sit down with it, in a quiet space short on distractions, where your thoughts and Proust’s can mingle freely, over and over and over again. This is not a book to take on the subway, or squeeze into the odd spare moment. (Believe me; I’ve tried.)
But if you’re patient with it, and persevere, and unplug, and give it the time and energy it’s due, it just might be worth it. (You might still hate it, of course, but at least you made a legit attempt.)
As I mentioned, there’s not much plot in ISoLT, but here are a few highlights of Proust’s masterpiece of anti-plot:
- The narrator recalls his anxiety when, as a child, his mother couldn’t come upstairs to kiss him goodnight.
- The narrator eats a madeleine dipped in tea and experiences his first “involuntary memory.”
- The narrator learns that a family friend, Swann, married the “unsuitable” Odette.
- The narrator, as a teenager, falls in love with Swann and Odette’s daughter, Gilberte.
- The narrator, suspecting Gilberte does not love him back, pretends to fall out of love with her, and then actually does.
- The narrator befriends Robert de Saint-Loup, the nephew of another family friend.
- The narrator falls in love with Albertine during a summer holiday on the coast of Normandy.
- The narrator stalks Madame de Guermantes, a member of the aristocracy with whom he is fascinated.
- Everyone discusses the Dreyfus Affair.
- The narrator attends various social gatherings characterized by incessant gossip.
- The narrator’s grandmother dies.
- Swann dies.
- The narrator brings Albertine to live in his family’s Paris apartment.
- The narrator alternates between boredom with Albertine and jealous suspicion over her lesbian love affairs.
- The narrator pretends to break up with Albertine, then backpedals, only to find her gone in the morning.
- The narrator contrives ways to persuade Albertine to return of her own accord, fails, and eventually falls out of love with her too.
- The narrator discovers the truth about Albertine (that is, that she’s a lesbian, which was obvious from the beginning).
- The narrator visits Venice with his mother.
- Gilberte, the narrator’s first love, announces her engagement to his friend Robert de Saint-Loup.
- World War I happens (the narrator spends most of it in a sanatorium for his health).
- The narrator returns to Paris, attends a party, barely recognizes anyone, and realizes he is old.
- The narrator finally finds the inspiration and motivation to write his novel/life story.
I felt largely neutral toward the narrator in the early volumes, but came to loathe him in the later ones. He is narcissistic, manipulative, obsessive, and judgmental, not to mention a bit of a whiner. He repeatedly finds himself “unable to write,” despite his ambition to become a writer and the necessity of actually writing something in order to do so. He is also psychotically controlling of Albertine even when he’s bored with her, keeping her prisoner in his apartment and then complaining that she’s there. MAKE UP YOUR MIND, DIPSHIT. MARRY HER OR MOVE ON, AND ALSO STFU.
Heavily influenced by Monet, Proust wanted his work to evoke an impressionist painting. Some critics have likened it to a symphony. And it is, no doubt, an unprecedented depiction of the minutiae of social life and the natural environment.
I disagree, however, with Graham Greene’s veneration of Proust as “the greatest novelist of the twentieth century”—not just because it’s silly to quantify or rank something as subjective and abstract as “greatness,” but also because I don’t think of Proust as a novelist. I think of him more as a literary philosopher, less concerned with character and plot than with theories and their contemplation. (A routine perusal of SparkNotes actually proved me right on this, at least in part: Proust himself, apparently, “had trouble deciding whether Swann’s Way should be a fictional account or an explicit discussion about his philosophical interests.”)
Still. Whether fiction or philosophy, In Search of Lost Time is indisputably the work of a master. A master with way too much time on his hands, mommy issues, and a criminal streak of snobbery, yes—but let’s forgive him where he never forgave us.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
(See, Proust? It is possible to express an idea in a single word.)
In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses the heart of a woman may be enough to make him fall in love with her.
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind.
My intelligence might have told me the opposite. But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through—awkward indeed but by no means infertile—is that we do not consult our intelligence.
Life is strewn with these miracles for which people who love can always hope.
The Guermantes Way
He admitted the possibility that she did not love him. No doubt the general malady called love must have forced him—as it forces all men—to believe at times that she did.
“In fact, it was drolatic,” put in M. de Guermantes, whose odd vocabulary enabled society people to declare that he was no fool and literary people, at the same time, to regard him as a complete imbecile.
But we shall see how certain fugitive and fortuitous impressions carry us back even more effectively to the past, with a more delicate precision, with a more light-winged, more immaterial, more headlong, more unerring, more immortal flight.
Sodom and Gomorrah
It is, no doubt, the existence of our body, which we may compare to a vase enclosing our spiritual nature, that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession.
That sorrow tried to reconstruct itself in my heart, threw up vast pillars there; but my heart was doubtless too small for it.
The Prisoner and the Fugitive
Love is no more perhaps than the diffusion of those eddies which, in the wake of an emotion, stir the soul.
It is terrible to have the life of another person attached to one’s own like a bomb which one holds in one’s hands, unable to get rid of it without committing a crime.
The truth is the most cunning of enemies.
When I was young, people used to tell me that one had to put up with a bit of boredom, so I made an effort; but now, ah! no, I just can’t help it, I’m old enough to do as I please, life’s too short. Allow myself to be bored stiff, listen to idiots, smile, pretend to think them intelligent—no, I simply can’t do it.
It was as though, reincarnate, the composer lived for all time in his music.
We picture the future as a reflexion of the present projected into an empty space, whereas it is the result, often almost immediate, of causes which for the most part escape our notice.
Art is not alone in imparting charm and mystery to the most insignificant things; pain is endowed with the same power.
Let us leave pretty women to men with no imagination.
Even if one love has passed into oblivion, it may determine the form of the love that is to follow it.
So rarely do we meet either with easy success or with irreversible defeat.
People away from the front imagine that the war is no more than a gigantic boxing match, of which, thanks to the newspapers, they are spectators at a comfortable distance. But it is nothing of the sort. It is an illness which, when it seems to have been defeated at one point, returns at another.
The creation of the world did not take place once and for all, you said, it is, of necessity, taking place every day.
Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature.
Time, colourless and inapprehensible Time, so that I was almost able to see it and touch it, had materialised itself in this girl, moulding her into a masterpiece.