À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMP PERDU (IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME) BY MARCEL PROUST
À la Recherche du Temps Perdu - Marcel Proust’s great novel - is semi-autobiographical and a record of the life of the French aristocracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Having read the first three parts of the seven-part series and half way through the fourth, I thought I would try to put down my feelings on Proust, his writing, the world in which he appears to inhabit and the characters therein - no doubt based on real life people. The novel, in seven parts, is an account of French high society from the point of view of someone (Proust) who is part of it. My initial thoughts are that I don’t especially like Proust, who acts as narrator throughout, or his many, often grandly titled, friends and acquaintances nor do I like the closed world in which they live their privileged yet regimented lives. Crucial to be a part of the inner circle of this high society is family history; this is not a time when ‘commoners’ were invited in. Politicians, civil servants, artists, writers, poets and rich industrialists are at times allowed in but only for either the amusement or usefulness of the inner circle. What I do enjoy, however, is the sheer beauty of the writing, the incredible, almost over-the-top descriptiveness of a view or a room, the history of the cast of characters and the undoubted literary and artistic knowledge of the writer. It is the case that, when you begin to read, that it can be heavy going and it does take time to get into the rhythm of the writer and that the pace slows even further with his use of language (have a dictionary to hand), the occasional segments which are left in the original French and not forgetting the inordinately long sentences, punctuated by masses of commas and semi-colons which you often have to re-read several times to make sense of. The reward for the reader is a real sense of the being there; of being able to picture exactly the view of church spires in Combray when approached from a certain direction; the boardwalk at Balbeck and the entrance to the Grand Hotel or else the appearance and manner of one of the main characters as they make a grand entrance.
"As I observed, as I noted the shape of their spires, the shifting of their lines, the sunlight on their surfaces, I felt that I was not reaching the full depth of my impression, that something was behind that motion, the brightness, something which they seemed at once to contain and conceal."
Proust was born in 1871, just at the beginning of the third republic, to a Jewish mother and epidemiologist father. This was a time, which is reflected in La Recherche, when the aristocracy were beginning to lose their influence and grip on French life. At the age of nine, Proust experienced his first asthmatic attack and it was this affliction that, in many ways, defined his entire life, leading him to an occupation that could be undertaken in an agreeable environment with little physical effort. Surprisingly, however, Proust served a year in the army in1889, an experience that he used to good effect in many of the scenes with the narrator’s friend and soldier Robert Saint-Loup. His poor health and closeness to his grandmother and mother in real life are very much in confirming that it is indeed a semi-autobiographical work, as these are constantly recurring themes in the novel. His support for Dreyfus is also a nod to his half-Jewishness.
The first volume, set around the village of Combray (a fictional location based on the village of Illiers near Chartres), centres around life in the countryside and is our first introduction to the bourgeois Charles Swann, a frequent dinner guest, and his love affair with the capricious Odette who he will later marry. The various members of the narrator’s (let’s call him Marcel) family and household and the aristocratic Guermantes family, of which the forementioned Robert Saint Loup is a part of, all make a first appearance as does his friend Bloch, who Marcel’s father has little time for.
"Why, my poor son, that friend of yours is an idiot, my father had said to me when Bloch was gone."
At this point, the reader is very much aware of a journey beginning, from the starting point of the adolescent Marcel, a journey which sees him make his first exploratory steps into the world he will later inhabit. It is also clear that Marcel, even at such a young age, is extremely well read, with interests in the theatre, literature and the visual arts and there is no shortage of people in his immediate circle willing to discuss with him the finer points of the arts. The first volume also introduces the reader to something that has become one of Proust’s most well-known concepts; that of the involuntary memory. Without any conscious thought, a memory, can immediately come to mind of some past event, by a taste (of the madeleine cake dipped in tea) or a smell, contrasting with other memories that have to be deliberately brought to mind by thought alone.
"And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine."
The Swann family feature heavily in the first part of volume two, as Marcel experiences his first time in love, with the Swann’s daughter Gilberte.
“I could not really say what the features of Gilberte’s face were like, except those heavenly moments when she was there, displaying them to me. All I could remember was her smile”.
M. de Norpois, a civil servant and friend of his father, is also introduced as a sort of mentor who is encouraging and discouraging in equal measure to the young Marcel, advising a career in the ministry whereas Marcel’s ambition is to be a writer.
“I was devastated by what M. de Norpois had said about the piece…………… I became once more acutely aware of my own intellectual poverty and of the fact that I had no gift for writing.”
Periods of sickness continue and the reader is given the impression of Francoise, the housekeeper, almost replacing his mother at times. Also, in the second of the seven-volume series, Marcel takes us on holiday, with his grandmother, to the Normandy town of Balbeck (based on the Normandy seaside town of Cabourg) and his stay at the Grand Hotel. The presence of his grandmother gives some clues as to why Marcel appears to be so welcomed into aristocratic society as she passes the time with old friends who just happen to be princesses and duchesses. For Marcel, it is a time of artistic and sexual wakening, as he visits and befriends the famous artist Elstir and meets his mistress Albertine Simonet. The seaside location, and the presence of Albertine and her friends, brings a lightness and optimism to this part of the story which Marcel, at times, does his best to disparage; even once he has met Albertine and fallen in love with her he is reluctant to show her his true feelings, instead preferring to perpetuate that air of mystery that a person may possess when they are not yet well known to the other.
“I made little attempt to see Albertine. I pretended to prefer Andree”.
The third part of the series is mainly back in Paris and , by this time, Marcel has become part of Paris society. The first part of the volume sees Marcel visit Robert Saint Loup’s regiment in Doncieres, where Marcel appears to enjoy the company of Robert and his friends. The Duchess Guermantes, who Marcel was previously obsessed with meeting, appears as the main character once back in Paris. Invitations to her parties are the most sought after by everyone in society and her wit is said to be second to none. The duchess, her husband and her brother-in-law, Baron de Charlus (Palamede), exudes snobbishness and intolerance with every word uttered and, with this, comes the first clue that Marcel is perhaps trying to undermine the world they inhabit, rather than being submissive to it. For my own part, I did not find the duchess witty but instead unkind and stupid. I know that many have written that the point about Le Recherche is to expose the obscene nature of the French aristocracy at this time, but, for me, it was not until the duchess began to open her mouth in this, the third volume, that this appeared to be so and despite her close friendship with Swann, who by this time is dying, her opinion of his wife, Odette (not of the same breeding as her other acquaintances), is both unkind and underhand in that Swann, who she regards as one of her dearest friends, is in no way aware of the duchesses feelings towards his wife.
“By the way,” said Mme de Villeparises to the Duchesse de Guermantes, “I’m expecting a woman any moment whom you don’t wish to know. I thought I had better warn you to avoid any unpleasantness. But you needn’t be afraid, I shall never have her here again, only I was obliged to let her come today. It’s Swann’s wife.”
The main theme, to now, in the fourth part, has been sexuality. Baron de Charlus’ homosexuality is prominent from the first page onwards and there are ongoing hints at Albertine’s bi-sexuality. Once again, and for the last time, Balbeck and the Grand Hotel is the centre of events. This time, his mother accompanies him as his grandmother has since died, however, memories of her, and their previous stay at Balbeck, feature heavily as Marcel remembers fondly past times spent with her and looks on as his mother continues to grieve. Cottard, a doctor, deserves special mention as an example of someone from the middle classes who has managed to become part of the fringes of society and thereafter assume a wholly objectionable air of superiority over everyone not belonging to the group of people, he considers worthwhile and relevant; refusing on one occasion to treat a maid whom is bleeding to death for fear of getting blood on his evening dress. At the same time, he is happy to leave his bed in the middle of the night to treat a government minister who has a slight cold. The reader is once again reminded of possibly the true purpose of much of the novel; exposing the selfishness and, in this volume the licentious behaviour, of the aristocracy and middle classes and their complete disregard for most of their fellow citizens; not that this was only the case in France at the time but instead it was still the norm all over Europe, not changing to any extent until after World War 1.
Proust wrote his novel then for a number of reasons. First, to re-connect with his mother by remembering times and events when she was there and so, by simply recalling what she said, what she was wearing, a smell or a taste he is able to reach out to her and feel comforted by her presence and therefore, no longer alone. Proust also wants to re-awaken memories of his youth, when he was stronger, combined with the excitement of new experiences, of new friendships and thoughts of the great adventure ahead. Proust himself spent several years as part of Paris society and it is possible that what began as something which offered up so many opportunities, later on, as Proust matured, became something that he became to, at the very least, dislike. Political revolution was rife at this time and was already highlighting how badly the society that Proust had been part of had treated people. The World War was also a turning point for society across Europe and Proust may even have been able to hear the guns from the Western Front; in short, he knew he was living in a time when massive changes were taking place. Was this one of the reasons that after 1905 (the year of his mother’s death) and, until his death in 1922 and during the period that he wrote his great novel, that he became a virtual recluse? Was he afraid that his world was disappearing? It is tempting to say that he was simply revealing something that was now out-dated and that he himself possibly, on reflection years later, wanted to distance himself from. Proust’s novel, is then part autobiography where he yearns to return to past times by recalling past events and the people who have figured most in his life. It is also a comment on society, the inequality therein, and the changes taking place, possibly at a rate that Proust was uncomfortable with. Proust died in 1922 at the age of 51 years, with only the first three part of the novel published. The remaining parts were published in the next 5 years.
So where does the longest novel sit in rank of the greatest novels? The biggest problem with La Reserche is that it is not an easy read and because of that, possibly deliberately on the part of Proust, it excludes itself from being read by that many people. Its length is also a problem and I suspect that the number of readers for each volume goes down at quite a steep rate from the first volume, Swann’s Way, onwards, so that few people ever reach the latter volumes and very, very few the last one. I have read War and Peace, the other novel people often think of in much the same way, and believe me it is a lot easier and quicker to read and whereas La Reserche doesn’t really pack in that much variety of scene, whereas novels such as War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment have a lot more going on; in fact the over-long scenes/chapters of La Reserche, where the reader often has to endure over a hundred pages of the same people in the same room talking, is another reason for putting it down and never picking it up again. A contrast with another French novel is Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert. Far shorter, beautifully written and a story which truly captivates the reader and a novel which Proust himself would have been sure to have read. So, was Proust writing in this highly descriptive style as a way of making a memory that much stronger so that on reading over his own work he was immediately transported back to a happier time? I also think that Proust has been very selective about the content of La Reserche in that it only contains the times and memories he wishes to recall. In this way, it becomes a means of therapy for the writer who is now alone, rarely going out and is content to live in the past when everyone was still there and the anticipation of new experiences gave him the energy that he now lacks.
So, there it is, my thoughts on Proust and his greatest work. There are lots of people that I have not mentioned but I have mentioned those I believe are, so far, most important to the overall narrative. Although I have been honest about some of the down sides, especially those sections that seem to go on for ever without that much happening, possibly in contrast to most other books the reader will have read, however, that it does not pander to the need to continuously have the reader on the edge of their seat with excitement is its strength. Instead, it is about a journey and it makes the reader feel part of that journey by moving along at a pace which is similar to that of real life. The scent of a hawthorn bush, for example, does not come and go in the time it takes to read a sentence or two but lasts for as long as it takes the walker to pass by and is then consigned to memory, possibly, for ever more.
"The Meseglise way with its lilacs, hawthorns, its cornflowers, its poppies, its apple trees, the Guermantes way with its river full of tadpoles, its water-lilies, its buttercups, formed for me for all time the contours of the countryside where I would like to live, where I demand above all else that I may go fishing, drift about in a boat, see ruins of Gothic fortifications and find among the wheatfields a church, like Saint-Andre-des-Champs, monumental, rustic and golden as a haystack; and the cornflowers, the hawthorns, the apple trees that I still happen, when travelling, to come upon in the fields, because they are situated at the same depth, on the level of my past, communicate immediately with my heart."
And now? To complete volume four and the three remaining volumes and to, one day, return to this same written page and add further thoughts, make changes and understand Proust a little better.
Gordon Weir March 2021
Proust on Film
Watch this video to see the only known occasion of Marcel Proust on film.