On January 1, 1909 Marcel Proust dipped his madeleine into a cup of tea and thus began his seven volume novel In Search of Lost Time, or as some call it, Remembrance of Things Past. It took Proust fourteen years to write this novel of three thousand pages. I have read the book, and astonishingly I really love it. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it. Why?
1. It’s French.
2. There are no car chases.
3. It’s really, really literary.
4. Most people who read and like it are incredible snobs.
5. My tastes usually run to Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler, what the heck am I doing reading Marcel Proust?
6. It’s uh, really French.
There are a two things about Proust that endeared me to him immediately:
1. Proust fought a duel with a literary critic after being insulted by a bad review. Both duelists missed, but honor was upheld. Can you imagine any writer doing that in this day and age? No way, scribes are far too busy hunting for 400 count cotton thread sheets for their duvet covers. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
2. Proust was an ardent defender of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. In his upper-class, anti-Jewish society, such a position was socially, the kiss of death. There are scenes in the novel where characters violently argue about the Dreyfus case.
I guess it really comes down to Proust’s simplicity. That’s right, the plot of the seven volumes that make up In Search of Lost Time is incredibly simple. The narrator, he actually calls himself Marcel once or twice in the seven volumes, is on a journey: will he become a great writer or not? That’s really what the whole book is about. But within this simple, motionless plot Proust draws a pointillistic portrait of Parisian society. And it is a devastating picture of, well, everyone — including the narrator.
At one point Proust gives us a one-hundred and fifty page description of an aristocratic dinner party. It’s like a battlefield, Austerlitz without the booming canons and bloody corpses, but make no mistake about it, by the end of the evening, feelings and reputations have been shredded and though dinner guests leave in fine carriages, their innards are left in steaming heaps. It’s what we call in screenwriting, “indirect dialogue.”
Proust is savage in his belief that society is made up of selfish people who are, at the core, overflowing snobs and hypocrites. Love, money, friendship, sexuality, all are forces far greater than honest human relationships. It’s a bleak portrait of humanity, and the only people who escape this terrible judgement are the immediate members of his family.
The difficulty in the book is the oceanic prose; sometimes, quite frankly, it’s hard to follow the plot through the scrim of Proust’s often labyrinthine sentences. But for me it was worth it. After making my way through the seven volumes I felt as if I had glimpsed an entire age, seen into a specific man’s soul. It took me over a year of disciplined reading, and I actually plan on doing it again.
The very best book to help you get through the seven volumes is: Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time. It is essential, and without it I might have given up any number of times.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Proust: “We believe we can change things according to our wishes because that’s the only happy solution we can see. We don’t think of what usually happens and what is also a happy solution; things don’t change, but by and by our wishes change.”