These reviews were written between May 2015 and May 2016, when I spent 11 years and 3 months climbing the loquacious slopes of Mont Proust. For the sake of my first time, I read the Charles Scott-Moncrieff translation from the 1920s, twice revised in the late 20th century. My gift to myself should I finish Podcast Shakespeare is to purchase and devour the 21st century Viking translations, with six different authors involved. Esteemed Proust scholar William C. Carter (b. 1951) has also recently (2013, 2015, 2018) translated the first three volumes for publication.
Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps (In Search of Lost Time aka Remembrance of Things Past)
Volume One, Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way), 1913
For a long time I would go to bed early.
With those words, one of the greatest achievements of Western literature begins. Despite being a lit major, classicist and language-lover, I had somehow lived 28 years without ever committing myself to read Proust. In retrospect, I’m not sad about that, as I feel my heart, soul, and mind are more open to understanding the Frenchman’s great 20th century tome with every passing year of my life.
In the opening volume, Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way, perhaps better translated as The Way By Swann’s), the Scott Moncrieff-twice-updated-by-Kilmartin-and-Enright translation depicts the narrator’s youth at Combray, his first crushes, and his elderly reminiscences of a world now gone by. Meanwhile, piecing together a tale that occurred before his youth, the narrator tells us of Charles Swann and his love for Odette de Crecy, in the fractured world of Paris society. It’s a portrait filled with endearing and frustrating characters, precise observations about all kinds of humanity, always painful or poignant, hilarious or sly, erudite and insightful. I am eager to read the second volume, and excited for the journey I will take with Proust for the rest of my life.
Oh, marvellous independence of the human gaze, tied to the human face by a cord so loose, so long, so elastic that it can stray alone as far as it may choose!
Of course, it’s no surprise that most people of my generation would never dream of reading these books, and many who start won’t finish. Proust (or, perhaps, his narrator) is absorbed by description and detail. Pick any 20 pages and it’s unlikely that much will happen – although I believe that’s partly because this is the opening book in the series, and there is still much setup. Yet, for me, I’ve rarely been so delighted by a novel in all my life. Even when little plot moves (for instance, the sequence in which Swann grows increasingly jealous of Odette takes a good 100 pages), there is so much dense character development, growth of the novel’s world, and immense understanding of human nature. After all, unlike what today’s soap operas would tell us – or, indeed, what the 19th century romances before Proust would either – the story of love and human connection is not told in big revelations. It is told in those tiny moments, those repetitions, those instances. And they are so ably captured here. I’ve been reading an intelligent (if tragically brief) blog as I go, “182 Days of Proust”, and have thus learned that many of the characters and places here will go on to develop later in the seven-volume sequence. This was something that, of course, Proust’s contemporaries could not have known, which explains why some found the novel meandering. Everything has a place in this great study of memory; it’s just a case of waiting for when.
“I love Odette with all my heart, but to construct aesthetic theories for her benefit, you’d really have to be quite an imbecile.”
The country idylls at Combray present comedies of manners, in which the narrator gradually develops his psyche while a part of larger situations, some of which he cannot comprehend, even though he is often frustratingly aware that there is something he cannot comprehend. This contrasts with the middle-class character portraits of the Verdurin couple and their house parties, and the somewhat off-putting, satirised lives of the aristocracy. At this point, as a reader, I’m not yet sure how Proust felt about the class system, or where this great story is heading, but I’m quite excited for the experience. Admittedly, many of the references and social mores are now challenging for someone of my age to understand. As with any book focused on relations between people, there are parts that will always ring true, and parts that fade quickly as eras change. Yet, a little background reading and open-mindedness will cure you of that problem. Proust’s lengthy sentences – and I mean lengthy, these babies can go on for a page when he feels like it – are also fascinating to us, and not always in a good way. For me, I adore the untangling of his wit. They are as luxurious as any older person’s memories can be. The actor Neville Jason, who recently recorded 153 hours of the unabridged complete “In Search of Lost Time” for Naxos, said that these sentences are like music: one must find the way to phrase them, the way to link up each scattered segment. When one does, joy awaits.
I asked nothing more from life in such moments than that it should consist always of a series of joyous afternoons.
All of which is to say, starting “In Search of Lost Time” is a big commitment. Like any great work of art from a previous generation, it requires some willingness on the part of the reader to be patient, to absorb themselves in the world. Yet it will reward in spades, and is often not as hard as one might think. So many of the social jests still ring true, and certainly all of the giddiness and confusion of the young narrator – and the complexities of Odette and Swann’s relationship – haunt me so. Perhaps I will find the later novels harder, as I have not yet lived through some of the experiences, but when it comes to young love and development of artistic and social temperament, it’s delightful (or, occasionally, sorrowful) to feel one’s own past experiences so represented in print. Particularly when the book’s entire discussion is on what we have lost, and whether or not we can ever regain it.
What we suppose to be our love our our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion. It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral…
(A note on translations – the new Viking editions, each by a different translator, are apparently quite good in bringing a more modern taste to the works. For me, I’m very happy thus far with the current Modern Library/Vintage edition. The original English translation, by Charles Scott Moncrieff, has been regarded as a classic for more than 90 years. However, it had notable Victorian traces that obscured some of the greatness of Proust, and has now been updated twice, first by Terence Kilmartin in the 1980s, and more recently by DJ Enright. One day, I will certainly read the Vikings, however I am currently enjoying the connection to the past. Scott Moncrieff lived in Proust’s era; to have his works complete with expert emendations seems fitting, particularly for someone like myself interested just as much in the academic conversation around the books which, for many years in the Western world, used Scott Moncrieff as the foundation stone.)
A.E. Housman said, “This is the land of lost content”. Over the course of this first volume, the narrator – and, as I’m sure will be confirmed once I read my first Proust biography – the author himself desperately attempts to return to this land, taking us all with him, reminding us all of how much we have lost with each passing year. The question becomes whether we let ourselves drift back, desperately, to that land, or whether we attempt to fashion a life out of what remains. I trust Marcel Proust to take me further on this journey, aided by the skilful English translators, and I have no doubt that the “Search” will prove to be the masterpiece of the Western canon that as so many great minds before me have discovered.
The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.
“The most familiar precepts are not always the truest” — Gisèle as Sophocles, writing to Racine.
The second volume of Proust’s Great Novel(TM), À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Within a Budding Grove, better – but more salaciously – translated as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) is no less magisterial than the last, although one suspects that many more people falter at the posts of this one, given as much of the book is to social commentary and increasingly oblique yet erudite discussions on art, love, culture, and human development. Truthfully, I am more excited for the work after reading this second novel, reminded as I so often am by the depth of Proust’s brilliance. (One can surely believe that a man needs an editor even as one entirely supports his artistic innovations!)
Perhaps the more the great writer developed in Bergotte…the more his own personal life was drowned in the flood of all the lives that he imagined…
The second volume of In Search of Lost Time details the young narrator in his late teens, as his love for a young lady named Gilberte blossoms and fades, as his beliefs in art and human nature as shattered and newly built up, as he develops his first real platonic male friendship, and ultimately seeks to understand how he can ever become a writer. The characters of Volume One continue, primarily in the explanation of the family Swann and their tumultuous place in French society, and in Marcel’s determined grandmother and his wise simpleton of a maid, Françoise. What draws me to the work is partly Proust’s incredible ability to detail the development of the human consciousness. Some of his arguments, about why we fall in love, for instance, could be debated, but nevertheless he lays out his argument so meticulously, it’s hard to disagree. Marcel’s gradual understanding of the workings of the human heart is layered with his growing up, and with it that shocking experience of getting to know adults and social mores in ways that you had completely mistaken – or completely neglected – as children. The relationship of Odette and Swann, profiled so extensively in the book’s first volume, is now placed further under the microscope, with an even less rosy hue.
We construct our lives for one person, and when at length it is ready to receive her that person does not come; presently she is dead to us, and we live on, prisoners within the walls which were intended only for her.
It’s worth pointing out that Proust can be very, very funny! This is something they don’t teach you in highschool or university lit class, when you are given brief excerpts of the French author to look at, but it comes through clear as a bell for the dedicated reader. True, the humour is of a wry kind no longer in vogue, but it’s there, in the constant ironies the older narrator throws in when explaining the motivations of his younger self:
His head reminded one of those old castle keeps on which the disused battlements are still to be seen, although inside they have been converted into libraries.”
At the same time, it’s worth noting that the book is heavy going. It’s well known that Proust’s early attempts at getting the work published were stymied by publishers who were dubious of anyone’s patience for a book that routinely runs on sentences for half a page, particularly when the sentences themselves are describing an action as simple as eating, or even as nonexistent as the vacillations of brain cells as we move from place to place by public transport. Proust is a great thinker but there is no doubt that the parts of the book that stray furthest into philosophical or artistic commentary can be the hardest, although again it is perchance they are the most rewarding. There is a beautiful quote somewhere which, alas, I cannot find, wherein an author speaks of how, after reading Proust for an extensive period of time, the memories contained within become one’s own. That is part of my experience too, as I suspect it is for many. The subjectivity of memory, and the desperate wish to return there, are haunting themes pored over by many authors, but perhaps none found so much human truth as Marcel Proust. Still, I would say to readers who find themselves daunted that it is better to skim the odd 10 pages rather than give up. (At one point, a more recent translator notes, Proust himself made a marginal note on a passage in this volume stating “this is all badly written”. It may just be self-doubt, but it sounds plausible!) Around each corner lurks a passage of such sublime beauty that one begins to doubt whether any literature written after 1922 could ever make such intelligent points again.
At the moment at which I entered, the creator was just finishing, with the brush which he had in his hand, the outline of the setting sun.
The second half of the book is perhaps more successful at retaining reader interest, although it is also slow going. Taken by his grandmother to the seaside town of Balbec for the season, Marcel makes a friend in Robert Saint-Loup, develops an idol in the artist Elstir, witnesses the complex social mores when people are taken outside of their regular society, has some odd interactions with a Baron, Charlus (which will make more sense in the sight of later novels, so I’m told), and finally meets a misty gaggle of girls who hold sway over his evolution into a lover. In this way, the fragmented nature of the whole novel becomes both an asset and a flaw. It’s easy to imagine French people of the era being somewhat confused by this occasional dips into the lives of others, which would make sense once all seven novels were published, but not in the moment. And, after centuries of narrative literature, the reader is anxious to get to this young lady Albertine, whom we have heard passing mention of several times in Volume One, but she is constantly overshadowed and eclipsed until the last 100 pages. Even then, Marcel doesn’t get anywhere with her that he would like! Instead, this is a novel of personal development, of the ways that the narrator comes to know the world, and himself.
Could it be that this man of genius, this sage, this recluse,this philosopher with his marvellous flow of conversation… was the ridiculous, depraved painter who had at one time been adopted by the Verdurins?
Besides the truthfulness of Proust, I also adore his run-on sentences, and the density of language presents a wonderful challenge. I have no doubt that, if I were to improve my schoolboy French, I would enjoy the works more in their mother tongue, but as that isn’t a priority for me, English will have to do. I am not of the school of thought that argues Proust’s sentences make no sense in English. Certainly, one must change one’s preconceptions about how we use pronouns and modifiers, but it’s possible. Even preferable! Open your minds, people! The third of my five reasons for such enjoyment is the complexity of character. In some ways, all non-Marcel characters in the Search betray essential qualities that fail to make them complete humans. Yet, this is precisely the point. We can never truly know another, as Marcel learns so humiliatingly with Albertine here. We the audience get the sense there is more to Saint-Loup then we thus know. By a similar notion, despite Saint-Loup’s stories of his uncle Charlus’ respectability, something sounds a bit fishy. A man who boasts about bashing up homosexuals and enjoys taking in young men who are down on their luck? I’m not making any allegations, Baron Charlus, but… Let’s just say, based on his inability to stop gawking at our young narrator, I have a feeling we’ll be learning certain secrets about this character in future volumes! So much of Proust’s method of character development comes from anecdotes and moments. This is something that those of us who trained as classical actors learn. Judi Dench, playing Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, was confounded by how to suggest her character’s majesty, her passion, her silliness, her forethought, and her impulsiveness, all at once. The director wisely told her to play each part in the right moment. In the hands of a good actor, the audience reads each individual element at their time, and puts together a personality. So Proust does here, with everyone from the wackadoodle Verdurins to the irrational Françoise.
Gone are the kings, their ships pierced by arms,
Vanished upon the raging deep, alas,
The long-haired warriors of heroic Hellas
A couple of housekeeping notes: first, while I’m eminently satifised with the Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright translation, I was a bit confused by the Vintage editions. 14 endnotes for this entire volume? \ Literally 70 pages will pass full of references to artworks and plays, sometimes without even being clarified (for instance, when characters at a dinner party debate modes of literature) and we will receive no footnote. Then, suddenly, we’ll have an endnote as dull as: “Arvede Barine was the pseudonym of Mme Charles Vincens, a French woman writer…” This decision seems to ally with the printing of the Reader’s Guide to Proust which is included with the sixth and final volume in the series, Time Regained. So if you’re thinking of embarking on this journey, best to get Volume 6 at the same time as the rest, so you can refer in detail to people, places, and themes.
Elsewhere, having read the relevant sections of two Reader’s Guides on the subject, I can eminently recommend Patrick Alexander’s guide for those who intend either only to skim the volumes or who are very novice readers (it is primarily plot summaries and category listings), or the wonderful David Ellsion’s guide for those open to academic interpretation, and to a really grand potted history of Proust and his philosophies. There are many other great books, I’m sure, that I will read once I have finished the Search, but these two are actually structured as guides, chapter-by-chapter, which I find very worthy to consolidate my knowledge.
“I am reading Proust for the first time …and am surprised to find him a mental defective” – Evelyn Waugh
Anyhow, it is worth stating the last two reasons I am so enamoured of Proust at this stage. There’s the lyrical beauty of so many of his passages. As I said, it’s not always a light read, but when one reaches a passage like the powerful description of Elstir’s painting of the sea, one is illuminated both by the transcendent imagery and the philosophy underpinning it. As the boundaries between sea and land are diffused in a man-made work, as people are placed amongst the grandeur of nature and artists debate as to whether one should focus on the grandeur or the person, Marcel – and by extension, Proust, and by extension, the Western world – discovers an understanding of a world that is both larger than him and yet also contained within him. And also, perhaps most importantly, there is the feeling of inevitability about reading Proust. It is like returning home after three years spent at sea. (I have been spurred on by my Proustian year to start cataloging my own memories chronologically, in the hopes of both recalling all the moments that I have lost to the “involuntary” part of my memory, and also that I may free up some space in there!) There is a warmth, a need, a sensibility, a sense of discovery, a certainty forever bouncing off uncertainty, that plays into Proust’s great Search. With my other favourite verbose writers – Pynchon, Mailer, Woolf – I tend to take a year between books to ensure I have the mental energy, and that I don’t exhaust the supply. In the case of Proust, I may only give myself a week until I stumble down The Guermantes Way and find what lies next in store for Marcel, and for me.
And when Françoise removed the pins from the top of the window-frame, took down the cloths, and drew back the curtains, the summer day which she disclosed seemed as dead, as immemorial, as a sumptuous millenary mummy from which our old servant had done no more than cautiously unwind the linen wrappings before displaying it, embalmed in its vesture of gold.
Volume Three, Le Côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way), 1920
The twittering of the birds at daybreak sounded insipid to Francoise.
With this exquisite opening, Marcel Proust plunges us into the third volume of seven, Le Côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way), which seems to be the only one of the seven books that is consistently titled across all English translations. The third volume of the book charts the early-twentysomething narrator as he makes his way further into the twisted depths of French society, and navigates a more complex world than that of his somewhat sheltered life previously seen at Combray and Balbec. The first two novels charted the narrator’s childhood and adolescence, his first love, his first falling-out-of-love, his many anxieties, his desire to be a writer, and the agonisingly slow drift toward gaining a realistic sense of the world. The third novel seems primarily interested in two areas: the shattering of the narrator’s illusions, and the superficial barriers that stand between humans in a society and their dreams. Yet, like the quote above, I occasionally wonder if the novel hasn’t turned too far outward from the narrator at times, to the extent where his presence in some scenes barely justifies them.
Those years of my earliest childhood are no longer a part of myself; they are external to me; I can learn nothing of them save…from the accounts given me by other people.
One could perhaps divide the novel up into several parts, the first being the analysis of a new life at the Hotel de Guermantes. As we’ve seen in the previous volumes, the narrator has always defined places by their names, and the discovery that reality and image don’t always match up is the first sign that his adult life will be one of disappointment (even if much of the disappointment seems to stem from his own neuroses!). As you’d expect, this new location allows for a number of appealing character sketches, from the class-consciousness of the 19th century theatre to a series of ultimately futile walks the narrator takes hoping to run into his latest crush, the (much-older) Duchess, and – most delightfully, as ever – that old faithful, Francoise. My favourite description of her still rings true today for the Francoises of the world: she’ll never trust a doctor as long as she lives, but she’ll believe any quack in the newspaper who claims to have the “ultimate cure”. I must admit, I keep forgetting that the narrator is now in his twenties. A character with no job and a naive obsession with the aristocracy seems so juvenile in our modern age, that I have to remind myself every 100 pages that the narrator isn’t still 12 years old! It speaks volumes about Marcel Proust’s own childhood that the narrator’s parents never pressure him to find employment, nor does he seem particularly concerned about his future. In fact, that’s the key difference between Guermantes and the previous novels: the narrator spends two-thirds of the book happy.
If we were expected to love all the people we find attractive, life would be pretty ghastly, wouldn’t it? – Rachel
Perhaps this contentment is a sign of the narrator reaching a certain age. With access to liquor, freedom of the reins, and women, he’s forgetting his self obligation to write and find a place in the world. This superficial happiness is writ large in the design of the book, alternating passages of personal drama with lengthy social experiences that the narrator often finds stimulating but ultimately mediocre. Next, we’re off to Doncieres, where Saint-Loup is stationed. It’s here that the book starts to become a bit of a slog, with the narrator’s obsession with the Duchess (that has seemingly blossomed into a romantic crush) occasioning multi-page discussions on the nature of sleep among other equally enlightening essays. Fin-de-siècle Paris is divided by talk of war, by crumbling notions of class, and by the lightning-rod Dreyfus Affair that assembles armies along lines of class and ethnicity, not to mention expecting people to actually take a stand on the morality of their country’s policies, a problem we are still facing today. Many of these issues being now unknown to almost everyone of my generation, and discussed in such detail yet – often – without mentioning the specifics (since the book’s original intended audience would have been well aware), the Doncieres sequence and its successor at Mme de Villeparisis’ self-titled “salon” are perhaps the hardest treks yet for the Proustian newcomer.
Our imagination … like a barrel-organ out of order, which always plays some other tune than that shown on its card.
Of course, that’s not to say these sections aren’t full of delightful lines and deep character analysis. Saint-Loup’s sexuality certainly comes in for some serious questioning, and the nature of platonic male friendship is well examined, as are those “third-tier” social groups at Mme de Villeparisis’, with further cameos by well-known characters from the previous volumes, including Bloch, Legrandin, and the famed Odette de Crecy (hey, remember when she was all we could talk about?). The sense of this work as one giant tapestry is now becoming clear; it’s fascinating to think how the books must have seemed to the contemporary Parisian, being published every couple of years and seeming, surely, much more free-form. Amongst all of this are brief trips into little worlds, such as the vicious wannabe actresses who attend shows just to shout unpleasant things at the up-and-coming star on the stage and ruin her career, or the return of the haughty prostitute Rachel (When-from-the-Lord) who perhaps signifies the narrator’s descent into Sodom and Gomorrah, and who seems to be largely using poor Saint-Loup, but whom we also learn will one day become justifiably famous in her own right! The complexity of life in a society comes across well, although at the same time some of the morsels of plots (for example, Saint-Loup’s potential engagement to a Mlle d’Ambresac) scamper by, leaving us only aware that they are seeds of something presumably larger in a later volume. If there’s one problem with this novel, it’s that – for the first time – things are really starting to feel like they’re part of a larger whole. It’s a worry that all serialised TV shows have to face at some point: learning to write both for the series and for the moment.
Why naturally, Madame, one cannot have… every form of mental derangement.
The most powerful and amusing section of the novel is at its centre, the illness of the narrator’s grandmother. Not only does it open with a truly marvelous paean to the telephone, but the section features all of Proust’s greatest strengths. There’s a tremendous amount of satire in the gallery of grotesques who pass through as medical examiners, there are social mores picked apart when all strata of society pay their respects on the very ill old lady, and fantastic character analysis, particularly in the moments when – after his grandmother’s stroke – the narrator is faced with an array of complicated social cues. Getting her home safely and in a dignified manner is paramount, but at the same time, he is learning to prioritise others over his own petty needs of the day, and he is also incredibly self-conscious about seeming to be caring without actually treating her like a child. It is a microcosmic view of the delicate balance life becomes as we gradually extend more connections out into the world. On top of this, the grand intermingling of the sublime and the ridiculous, as they stop at a public lavatory for his grandmother to be sick, while the narrator chats with the lavatory-keeper, a scruffy woman who rules the place with an iron fist. Trying to politely ignore the fact that your sick grandmother has been in the toilet for half an hour wouldn’t feel out of place on Curb Your Enthusiasm. This sequence also perhaps provides us with a bunch of interesting historical information of the time. Grandmother’s sisters send their condolences, but never does it seem that they are being petty; it’s just that they are likely very old themselves, and the carriage ride would be inefficient, impractical, and possibly just result in more funerals.
Before I go on, I must echo something I said in the last review. I appreciate these attractive, well-typed Vintage editions, I really do. At the same time, there are endless cultural references and cultural implications that can barely, if at all, be appreciated by members of my generation. Footnotes are always a balance between providing “too much” and “too little”, and I realise this is not a university annotated edition. Volume 6 of the Vintage editions contains the Guide to Proust which includes most of the necessary references and thematic catalogues, so please seek that out. Still, it is very confusing. For instance, as an opera buff, I can appreciate the cheeky satire of someone who claims to love Wagner, but unwittingly describes only the parts that are most accessible; or simply to know the names of Strauss, Auber, etc. For none of these passages to be annotated or at least briefly clarified in the footnotes makes embarking on the journey a challenge nevertheless, more than 90 years after the novel was first published. I try to read things from the point of view of someone less educated than myself, and I see only a murky morass of confusion.
The truth has no need to be uttered to be made apparent.
Anyhow, the second half of the novel is harder to read no matter which way you slice it. Much of the good stuff is parceled out to presumably be picked up again in Volume IV. That creep Charlus keeps trying to hit on the oblivious narrator (at one point taking a drunken cab-boy home for what I can only assume is not milk and cookies); Saint-Loup keeps proving his friendship in decidedly adorable ways; Albertine, now older and more actively flirtatious, tries to get back into the narrator’s life but chooses the worst time; and threats of war bite at the edges of French society. The narrator himself remains perhaps a little too oblivious, both to Albertine’s feelings and to Charlus’… ways, but I’m trying not to read it from a purely 2015 perspective, so perhaps this is more acceptable for action taking place in around 1895. The narrator genuinely seems to think that he has some kind of Socratic mentor relationship with the older man. As for Albertine, well, despite the narrator spending countless hours pondering women, he doesn’t really have a grasp of what a relationship is like just yet. (The most heartbreaking line in the novel is when the narrator speaks briefly of Mme de Stermaria, a minor but momentary figure in his heart: It was not she that I loved, but it might well have been. Just perfectly upsetting!)
The set-piece of the book, however, is that which everyone talks about when discussing The Guermantes Way, a social dinner at the home of the Duchess de Guermantes. It is a superficial. Amongst the endless battering of social commentary, the narrator begins to properly see through many of these allegedly highly-valuable people. Many of them have horrible tastes, either because they choose what they believe is the most acceptable thing to like, or because they believe themselves to be tastemakers and in fact they’re already 30 years behind the curve. Adorably, the narrator begins to suspect they’re being daffy for his sake, because they can’t discuss real things with a strange young man at the table – surely it can’t just be because they are actually daffy! If there’s one part of the Search thus far that could use some editing, it is surely this. By the time the narrator is detailing the minutest differences between the Guermantes and their lesser relatives, one wonders how much more of French society we can possibly imbibe. It’s perfectly clear that Proust is showing us this superficiality precisely to make that point: the Duchess makes an (admittedly mildly amusing) pun about “Teaser Augustus” that has everyone in stitches for days, and it’s becoming clear the narrator is never going to discover his creative muse, nor his sense of an individual personality, until he can see through these empty lives. At the same time, one begins to wonder if even the great novelist’s senses for lengthy sentences may have been wrong on occasion.
Our social existence, like an artist’s studio, is filled with abandoned sketches…
Of course, who am I to disparage Marcel Proust in any way? The Guermantes Way is still stuffed full of everything that makes him such a rich and rewarding writer. His acute psychological descriptions, from the Princess down to the lavatory keeper, never cease to fascinate. I particularly enjoy his description of hearing from a noblewoman about what is happening in her life during a “visit”, comparing it to a letter by Pliny: it’s not really addressed to you, it has been written merely for show. He describes the old-fashioned speech of Mme de Guermantes as resisting the “composite patchwork of modern speech”. The book is deliciously written from Proust’s haunting description of the fog on the night before the ill-fated date with Mme de Stermaria to the mocking of those literary coteries “where everyone has the same way of pronouncing, enunciating and, thus, of thinking”. (There are TV programs and books that could learn from this lesson today.)
Before I finish, I should briefly plug the wonderful book Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time, which contains reproductions of almost all the art mentioned in the Search, an invaluable resource to help the reader interpret the references and world of the narrator’s Paris.
The novel ends with a particularly strong sequence that is deeply reminiscent of the earlier novels in its pointful (and pointed) atmosphere and analysis. After escaping from the Belle Epoque dinner, and briefly displaying his manly arrogance for a very-turned-on-but-twisted Charlus, the narrator finds himself visiting the Duc and Duchess. They are a fascinating couple, not perhaps as psychologically nuanced as Odette and Swann, but perhaps more likable. Nevertheless, the arrival of Swann brings some bad news which the pair treat with a cruel politeness. It really is the ultimate indicator of the barbarism of “polite society” and so perfectly depicted by Proust. It feels as if every page of The Guermantes Way has been leading up to the point where the narrator is perfectly able to witness a conversation between three people, accurately gauge each individual’s part in it, and emerge with a much more graphic understanding of how society plays a role in that conversation, and how each person fails to properly “get” the others.
Did I love the book? Perhaps not love. But its tremendous descriptions of an entire society captured my heart and my imagination, and make me particularly eager to follow on to Sodom and Gomorrah. The whole book, with its analysis of this culture, reminded me of the concept of elegant decay and, while much is left unexplained at this juncture, it is clear that everything is intentional. Proust’s endless, cascading sentences are of a whole with his fragmented character portraits. Like the young narrator himself, delicate but brilliant. While this book wasn’t always easy to get through, it was buoyed by the strength of the Search overall, and the knowledge that we are now halfway through the series, and all of the pieces of the puzzle of the narrator’s life are coming into view. Onward and upward!
You’ll bury us all! – Duc de Guermantes
Volume Four, Sodome et Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gommora, or Cities of the Plain), 1921
Women shall have Gomorrah and men shall have Sodom – Alfred de Vigny, epigram
“[The Sodomites] form in every land an oriental colony, cultured, musical, malicious, which has charming qualities and intolerable defects.”
For his next trick, Marcel Proust contrives to up-end much of what has come before, as his narrator goes ever further in search of lost time. I’d have to say that volume four, Sodome et Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gomorrah, more poetically, but less accurately translated in the past as Cities of the Plain), is the most challenging volume of Proust, and yet as I reached its end, I realised just how vital and thematically intertwined this is. As the narrator matures in his 20s, he is at a tipping-point between his youth and naivete, and his growing understanding of the world. There are essentially four sections to the novel:
“People never cease to change place in relation to ourselves.”
One. In a brief section, Marcel (let’s just agree to call him that, shall we?) decides to spy on a bee fertilising a flower, and instead gets to watch an altogether different kind of pollination, that of his old nemesis, Baron de Charlus, and Francoise’s beloved tailor, Jupien. The sequence is cheeky, and heavily coded (to the point where I could imagine an older French reader of the 1920s barely even grasping what has happened) yet virtually obscene. A fascinating reminder of how utterly different the act of reading and writing was 100 years ago. It reminds me of Noel Coward apparently writing many of his straight couples with the intention of them being homosexual couples – if only he had born a generation or two later. This section sets off one of the major analyses of the novel, that of the homosexual and his (her?) relationship to polite society. Proust – himself both gay and part-Jewish – creates distinctly unflattering portraits of both groups, but one senses that some of the writing is tongue-in-cheek. There’s no denying that the author is working through some serious issues over his sexuality, but at the same time, his deeply personal comparison of the homosexual to the dispersed Jews suggests that he was ultimately sympathetic. And many of the passages about the so-called “freemasonry” of gays, in which they begin to tell one another out amongst the crowd, still ring true in much of today’s society – I can certainly pick examples from my own life that resonate! The anti-Semitism and homophobia (the latter not being anywhere near as virulent) expressed by many of the characters is not expressed by Marcel the narrator, suggesting that this social obsession with difference is not something of which Proust approves. And indeed, as we go on, we begin to realise how closely young Marcel identifies with both Charles Swann (the Jew) and Palamède de Charlus (the homosexual) even though he is neither, suggesting a human connection underneath.
(Proust’s meditations on the idea of the homosexual as an “invert”, as a “woman”, are perhaps more problematic in light of the 94 years that have since passed, but to complain about such is fruitless. If nothing else, the book sheds an interesting light on the many ways gay culture – and views of gay culture – have evolved in a century … and a few ways in which they have remained steadfastly the same.)
“When you rely on other people, you should try not to be such an idiot.” – Madame Verdurin
Two. The return of Madame Verdurin! My favourite Proustian character by a country mile, Madame Verdurin drags her entire “set” kicking and screaming back into the novel, as we begin to see the older generation of characters filtered through Marcel’s slightly-less-rose-coloured glasses, as they all spend the summer in and around Balbec. Swann and Robert Saint-Loup are developing and changing, their own personalities deepening and widening, their connection to Marcel strengthening and then fading, as happens to us all. As Proust was writing this novel (which was published in two parts), his health was fading rapidly, and indeed he would die only weeks after the second part was released. In light of this, it’s impressive just how dense and funny much of this bulky centrepiece is. Madame Verdurin and all of her guests, interlopers, and rivals are portrayed in microscopic detail, and much of it is hilarious – particularly the deep, and finally seemingly complete, Cambremer vs. Verdurin rivalry, which escalates over essentially nothing! Much is discussed here, and Proust makes very little effort to even pretend like this section is being told from Marcel’s point of view, but at the same time … he does rather go on, doesn’t he? Given that The Guermantes Way was almost sickeningly absorbed with salons and dinner parties, I was expecting a more personal experience for Marcel, and instead the narrator all but disappears from vast swathes of the novel. Everything ties back in thematically, and sometimes in surprising ways, such as the long-winded M. Brichot, who holds up the novel for sometimes four full pages discussing the etymology of place names (Mme Verdurin bemans how he likes to “hurl chunks of dictionary at our heads during dinner”), but – just when this is inducing a coma – we realise that Brichot’s words are the final nail in the coffin of the narrator’s earlier romanticism about such names and, by extension, the places themselves. On the other hand, the self-absorption and rung-climbing of society has been well and truly displaeyd, and one wonders whether we are achieving much more by examining it in yet further detail. It’s not that the character drawings are dull or that the situation is lacking in humour and insight; it’s just a continuation of what has gone before, with little reason to repeat. (One of my favourite of the many social debates is the different ways of seeing a Princess’ social habits. Some think that she is received only alone by a certain guest because that guest is particular special. Others argue that she is only received alone by that guest because she doesn’t really want to be seen with them!
But what this section of the novel does, importantly, is thrust Albertine back into the spotlight in a big way.
“It was my fate to pursue only phantoms, creatures whose reality existed to a great extent in my imagination.”
Three. Things pick up considerably once Marcel and Albertine are contrasted with – of all people – Baron de Charlus and that dashing, debonair devil, Charles Morel the violinist soldier (I mean, honestly, what a combination). Proust is always at his strongest when analysing the “intermittencies of the heart” (a chapter title here but also apparently a rejected title for the overall novel), and this is no exception. On returning to Balbec, Marcel stands on a cliff top and finds his soul splitting and rejoining – Marcel past, Marcel present, Marcel future – a line of Scrooge’s ghosts. Involuntary memory, like that of his grandmother’s death, competes with voluntary memories: memories of girls he wants to forget, girls he has forgotten, girls he can never let go of. Marcel desires Albertine, even needs her, although he’s still not able to interpret and convey love in the right ways. Is he truly in love with this girl? Is he even really trying to get to know her? I’m not entirely convinced. There are overt shades of the Swann/Odette relationship from Swann’s Way, not least when Marcel becomes convinced – apropos of nothing – that Albertine is having, or has had, the old Sapphic scissoring with some of her Balbec girlfriends. But just as the Verdurin set are different in the leafy confines of La Raspeliere (the passage detailing Marcel and Albertine’s painfully long journey there one night by carriage is a particular delight), so too are the young couple different in this strange netherworld both in and out of society, pretending they are cousins for the sake of the Verdurins and their ilk.
While we’re given a bit of foreshadowing for Volume Five, in that Albertine is clearly becoming Marcel’s psychological prisoner, at least in his own mind, the better part of this section is given over to the love affair of Morel and Charlus, completing the triptych of relationships that began with Odette and Swann. It’s very intriguing in the way that Charlus’ love basically strips him of any self-awareness and practicality, and the way Proust indicates that Morel clearly is not that into it. The comedy is really amped up here, from Charlus at dinners, not realising he is being mocked, to plotting a duel that he never intends to carry out. By this point, of course, we’re reading not “for the story”, but nevertheless while I find Charlus repugnant, his fierce personality manages to keep the reader intrigued through the sometimes overgrown plains of Sodom and Gomorrah.
“His nature was really like a sheet of paper that has been folded so often in every direction that it is impossible to straighten out.”
The above quote is possibly my favourite of the entire work, incidentally.
Four. The final, brief section of this novel continues the trend of previous books, in acting more as a preface to the next volume. Marcel’s jealousy of Albertine has now gone into overdrive, to the point where it inadvertently destroys his friendship with Bloch (forever? I hope not!). In these last pages, Proust reaches his most lyrical, in passages of beauty that we haven’t really experienced – at least of such a height – since the days that Odette was a main character. Some of my favourite images include a restaurant waiter portrayed as a series of “successive statues of a young god running”, the conceit of Charlus as a fish in an aquarium, swimming delicately but not realising visitors are laughing behind the glass only metres away, and an absolutely fantastic analogy featuring a centaur. The ending is not particularly a surprise, given the narrator’s penchant for ironical twists, but it certainly creates a great narrative hook, while also making us – or at least me – worried about his mental state. This young man is just refusing to grow up. No wonder, really, given he is surrounded by complete and utter children – maybe that’s the point of all these dinner parties?
“Oh, if I could write like that!” – Virginia Woolf on reading Proust, 1922
In closing, then, I’m excited to learn that a change in tone is coming in The Prisoner. As much as I’ve enjoyed this book, the focus away from Marcel’s psychology, which made the first two volumes such captivating and perfect reads, has been frustrating. Even Proust’s delightful page-long sentences occasionally became enervating this time around. Nevertheless, Sodom and Gomorrah remained a deeply human work, full of sneaky character portrayals and staggering moments of beauty. As previously mentioned, if you’re reading the Vintage editions, be sure to get a hold of Volume 6: it contains the Reader’s Guide which apparently replaces any attempt at serious footnotes, with its dense thematic and character indices. They’re great, they really are, but I’m beginning to suspect that an Annotated Proust will become more and more necessary. There were sections of social dialogue that were essentially indecipherable to me, beyond what I could gleam from context. As a music lover, I was deeply amused by the constant musical reference, particularly in the older Mme de Cambremer and whether Debussy will eventually become “as passe as Massenet”, but it’s not enough to expect readers to look up the two musicians. Without an understanding of their place in the repertoire, provided by an annotation, the point – both comic and serious – is lost, and this is but one of hundreds of examples I have come across thus far. The decision, for instance, to render all house mottoes in the original French or Latin also creates problems for audiences of a generation who don’t habitually learn these things in school. If this is a Reader’s Edition, I would like it to be as readable as possible. All of which is to say, this is a wonderful translation – and in a few years, once I’ve regained my strength – I’ll be sure to check in on one of the 21st century traditions beginning to make their presence known – but I think we need to slightly adjust our approach if the great novelists are to regain their appeal in this new iWorld.
So, people are ageing, dying, getting engaged, getting married, getting more and more bitter. I’m excited for whatever comes next for Marcel, Albertine, and those crazy kids as the 20th century begins.
“I must marry Albertine.”
Life is too short, and Proust is too long. – Anatole France (attributed, likely apocryphal)
With La Prisonnière (The Captive or The Prisoner), Proust’s literary epic takes an unfortunate behind-the-scenes turn. The author had died in 1922, before he could finish the editing and revision of the last three volumes. It is one of those great literary tragedies, that we can never truly reconstruct the climaxes of his work, even if a century of scholarly pursuit has at least got us closer to understanding the intentions behind them. The Captive is, if anything, all the more fascinating because of this, but unfortunately I think it is a noticeable step down from the previous four volumes.
Giving this book a star rating seems like an exercise in absurdity. At his heights here, Proust’s writing remains a rhapsody of social discovery, with scythe-like descriptions of people from all works of life (the social-climbing Madame Verdurin and the simple, superstitious Francoise have nothing in common except that they are perhaps the two most delightful character sketches in all of the Recherche) and utterly gorgeous reflections on the challenges of creating art, and the responsibility of artists to the greater society. There is less humour than in the previous volumes, due to the narrator’s agonised state, but when Proust wants to, he can really throw a zinger in the works as well. Nevertheless, I’m afraid a lot of this review is going to be – if not negative, at least ambiguous.
At only 450 pages, this is basically a novella by Proust’s standards, but unfortunately the work feels overlong and repetitive, in the extreme. A lot of this no doubt comes from the incomplete status of the work but I believe some of it can be ascribed to cultural differences between 1920s France and the 2010s of the English speaking world, and even perhaps a certain myopia on Proust’s part while writing this particular instalment.
“We love only what we do not wholly possess.”
The narrator finally has Albertine, but domestic bliss is anything but – and not just because it appears they aren’t going “all the way”, and he seems to have to resort to getting Marcel Jr out for some daytime creeping while his girlfriend is having her naps. It’s… awkward. Like a bird that has lost its colours in captivity, the narrator is finding that the bloom is off the rose. He spends half his time daydreaming about Albertine’s friends or wondering what it is about her that has made him lose interest. Not having read the last two volumes yet, I’d venture a guess that the real problem is that the younger version of the narrator (the book is being narrated from 1922 but here we’re at about 1908, if the Dreyfus case dating is correct) doesn’t yet understand that relationships mature. The first, heady days of love must naturally give way to the next stage of contentment. Having said that, it’s not all the narrator’s fault. Albertine doesn’t seem to have a very mature vision of mutual love (what Proust here calls “reciprocal torture”) either, as she seems to enjoy keeping him out of the loop half of the time. She reminds me more of the carer of a mental patient than the willing live-in lover of a handsome young man on the fringes of “society”.
I’m just going to outline the problems with the novel, as they’re primarily confined to the first half, namely “Life with Albertine”.
Problem 1: The narrator’s jealousy is an endless repetition, most of which it seems like we’ve already experienced ad nauseum in previous volumes. He’s convinced that she’s a secret lesbian, and he spends his days fuming over all of the little clues, primarily nonexistent although with the occasional genuine red flag. His possessiveness and envy are decidedly unattractive traits, and not in an interesting Flaubertian way. A lot of the self-pity is deliberate evidence of his relative youth but, to be honest, the 200+ pages of watching Albertine speak and suspecting that she’s still a citizen of Gomorrah (“In reality, alas, Gomorrah was disseminated all over the world”) don’t pack the same level of subtlety and literary worth as the equally long single-issue ruminations of the previous instalments.
Problem 2: and this is a big one, Albertine remains a cipher. This is in part intentional, absolutely. To the young narrator, Albertine is a blank, who represents different things to him depending on where he is at in his life. And of course, for the jealousy to work, he can’t know all about her. There are some very obvious parallels between the pair and that of Charlus and Morel, who spend the entirety of this book growing apart without realising it, as the latter fumes over his role deceiving both his sugar daddy and his young female intended, while the former frets and stews over his own jealousy. But, to be honest? It’s not good enough. Even moreso than in previous books, Proust here breaks every convention of first-person narration, dictating the thoughts and intimate moments of Charlus, of the dying Bergotte, and the Verdurins among others. The fact that Albertine is the only major character to lack any particularly interesting traits is distinctly upsetting, and speaks to the fact that Proust was a sheltered and increasingly hermit-like gay man. She is never once real here, and I found myself hoping that the narrator would hook up with Andree just to give them something worth talking about. It doesn’t help either that their relationship is so complicated and psychological that we need someone like Flaubert to make the nuances believable. Here, it just doesn’t quite work.
(Proust, incidentally, quite liked Flaubert for a different reason, as this wonderful quote shows: “Flaubert is a master at rendering a sense of Time in his works. In my opinion the most beautiful feature of L’Education sentimentale is not a sentence, but an empty space (un blanc)”)
I still think [Proust] insane. The structure must be sane & that is raving. – Evelyn Waugh
Problem 3 is the toughest to talk about, but necessary. The narrator’s reflections on sexuality here are problematic to say the least. While he was more sympathetic to the gays in earlier volumes, the narrator here seems to see them as genuinely degenerate, and at times it feels like Proust himself speaking. I’ve read conflicting thoughts on the subject: is this entirely supposed to be the narrator, gradually developing the prejudices of his era? Is this Proust trying to cover up his sexuality as he became more famous, and thus unable to be as open-minded as he had in his earlier novels when he was just a young wannabe struggling to find a publisher? Or was he trying to be “cool” because the social elite were reading his volumes and this was the prevailing attitude of the time? Frankly, if it’s supposed to be satire, it doesn’t feel like it. Baron Charlus, who was initially so refined that dim readers wouldn’t have picked his homosexuality, is now a walking YMCA advert, and Morel is just a scheming little flirt. There’s a lovely line in which Proust defends his “weird characters” arguing that weirdness happens all around us, and we should stop expecting all of our literary characters to do the most likely thing, as those who act surprisingly are just as interesting. But it doesn’t go far enough to convince me. Also, apparently homosexuality was okay in Ancient Greece because it was a social norm, but now that’s now how we do things, and so one of the problems is that these “inverts” have based their actions on a society they admire but are in fact being idiots by refusing to play by the rules of the current game. Meanwhile, lesbians are known for adopting male children just so they can torture them because it’s the purest form of hating men. Yep.
And Problem 4, which is perhaps just in my head: I feel as if our culture, our collective intelligence, has matured past the point of some of Proust’s revelations. Not all of them, or even most! But some. Much as the audience of 2016 implicitly understands what an establishing shot in a film does, even when we are kids, compared to an audience in the ’40s when such shots were essentially unheard of, so too are some of the narrator’s revelations a little basic for our tastes. His realisation that love isn’t just an endless pancake party are frustrating because they don’t lead to anything. The way that the narrator and Albertine act on Page 1 is how they act on Page 445, just before their relationship takes a significant turn.
Anyhow, let’s veer away from the negative, shall we?
In abandoning that ambition [of becoming a writer], had I forfeited something real? Could life console me for the loss of art?
The second act of The Captive is much more successful, as Proust returns to his true metier. Before heading off to an important salon at the Verdurins, he learns of the death of Bergotte, in a brief but deeply moving episode. The old artist, living half in exile and unable anymore to create like the greatest of his masterpieces, nevertheless provides some humour in the hot young women whom he lures back to his studio with his fancy celebrity money, seduces, and then uses as temporary muses for more art: “he found some charm in thus transmuting gold into caresses and caresses into gold”. His final moments, gazing at Vermeer’s View of Delft and at last realising the importance of true simplicity in art, are a powerful statement in the midst of Proust’s many, many ideas. And a good place for me to again recommend Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time which contains most all of the artwork mentioned in the Search.
Several formerly important characters die in The Captive, but the remainder happen offscreen and are primarily treated with such disregard that it’s almost surprising. Proust seems to be clearing house, giving an indication of a new generation rising up as an older one falls, but one feels like this might have been better clarified before the book was published. In fact, there are numerous continuity errors here, with at least one character’s death revealed just pages before he engages in conversation at a dinner party! The struggles of posthumously-published works – just ask Puccini and Dickens.
Anyhow, the salon at the Verdurins’ allows Proust to again delight in his social anatomising, with another delicious description of the lady of the house as “aloof, a deity presiding over the musical rites, goddess of Wagnerism and sick-headaches, a sort of almost tragic Norn, conjured up by the spell of genius in the midst of all these ‘bores'”. As they prepare for the long-awaited premiere of Vinteuil’s posthumous septet (with Morel among the musicians), Proust discourses at length on great artists, with whom “we really do fly from star to star”, reminding us of the importance of the late Bergotte but also of the narrator’s other role models: Elstir, Vinteuil, Berma. And at last, spearheaded by the greedy Verdurins, Charlus’ social undoing takes place in a grand sequence that is, admittedly, a bit surprising in how willing the Baron is to let loose with a string of half-truths about his homosexual decadences, but ultimately very satisfying. Morel and Charlus have been shaded in far more deftly than Albertine and the narrator, so the development of their relationship feels genuinely earned. And the rudeness of the Madame’s guests is truly chilling, as we know just how she feels about the situation! Finally, what a sublime moment, as the disgraced Charlus is compared to the terrified nymphs in ancient art: a suggestion that human society may have changed, but humans themselves haven’t. Perhaps in this way, Proust is undercutting the narrator’s own allegations about the role of homosexuality? Perhaps.
(It’s interesting here that there’s a hint Charlus has a young friend in the military; I’ve been calling it since Book 2 that Saint-Loup might have some man-loving tendencies and I hope yet to be proved right!)
My darling Marcel… – Albertine
Okay, before we move on to the last few pages, it’s worth noting that twice in this volume, Proust goes way beyond meta. At one point, the narrator pens a jeremiad to Swann, suggesting that he has – since his death – become justly famous by the publication of Swann in Love. Written by whom? The narrator? Or Proust? Does Marcel Proust exist in the Recherche universe? It’s all very out there. And then there’s the moment which we’ve known about since we were first introduced to books, in which Albertine calls the narrator “Marcel”. Although she doesn’t. Not really. Proust clearly indicates this is for simplicity’s sake, to give the narrator the author’s name. That’s not to say he isn’t being all quirky and suggesting the comparison, but it’s clearly a placeholder, like the moments in Goodfellas when the lead character’s narration cuts in on the story, or a Woody Allen voiceover. Either way, it’s fascinating, and suggests the turns this book could have taken had Proust decided to invent the 21st century novel before David Foster Wallace got around to it.
“Love is space and time made perceptible to the heart.”
It’s interesting to think of Proust, in the last year of his life, feverishly editing the final volumes, doomed to fail. Apparently he would summon musicians to his bedroom in the wee hours to play Beethoven’s late quartets and other such sombre and complex pieces. It’s a great pity he didn’t live to complete the work, because a large chunk of The Captive remains fascinating, however almost nowhere does it live up to the previous volumes.
The final section is promising at least in that it suggests more exhilarating developments are to come. After a winter of reasonable content with Albertine, “Marcel” continues to doubt, continues to watch her sleep, and – despite the joyous presence of an aeroplane – finally catches her in a lie too big to be stepped around. There are some more authorial problems here, partly due to a seemingly unavoidable translation issue (you know when the translator has to include the original French in brackets that something’s not quite right) and partly due to further signs of a draft, unfortunately centered around this very important lie. Either way, the final ten pages finally progress the relationship and leave us hanging for The Fugitive to come.
I wasn’t enamoured of this book, whereas I have been of the first three and vast chunks of the fourth. I’ve been somewhat placated by reading numerous pieces on the book’s problems, to know that it’s not just me, and that much of the issues come from the unfinished nature of Proust’s papers. At the same time, I can’t help feeling that The Captive is a bit of a stumbling block. Proust had originally intended the intriguing maid of Mme Putbus, over whom the narrator has spilt much… ink in previous volumes, to become a character, but it seems Albertine overshadowed his plans. To be honest, I think Proust’s interest in the subject of jealousy was greater than his ability to write complex heterosexual relationships, and the single-minded focus on this subject takes away from his many, many strengths. The narrator’s possessiveness will, I’m sure, become vital to the next volume, and I’m looking forward to reaching the conclusion of it all. I still have faith in this most fascinating of writers. It’s just a shame that the distasteful approach to homosexuality is so prominent, and that Albertine herself – intentionally or not – is placed at the centre of the novel and yet given not one ounce of character.
Still, that great disenchantment at the centre of the novel remains hugely resonant. At first, it was place-names, the illusion dissolving into reality as the youthful narrator visited each one, and discovered how quickly truth drains the colour from art (something it took Bergotte until his final moments to realise). That revelation then spread to society and to modernism, and now to individual people, to entire emotions, and even to the status of being an adult. I wrote earlier that some of Proust’s 1920s revelations seem less surprising to us, four generations later, with a centuries’ worth of additional “social intelligence”. But there are some revelations that remain just as poignant. Perhaps it helps that I’m roughly the same age as the narrator is at this point in the work but, ye gods, do I empathise. Still, we can never go back, as Daphne du Maurier would say. So, on to the future…
For reality, even though it is necessary, is not always forseeable as a whole.”
Volume Six, La Fugitive, ou Albertine disparue (The Fugitive, or The Sweet Cheat Gone), 1925
“I did not want to abstractly analyse this evolution of a thought, but rather reacreate it, make the reader live it.” — Marcel Proust, letter to Jacques Riviere.
“If I am not better than others, at least I am different.” – Rousseau, Confessions
The sixth volume of the Search, La Fugitive (or Albertine disparue, translated as The Fugitive, The Sweet Cheat Gone, or Albertine Gone), is based on a manuscript that Proust was feverishly working on in the weeks before his death. This unfinished quality is evident both in the text and in the numerous continuity quibbles, but one could even question whether a dying, heavily medicated man can be taken as a reliable author – even of his own work! Anyhow, despite these complications (and the fact that scholars argue that the work should be only about half its length, since Proust crossed out dozens upon dozens of pages and planned to make Albertine’s flight even more duplicitous), I still found this book a welcome return to form after The Captive. So, shall we continue?
“One does not possess a picture because it hangs in one’s dining room if one is incapable of understanding it.
The novel is in four parts, each of which improves upon the previous. Grieving and Forgetting is, truly, only about the first of those words, as non-Marcel suffers from the most arduous break-up in history that doesn’t involve Archie and Betty. What makes the book much more captivating (sorry, that’s the last time I’ll pull that pun!) than the previous instalment in the Albertine books is that the narrator is forced to act rather than simply think. With his beloved having left, he is plunged into a darkness from which he can only escape by forgetting and, as he begins to realise, forgetting can only happen once habit has found new hobbies which can become new vocations which can become the new normal. Of course, he’s still obsessed with the “gay panic” that characterised The Captive, but now he is forced to examine his own actions, and ultimately seek out, if not answers, friends and companionship: a recovery.
Early in the novel, Proust makes reference to moments in life where beauty and trouble are “intertwined like Wagnerian leitmotifs”. Despite several reference to the German behemoth, this was the first time I’d explicitly connected the leitmotif with the Search and it really makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The Fugitive feels a bit like it could have been the ending to the work, in that it brings back many of the series’ earlier characters, uniting them in unexpected connexions, and reminding the narrator of the many roads not taken. Many of the former icons of Paris are now decrepit and wearisome to him (some of them are medical marvels, it seems, since they were killed off in The Captive and yet have returned – through the magic of the author’s early death – to life!), and everyone is beginning to learn truths they had earlier ignored. For the narrator, he begins to get some of the answers regarding Albertine’s tastes, from Andrée particularly, but these answers just provide further questions: did Albertine truly love him? And, if so, how can her love be explained in light of her answers? The mystery here goes some way to justifying why Albertine had to remain such a shadowy figure in the previous novels, but I still believe that decision was the undoing of The Captive and parts of Sodom too. The implication here – backed up, I think, by the condensed but charming BBC Radio adaptation – is that Albertine relied on the narrator, needed him, genuinely loved him. Like many cheats before and since, she may well have sought out others to fulfill her sexual desires and yearnings she did not connect with him, but that did not necessarily change the nature or strength of her feelings. It’s a wonder no-one has yet written a post-modern retelling of the story from Albertine’s viewpoint, isn’t it? (Note to self.)
It was not Albertine alone who was a succession of moments, it was also myself.
The reveals about Albertine are beautifully rendered, although occasionally betraying some of that monomaniacal exhaustion of the previous volume. The comparison of her love to the sonata by Vinteuil is particularly inspired, and the vision of this man “suffering from a love that no longer existed” is poignant. Nonetheless, it’s good to get the narrator out of the house, even if at first he is simply sending his henchmen, Robert and Aimé, to find out more for him. Gradually, many of Proust’s earlier conceits which were either confusing or ambiguous to contemporary readers are being explained, with scenes from earlier volumes taking on shocking new meaning. Even the realisation that the narrator’s naïve belief that Robert de Saint-Loup was 100% upstanding, as if anyone could be, is challenged and asks one to revisit the niggling moments where he has behaved unusually, often on the fringes of a scene.
Still, one thing that intrigues about the volume is that Proust remains subtle to the point of coy regarding the narrator’s sexual experiences. Aside from that teenaged tussling with Gilberte and some enjoyable romps with Albertine when the latter happened to be, awkwardly, asleep, we don’t really have much information on how far he tends to go. When it comes to describing same-sex action, Proust is far less shy (and the foot fetishes of certain laundry-girls get a workout here), but the coupling of male and female is generally spoken of in a roundabout way – ironically the early 20th century English translators of Ancient Roman & Greek texts would often translate the naughty parts into another language, often French, so that they wouldn’t ruffle the delicate sensibilities of the reader – or, more importantly, of the person sitting next to the reader on a train! Proust speaks here of “semi-carnal” relations at one point, and of his frequenting of brothels, not to mention one apparently humorous incident in which he is almost charged with child molestation due to the casual act of taking a young girl home with him, only to be saved by a police officer who perhaps shares his tastes, and manages to cover the matter up. (!!!!) Whether this is deliberate subtlety that went too far, or a squeamishness on the part of the homosexual Proust, or something altogether, I do not know.
What is fascinating and, psychologically, I think realistic is the way Proust’s narrator, as his 20s presumably give way to his 30s, becomes far more sanguine than his uptight young self. A certain fetishistic desire to understand Albertine’s tastes overwhelms him, and later in the novel he even professes to be perfectly okay with homosexuals, a far cry from his earlier stance!
“Even if one love has passed into oblivion, it may determine the form of the love that is to follow it.”
This newfound maturity is further emphasised in the second chapter, Mlle de Forcheville, as we return gradually to artistic references, with Bergotte and Elstir particularly getting name-checked. The narrator is last making some (small) headway in doing something with his life. With the publication of his first article in Le Figaro, Proust is able again to delight us with something truly comedic, as the young author imagines all the absolute highs and lows of his newfound “fame”. His acquaintances are also growing up, and everyone from Rachel to the nebbish, golf-playing Octave will prove to have serious talents. A return to the world of the aging Guermantes, who no longer impress the narrator, sees us return to the original counterpart to him: Charles Swann. Gilberte is now grown up, although it’s here that more evidence of Proust’s lack of revision creeps into the text. True, he can’t be expected to recognise her after all these years, but even the narrator’s internal voice seems barely to remember her at times, which is crazy given how much we know his thoughts lingered on her. Perhaps with more time, Proust would have worked this section into the direction whereby we understood that this was a deliberate comment related to his previous thoughts on habit, that over time we really do lose these memories that at one time we live amongst. Here, at least in the Scott Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright translation, it’s all a bit undercooked. Still, the return to the world of the living is a great relief, and we feel that transition from winter to spring as Proust no longer suffers “night and day from the companionship of [Albertine]’s memory”. (He also gets in some dynamite zingers about Francoise, which are always worthwhile!)
“We fall in love for a smile, a look, a shoulder. That is enough; then, in the long hours of hoipe or sorrow, we fabricate a person, we compose a character.”
It’s here I should note, isn’t it fascinating how much Proust lived in this world? I knew before I began my Year of Proust 10 and a half months ago that he became the hermit in the cork-lined room, but the casual-yet-exacting references he makes throughout to minor scenes from the narrator’s life are so expertly laid on. It’s no wonder people have trouble separating the real Proust from the character of “Marcel”. The interplay of the seemingly endless array of characters never ceases to delight me.
Anyhow, the third chapter – the Venice episode – allows Proust to adopt the mask of Dickens for forty pages, obviously delighting in describing a landscape so different to that of the French domain of the rest of the novel. Mamma also blossoms as a fresh character here, seen now in the narrator’s eyes as an adult undergoing her own painful transitions. Here, the narrator is able to ponder the nature of our various selves as we move from situation to situation and, more importantly, as we age. Strolling the streets of Venice, cruising for girls, the narrator begins to realise there is a difference between yearning for the girls he loved when he was 16 and yearning for the girls now 16. “What I loved was youth”, he says, and in this one, atypically brief sentence, we realise how far we have come from the Marcel Proust writing Swann’s Way in the early 1910s to this sickly in-patient completing a novel after the horrors of WWI.
The less said about that telegram the better (the BBC Radio adaptation slightly neutralises the issue by causing the bad penmanship to be that of the concierge writing it down than that of Gilberte), as it’s one of the most melodramatic moments in the novel, and would hopefully have been excised by Proust before the novel was published. Anyhow, Proust – after a beguilingly beautiful scene overlooking the canals – departs for home on a train with his mother, where two letters bring word of two marriages, and plunge us into the final act of the great novel.
Memory has no power of invention.
This last chapter, A New Aspect of Saint-Loup, I found particularly enjoyable because of the very evident development of the characters, and of the thought processes of the narrator. Nevertheless, it is clearly only fragments of whatever Proust was intending to do here. The death of the author in 1922 really is one of the greatest tragedies in the annals of artists dying mid-work. The doomed marriage of Jupien’s niece allows us to briefly check in on Charlus (still as inexplicable to me as ever) and Morel, and allows Proust one last jab at the silliness of “society”. The more important marriage of two of the most defining figures of the narrator’s life is severely truncated as mentioned, but nevertheless it is intriguing to read about Gilberte. Perhaps because her parents were examined in such detail in the first volume, or perhaps because she represents less of a sexual threat, Gilberte is so much more refreshing a character than Albertine and, although her developments are not always positive, they are always interesting.
What can I say about the final revelations? I feel vindicated in my suspicions of Saint-Loup since first we met, that’s what! I’ll have to wait until I’ve read Time Regained to comment further, as all of this feels thematically but not naturally connected to the rest of the novel. My understanding is that in some translations, The Fugitive ends with the short Combray episode with Gilberte but, in the Vintage Books editions, that scene opens the final volume, so here we are left, rather abruptly, with the narrator revising his entire history with Robert Saint-Loup, his only moral male friend of any note, and “obliged to make an effort to restrain my tears”. He’s always been delicate, and here is no exception.
In the end, The Fugitive is an incomplete work and it is even more hubristic to give it a star-rating than The Captive. Proust’s intentions sometimes seem clearer here, but sometimes we clearly only have sketches from which he may well have spun gold if time and health had allowed. Nonetheless, we’ve ditched the dead weight (sorry, Alb) and I’m very excited to savour the 450 pages that make up the final volume of this incredible achievement.
“Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.” – Samuel Beckett, Proust
“Stories somehow lengthen when begun” – Lord Byron, Beppo
And so, after 11 years and 3 weeks, I find myself making the emotionally harrowing descent from Mont Proust. And, boy, has it been worth it. Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, also translated as Finding Time Again) is the final volume of the masterful Search, and is a distinct step up from its immediate predecessors, for a few reasons.
Published a few years after Proust’s death, Time Regained exists in something of a draft form, and this is rampantly evident throughout. The narrative is fragmented; key characters make cameo appearances in what must surely have been pencil sketches for larger farewells; the dead return to life with alarming regularity; and some sections betray a sense of repetition that even Gertrude Stein would have hesitated at. Anyone who tells you that they can explain what Proust intended is lying however, like any good paleontologist, we can hope to reconstruct at least some of what lies at the end of Proust’s search. (Walking with Proust?) And thank goodness we can.
“My great adventure is really Proust. Well– what remains to be written after that? – Virginia Woolf
Broadly speaking, Time Regained can be separated into four sections. The first, brief chapter takes place before WWI, and is sometimes included at the end of The Fugitive instead, although I prefer it here, as in my Vintage edition. With Gilberte, the narrator (we’ll call him Marcel however, as I’ve previously established, I don’t like that name for him) returns to Combray, marking the beginning of his psychological reassessment of what has gone before. It’s remarkable to think that when Proust began the novel, he could not have predicted that there would be a Great War allowing him to destroy Méséglise and to so powerfully capture the downfall of so many of his characters and the society in which they move. What this vignette shows us is the susceptibility of memory, of perspective. Marcel could not have known, all those years ago, what Gilberte truly intended as a child, nor that this valuations of people – such as the seemingly upright Saint-Loup – could be proven so incomplete with the passing of the years. The grand revelation that the two “ways” are connected is a perfect symbol of everything the novel has attempted to say. The novel constantly hints at other lives Marcel may have led: an early, happy marriage to Gilberte? An early death, perhaps? As with homosexuality and Jewishness, those two big, bad questions that academics and readers can’t help asking about the narrator/author connection, I wonder how much of a role age and illness played. Proust was famously hands-on when it came to revisions, and there is certainly a level of denial in the narrator’s claims that he has “totally forgotten” Albertine, and that he is perfectly happy to retreat from the world. One wonders.
A book is a huge cemetery in which on the majority of the tombs the names are effaced and can no longer be read.
The second of the four is the part that most obviously shows evidence of being a rough draft. The war years are, to a large part, glossed over, with indications that Marcel spent time in a sanatorium. We will, alas, never find out what happened to Mamma and Papa. Yet, the war actually seems a fitting if unintended conclusion to the political drama that has played out in the background of the Search, from the Dreyfus Affair to the naiveté of the aristocracy on Europe’s nationalist troubles at the beginning of the 20th century. It also allows for an obvious transition point, a kind of termination shock, after which everyone has changed, and their society has changed with them. (“It is all a question of chronology.”)
Various rumours are cleared up as we meet Saint-Loup, Jupien, and Charlus for the last time. The brothel sequence, in which Morel and Jupien take their “inverted” tastes to the logical extreme, is perhaps a bit silly. It feels too calculated to shock, too desperate and contrived (why exactly Marcel needs to rent a private room for a glass of cassis is beyond me) but, nevertheless, it provides a logical endpoint for the discussion of social codes-within-codes that has often dominated the story and, in the tale of Saint-Loup’s sad demise (oh, that croix de guerre!) and Morel’s ironic rise, he captures all the irony of a Madame Bovary with just a few, brief, moonlit images. If the novel really is like Vinteuil’s septet, then this is most certainly the “da capo al fine” section. Thankfully, with the rise and fall of the war, Proust’s social eye – arguably his strongest single literary skill – gets to put a little extra sharpness into his pen after quite some time in which we have focused only on the immediate concerns of the protagonist. After all these years, a younger generation are rising up in society, and what good is a war if you can’t use it to forget the inconvenient facts about the past? Social status has changed for so many since the teenaged Marcel burst on to the scene, and everyone is doing their best to obfuscate their origins. Perhaps the single funniest line in the whole novel is when Madame Verdurin, continuing her rise from the bourgeoisie (to which she was once so firmly proud), describes someone with great disdain as being hopelessly “pre-war”! And, of course, Francoise continues to be the greatest comic relief character written since Shakespeare’s death.
An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates.
Next up is the single most dense section of the entire Search, as Marcel – and, I think we can all agree, Proust – lays out his extensive theory of art and creation. (It’s important to note both are equally important; those critics who most savagely deride Proust for filling a novel with platitudes on art rarely seem to notice that this is really a novel about creating it.) Here is the ultimate modernist push Proust made, to create a climax that is, really, entirely passive and internal. The reason this section fascinates (even if, true, it is heavy going) is that these revelations are so important to Marcel, for Marcel. He is realising a rebellion against the so-called “literature of description”, and seeking an answer to “the vision… of a person situated in the distorting perspective of Time”. With each revelation about previous moments, our narrator is seeking to find whether all of that time has been truly wasted (an equally good translation for the title’s “perdu”, translated usually as “lost”) or whether we can keep it with us, whether we can find time again. And indeed, we can all find it through art. To do so, Marcel needs to “become a mirror” and transcribe the music of all these years. As he says, “oblivion is at work within us”. That’s not to say that creating art is a vanity project – it may well be for La Berma, and perhaps Bergotte, and it took Elstir until his dying moments to realise otherwise – but that desire to write must come from somewhere. Marcel here seems to find that desire in his realisation of the ultimate tragedy of life: that we can’t let go – “If our life is vagabond, our memory is sedentary” – but neither are we holding on in the right way. Here, more than ever, one understands that now conventional wisdom of why Remembrance of Things Past is such a bad title: Marcel may be the first truly internally-driven protagonist in literary history, but he is still driven. It’s just that Albertine was never truly the fugitive; the fugitive was Time (yep, capital T, no way around it).
Profound Albertine, whom I saw sleeping and who was dead.
(What a quote, huh? What a freaking quote.)
The final fascicle of Time Regained captures surely the longest social engagement of the entire work and, to be frank, it feels it. I assume Proust would have done some pruning and elaborating before he published this section, or at least I hope so! That’s not to say this section isn’t gorgeous, by the way, because it is. However, it contains all the hallmarks of a reworked draft, with characters recognising one another before they’ve even arrived at the party, identical analogies in quick succession, fragmentary portraits that deserve more airtime, and occasionally grand statements from the narrator that haven’t earned their place.
It’s tragic in retrospect, but this section takes place assumedly in the late ’20s, i.e. the time the volume was published, and which Proust expected he would live to see. Marcel, now a man in his 50s, is attending a reception at the home of the aged Princesse de Guermantes. It’s a bit of a greatest hits package, as we are reunited one last time with the Duc, Morel, Rachael, Gilberte, Odette, Bloch, and Mme Verdurin who has completed her ascent to become the new Duchesse de Guermantes, for all the happiness it will bring her. Proust opens this section with a startling narrative conceit, that of appearing to enter a costume ball where everyone has come as the walking dead, until he realises it is simply that everyone has substantially aged. (It is clear that Marcel has been removed from society for some time, although he is also only just making the decision to truly retreat, one of many little inconsistencies that poke out from this draft volume.) While the heartbreaking final scene for Charlus is fitting, one hopes that Morel and Mme Verdurin would have received greater farewells in the finished work – although the last we see of the new Duchesse is her truly enjoying the music at the reception even as those around her engage in intrigues, a reminder of her bourgeois past, so at least that’s fitting. Warming my heart is the fact that, although we don’t get a farewell to Francoise, this is because she appears to be the only character who will remain in the narrator’s life after he retreats from society on the final page.
The ponderings on old age seem to go on for some time, often repeating themselves, suggesting that Proust was uncontrollably – and reasonably – fascinated by the subject as he entered his 50s himself, a dying man living like a hermit in his cork-lined room (I suppose you could argue that this is a deliberate literary technique to present the narrator as aged and forgetful but this seems overly generous and also, I would think, a way of writing that hadn’t really been invented yet). However, they are constantly delightful, and indeed much of this section is light-hearted, suggesting to me yet again that the popular image of the depressive, wilting Proust is in fact only one aspect of his personality. Two portraits particularly stand out. The ageing Odette who, like so many others, has forgotten Marcel’s own early years in the haze of her memory (fairly reasonably; after all, he was no-one special to her!), now mistakes his minor successes for true fame, and takes the time to exaggerate events from her early life for his benefit. Describing her new place as the constantly demeaned mistress of the “magnificent ruin” that is the Duc de Guermantes, Proust speaks thus: “She was commonplace in this role as she had been in all her others. Not that life had not frequently given her good parts; it had, but she had not known how to play them”. Can this man write, or can this man write? And, perhaps the best scene of the entire second half of the Search takes only a few pages, as Berma – the character I least expected to see receiving such narrative focus in the closing chapter – hosts the world’s saddest dinner party. It’s a testament to the great skill Proust had developed over the course of writing his magnum opus that a conflict between two fairly minor characters, taking us from location to location, from past to present to future, can at all times seem so razor-sharp, so thematically apt, and so dimensional. There is certainly an air of tragedy underlying everything, though. Our protagonist at last finds his way, but this newfound focus on genealogy couldn’t but remind me of that other original protagonist, Charles Swann. In an earlier volume, it was mentioned that the late Swann wished to leave three things behind: good memories in friends, his child, and his name. Well, his name is barely known at all by the new generation, his ageing friends hold some good memories although they’re largely fictionalised (and often bowdlerised) from reality, and his child – who, having married twice, no longer even bears his name – has largely renounced him. (Marcel says of Gilberte early on that she is “like one of those countries with which one dare not form an alliance because of their too frequent changes of government.”)
A few of those old bugbears return to haunt us in the final pages. First, Marcel decides that the logical next step in his life would be to take Gilberte and Robert’s 16-year-old daughter, Mlle de Saint-Loup, as his next mistress (um…?), and Gilberte indicates that Robert would probably have preferred a son given his homosexual tendencies (ummmmmmm….?). And then Marcel becomes obsessed with death in the same way he once obsessed over jealousy and, before that, over kisses from his mother. Well, at least he’s consistent! The problematic nature of parts of the novel should not be neglected by serious readers, and I hope I have not, but they only add to my desire to reread, and to study more of Proust’s life, to better capture all the complexities of this man and his work. The final pages, as the narrator agonises about whether death will take him before he finishes his great work, are sobering given Proust’s untimely end, but they also enlighten and enrapture, as Marcel realises that over the course of his life, his book was “perpetually in the process of becoming”.
(On a housekeeping note, this Vintage imprint includes the substantial A Guide to Proust which catalogues the Characters, Real-Life Persons, Places, and Themes of the novel with handy breakdowns of key moments. It’s by no means a complete concordance, but it’s a satisfyingly researched appendix to the volumes, and I really appreciate its inclusion – not that it makes up for the frustrating lack of annotations! I appreciate the complexity of such things but, for a work written in a vastly different society in a different language a century ago, there were many areas of discussion and reference where the knowing voice of an expert would have helped me, and many others with which I was familiar, but which I suspect most people of my generation would not be. In this “do more with less” era, I appreciate why publishing houses issue these bare-bones editions, but it is a cheap shortcut now that will only lead to an incomplete map in the future, as young people struggle with the Everest that is four centuries of art and literature in an age when such things are already less and less valued. Simply put, the cost of a world without introductions and endnotes is too much for Western culture to afford.)
How many great cathedrals remain unfinished!
As I finished the last page of this 3,000-page masterpiece, I achieved a truth that I’m sure everyone has felt who has finished Proust: one never finishes Proust. This world created, these philosophies explored: they will never leave me. It may be several years before I read the Search again, but I know that I will. I chose to embark upon the Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation because it is the foundation text upon which most Proust criticism is written, but next time I look forward to devouring the new 21st century translations. The layers to the Search are historical, biographical, emotional, psychological, literary and, it seems, are endless. When at last, the narrator sits down to write, he at last understands “this notion of Time embodied, of years past but not separated from us”, and it is one of the most beautiful revelations I have yet had the privilege to read in all of literature. That final image of the Duc de Guermantes on the ever-growing stilts that we all wear in this life, is indelibly etched upon my memory. Much like the young Marcel and Gilberte in the pink hawthorn grove, I feel as if I have witnessed countless signs I have only just begun to comprehend. Yet also, like an evening salon with the Verdurins or a walk by the seaside in Balbec, this year of reading Proust has only been a part of my life, a tiny aspect of that tapestry of memory, that web created between our mind and the world. Proust mentions in this volume that all art, particularly good art, is on some level only what the reader makes of it. Less charitably (with due credit to the wonderful 182 Days of Proust ) Schopenhauer said “Books are like a mirror. If an ass looks in, you can’t expect an angel to look out”. Indeed, I can only agree – with both of them! Over the past year, I have connected so much of my own life to what Proust writes about, and conversely I have connected much of Proust’s search to my own. Reading Proust has been bewildering, delightful, uplifting, heartbreaking, philosophical, and occasionally infuriating. But, whatever else it may have been, I know I have not wasted Time.