It was only after I embarked upon my quest to read the Greatest Books top 100 novels of all time that I was aware of Proust. Marcel Proust, born 1871 and died 1922 was a French author responsible for penning À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Depending on the translator, Charles K. Scott-Moncrieff or Terence Kilmartin, this works out to be Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time, respectively. À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is an ambling 4,438-page masterpiece loosely framed against Proust’s own lifetime and tops the Greatest Books list at number one. Even after I abandoned the last 30% of that list to curate my own, I decided that the top contender was not a title I should pass up.
Last December I started collecting the volumes of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu on audiobook. Naxos audio put out a 7-part recording of the unabridged novel with acclaimed actor/narrator Neville Jason. The first six parts of this recording, Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive and The Fugitive are available on Audible. The seventh book, due to copyright restrictions, is not due to hit the United States until January 1, 2023. If you are patient and wait, this is 150 hours of listening that took Jason six years to record.
In 2020, I made it through both Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove. (I then shifted gears to read the entirety of the Harry Potter series for the first time, which if you include The Cursed Child, is very nearly the same length as À la Recherche du Temps Perdu from start to finish.) This August, I started from the beginning of Proust’s’ masterwork again. Though I remembered the overall plot of the first two parts, the subtleties and insights from the very beginning of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu were worth revisiting.
I like the way that Nevile Jason describes Prousts’ writing. He cites a minuteness of observation, depth of psychological understanding, and vivid descriptive powers. Jason describes the main character as having keen powers of observation that pierce through the urbane exteriors of the people he meets, so to expose the pretention and hypocrisy that lies beneath. In his words, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is one of “the most poetic and magical works in all literature.”
Take the idea that human nature has yet to change over the course of hundreds of years (even though the culture has) and what you have is a vast collection of observations as to how people relate to each other. In the portion of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu I have listened to so far, there have been several times where I have been guilty of an observation Proust makes about people. Many more instances have I observed in others. I am an American born almost sixty years after Marcel died. I feel that in this way, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is timeless.
Other aspects of this novel that might interest a reader include a taste of Freudian philosophy. Proust understood that the past influences the present. He knew that developing an understanding of whom he was as a child would confer an understanding of whom he had become as an adult. There are also references to Shakespeare, in that “nothing is, but thinking makes it so.” Characters are not wholly who the protagonist thinks they are, despite his keen observational skills, but often whom he makes them out to be. He falls in love instantly with Gilberte, whom he has only seen once. His world is rattled when he realizes the face shown to him by his housekeeper is not the same that she shares with her romantic interest. There are nuances and complexities in every moment of this work.
I still have a way to go. I am only three hours into Guermantes Way. My extracurricular reading about À la Recherche du Temps Perdu informs me that I will see replaying themes of second chances as the story progresses. Nothing seems to happen very quickly, and the level of detail included in each scene can make this read feel unrelenting at times. However, it is this same minutia that develops the realism of the story. One of the most referenced moments in Swann’s Way is about nothing more than the taste of a cookie. There is a beauty in it.
I imagine that I’ll be through with the entirety of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu with a feeling of surprise. (Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield was a bit that way for me. I knew it was going to be a long story as every bildungsroman tends to be, but then by the end I was amazed that it was over. Richard Armitage is exceptional in his rendition of David Copperfield by the way, while it is a free listen on Audible for members. I highly recommend it.) Even though Prousts’ work is quite a bit longer, I anticipate a similar sensation. There is an alacrity to the novel rather than tedium. Even though I am not remotely close to the end, I already suspect À la Recherche du Temps Perdu may be something I end up reading again.