Category Archives: Marcel Proust

À la recherche du temps perdu (Parts 1-4)

I would have thought that after over a hundred hours listening to In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust that starting a post about it would be easier. I seem to be most focused on how much closer I am to finishing. (For those keeping track along with me, I have 33 hours left and then book seven to read in paperback. I am currently paused before starting book five, The Captive.) If you include that I first listened to Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove last Winter, that’s slightly over 150 hours of Proust I’ve heard within the last year. It is not entirely about reaching the end. I am attempting to digest it all.

Paris, France

I can say that Swann’s Way made much more of an impact the second time around. Once I had a better idea of whom Marcel was growing up to be, revisiting his childhood made more of an impression. It almost seems worth it to read Time Regained (part VII) and then backtrack to V and VI. Is that some kind of heresy? Maybe not. I imagine that Proust had a fairly good idea on how his story was going to end before he got started, given his protagonist was loosely based upon himself. It may bring me closer to the sense of nostalgia that drove him to start writing in the first place.

I feel like I am currently paused at the silliest point in the protagonists’ life. For me, Marcel is not a very likeable as a young man. He’s obsessive, duplicitous, manipulative, and selfish. I am hoping that he will grow up and become more tolerable soon. For example, there is a moment where Marcel is traveling with his girlfriend Albertine. Also present in the scene are two male friends of his. One friend is asking him to step away from Albertine to greet his dying father, while the other is near enough that Albertine may be drawn into conversation with him while Marcel is away. Marcel does not trust either his friend or Albertine, so he declines the request. Marcel knows that refusing his friend will be hurtful. He knows that how the situation looks will cause the other man insult. However, Marcel snubs his friend with the aim of controlling his girlfriend, and decides it is better to let the friendship die than to find a way to explain his reticence.

To me, this means they were never actually friends as Marcel purports. It means that Marcel ought not be attached to Albertine, or the friend he trusts so little with her. These superficial relationships appear to be largely underscored by Marcel’s lack of confidence which he tries to shroud with indifference and pretense. What I await is for Marcel to apply his keen gift for insight upon himself. Why, when he feels certain that Albertine is at least bisexual, is he maddened with jealousy but also seriously considering leaving her for her friend Andrée? Why does he hop from clinging to his mother, his servant Françoise, his grandmother, to Gilberte, Bloch, Albertine, etc? Marcel will claim that he does just fine on his own once he’s been left to his own devices. However, he very clearly yearns to be fawned over, looked after, and admired.

What else is an aristocratic Frenchman to in the early 1900s to do?

I do like that Marcel’s insights into high society can be biting. After all, this scathing adroitness is why many people like reading Jonathan Swift. I’ve been enjoying Neville Jason as narrator. I’ve been saddened that this allegedly gay man (Marcel, protagonist) apparently felt the need to repress his true self in favor of the flippant dalliances society expected of him. I have been agitated twice now (part III and IV) that the pacing of these novels seems to malinger until the very end. (Swann’s Way, part one, is thus far the best paced of the first four parts in my opinion.)

Even so, there are countless moments that I have laughed aloud, smirked at shrewd remarks, and have even shared instances of particular amusement with others as I’ve listened along. Sometimes it is a matter of minutes between a chuckle and snort; Sometimes hours. I do feel as though it has been worth my time, even despite my reservations.

It has been quite the journey, reading À la recherche du temps perdu. I’d like to hope that maybe the experience has helped me to read people better. I imagine that when I approach the last three parts of this novel, it will be with this goal in mind. For now, I’m going to let parts one through four settle in my mind. (When “taking a breather” before the next part involves short stories by Dostoevsky, then its probably time to step back for a bit.)

A Study of Contrast

I am currently reading two of the greats: The (somewhat agreed upon) greatest work of fiction of all time and greatest non-fiction work of the twentieth-century (according to Time magazine). These two titles are À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). The first was written in France by an aristocrat. Proust strikes me as a man whom, for lack of the labor and distraction that a more robust individual might have undertaken, had plenty of time to read literature and study people. He had the ability to interpret small gestures, subtle inflections of voice and social motives with a level of skill recognized and admired to this day. Solzhenitsyn was a decorated captain in the Soviet Army during WWII. After the rise of Stalin, he suffered both imprisonment in the Russian gulag and exile for privately sharing his disfavor of The Red Tsar. He risked his life to tell a detailed truth about what was going on in Russia under Stalin’s rule, and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize.

There is definitely no confusing one text for the other. I can listen to Proust while driving or doing chores about the farm. At my current place in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the main character is currently discussing how social rank is evidenced by whose drawing rooms one has visited for tea. A few pages back, Saint-Loup was summarily ignored by hostess Mme. de Villeparisis upon his departure from her residence for having committed some unintentional faux pas. (I can’t say that I even noticed what it was he did; only her response and his attempt to save face.) Tragic? I paused in The Gulag Archipelago at the phrase “Do what you want without me; I want no part of it” in describing the feelings of university students who were being coaxed into NKVD school. (NKVD was the Soviet secret police in 1943, an acronym for the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. Eg: Gulag interrogators) Apparently it was generally suspected among Russians of the day, if not officially known in detail, that pursuit of this particular career path would lead to a tangle of shady ethics. When I read The Gulag Archipelago, it is with a notebook, pen, and Google.

So why pursue these titles simultaneously? Primarily, I have nearly four months to finish reading six books to hit my 100 book goal for 2021. I have been clocking 5-14 titles a month, so I have time to embark on novels that are going to slow me down. Also, one of the best things about Proust so far is the confidence that nothing altogether bad is going to happen. (At least, by my personal thermostat. If someone pretended to fall asleep while I was in the room to avoid the nicety of saying goodbye to me? I wouldn’t care. I was never in the popular crowd.) In The Gulag Archipelago, there is constant incidence of despair, injustice and pain. In a way, they balance each other out.

There is a greater aspect to this though. I started thinking about Les Miserables by Victor Hugo during Within a Budding Grove (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu part two.) In Les Miserables, Hugo goes into what seems like a realistic description of how the French peasantry lived due to the economic factors that led to the June rebellion of 1832. (Let’s just say that there was quite a bit of dirt and cholera involved.) A major theme at the culmination of the novel is the relationship between the bourgeoisie and peasantry. Proust was born about forty years after the June revolution, but with each pretty new dress, tidy plate of cookies, or servant bell tinkle he mentions, I was envisioning the urchin Gavroche from Les Miserables was somewhere down the street starving. I started to wonder how askew the French imbalance of resources were in Marcel’s day. Should I feel entertained by Proust, or disturbed by the aristocracy?

In The Gulag Archipelago, the preamble to the novel itself describes that any effort to distribute resources equally amidst a population is doomed to failure. It describes that France was in serious consideration of moving to communism up until Gulag was released. I wondered: Why is equality considered to be so impossible while history has proven that extreme stratification is also unsustainable? What is it about the utopia ideal that is inherently fallible?

Is revolution inevitable?

Even in the extreme dissimilarity between these two novels, there is at least one ubiquitous theme: The lies. Though “I could not see you for dinner because I went to visit my sick grandma” is not the same quality of falsehood as sentencing a thief further charges for “subversion of the camp system” because they tried to run away, it is nevertheless equivalent that self-serving misrepresentations of truth are present in each society. I wonder, if it were simple to directly admit “I do not want to introduce you to my grandmother” instead of “She is boring, you wouldn’t like her” (Proust), maybe the truth of “We’re eradicating most of our population” (Solzhenitsyn) would be easier to say. It’s a thought.

Then again, we are creatures of our circumstances. I can’t imagine Marcel Proust as capable of surviving what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did. As Virginia Woolf once posited though, a woman would not have been able to write War and Peace because at the time, women were not soldiers. Solzhenitsyn admits that the lifestyle he enjoyed as a military official was far removed from that of basic training, and that he derived a rather perverse satisfaction in the use of his power after he had earned his stars. As his circumstances changed, so did he. Who is to say that Proust would not have made it through a soviet gulag, that Solzhenitsyn might have snubbed a plate of fluffy cookies to irritate a contemporary, or if Virginia Woolf would have made a great war captain? It’s just not how things turned out.

I suppose the aim from here will be to decide whether or not I can appreciate Proust for all the dilettantes, snobbishness and pretense while deciding whether Solzhenitsyn was right. If it prevents the whole lot of them from getting shot or sent into exile, is it then okay for the upper crust to dine while cholera washes away the rest? I’m going to let the dichotomy play out for now.

Marcel Proust

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.

Cabourg, France (aka Balbec) beachfront restaurant & hotel

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.