List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 22/100Title: À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search Of Lost Time)
Author: Marcel Proust
I am a bit of a philistine when it comes to literature. I mean, before starting on this list I had barely scratched the surface of what is considered substantial literature. Part of my job involves interacting with some very literate people since they, you know, write papers to assess people’s English skills. They speak of how every child should have read books like To Kill A Mockingbird and I just slink back a little bit and make sure that I have it loaded onto my Kindle for later.
Still, how awesome is it to say: fine I have not read To Kill A Mockingbird, but I managed to polish off the longest novel of all time (in terms of the numbers of character as recognised by the Guiness Book of World Records). 1.27 million words. 4000+ pages. Thousands of characters. And yet, I was able to finish reading it in two and a half months.
Know that I would not have read this book if it was not for my Kindle or because it was placed on this list. It’s incredibly hefty to carry around (depending on the edition it is printed in six or seven volumes) and I had never actually heard of this book before I started this blog.
Going into reading this book the only time I had heard of Marcel Proust because of the Steve Carell character in LIttle Miss Sunshine. So the only real hint that I had about this book when going into it was that the two leading (fictional) Proust scholars were gay men. One of whom was emotionally fragile. Dear God, it’s amazing how well that actually prepared me.
Anyway, enough preliminary – let’s just get down to it.
In Search of Lost Time is a semi-biographical novel centred around Proust as he grew up in France in the late 1800s and finishes around the conclusion of the First World War. It’s hard to know where to really start – so why not at the beginning where he spent about 15-20 minutes of reading time tossing and turning in his bed longing for a goodbye kiss from his mother. Weird thing is, I am not joking.
In many ways, this is a novel that I would be surprised if it ever met an editor. It languishes and takes its time over the most minute of details whether it be the description of a church window or his pangs of jealousy (which is a constant theme in most of the book). I saw it said somewhere that where any other writer using one word Proust would use four. There is a real ring of truth to this, which is equally to the book’s advantage and to its detriment.
There are times where you can be swept up in his descriptions of the social classes and his surroundings. I mean, this book is #25 on this list for a reason. He has an amazing way with words (as does the translator, massive respect for C.K. Scott-Moncrieff for doing this so effectively) and really gives your thesaurus a good work out.
However, there are other times where you are spending what seems like 2-3 hours reading about the same train trip, the same party, the same rant about lesbianism (more on that later). The result is that you can feel the temptation to skip pages to get back to the juicy bits. I am a quick reader so I am happy that I was able to get out of these sections faster than normal.
Then again, this is how addiction works isn’t it? The fact that a significant amount of time you are able to get that hit. It’s the reason that you keep returning it even though you spent an entire train journey reading French aristocrats debating the etymology of place names. You know at some point Albertine, Saint-Loup, Françoise or the Baron de Charlus will show up and steal the show. So you keep reading and devouring this massive tome until you find yourself pulling into your station and cursing the fact that you can not get that much further.
Since I have now mentioned some names, let’s have a look at some of the characters.
The main one is the nameless narrator (he is referred to as Marcel a few times, but other that the name is absent). He is not exactly the most sympathetic character for most of the book, which makes you wonder what Proust himself was like. He is foppish, he is manipulative and, at many times, he is downright pathetic. You can just imagine him gesticulating with the back of his hand to his forehead and proclaiming what a chore it was for him to get out of bed.
He is written as a sickly and somewhat feminine man. There is a section where the doctor (right quack that he is) prescribes an all-milk diet, and at another time prescribes Champagne for his nerves. This probably starts to paint a picture of his background, because he is from rich stock. It also doesn’t help much that he is coddled to the point that there is never any real mention of his parents wanting him to do something more constructive with his life.
The only person who actively disapproves of him is Françoise, the maid. She is a brilliant character. Someone who always finds a way to eavesdrop and makes sure that you know that she knows exactly what you are up to. The way that the Narrator treats Françoise makes for a lot of the comedy in the novel – in reality he is a real shit with her. True, she does sometimes get a little bit ‘above her station’, but her loyalty is unquestionable. She wants the best for the Narrator and for the family. When he loses his grandmother, Françoise reaches out to him, as she herself is hurting, and he rebuffs her coldly. This is the story of their interaction, and it makes you really cheer her on whenever she gets one up on him – although she can be cruel at times.
Which leads me (nicely) onto the women in this book. For the most part they fall into two archetypes – those he venerates and actively seeks out and those who he abhors and is unable to trust because of their ‘whorish’ ways. Essentially, the book is permeated with the Madonna-Whore complex. This goes a long way to explain his behaviour towards the key romantic figure – Albertine.
Now, I like Albertine. She is a bisexual girl living in the 1880s-1900s which makes things a bit hard for her to express herself. The key thing is, however, that she clearly adores the narrator. Adores him to the point that in Volume 5 (The Prisoner) she allows him to take her away from everything she knows to live with him. Due to his absolute disgust with her previous relations with women there is no trust there and he keeps her under constant surveillance and starts some pretty distasteful psychological mindgames.
In many ways this relationship brings out the worst in the character, but says volumes about the homosexual Proust. The Narrator spends most of Volume 3 and 4 trying to get this girl, and then immediately gets bored with her once she has completely fallen. She, like everyone in a relationship, keeps things from him. Things that are of no concern to him since they occurred at a time since she made no promises to him. However, there is a feeling that because she has made such transgressions she must be punished.
The ultimate punishment comes about when Albertine finally gets up the courage to call the whole thing off and go back to her aunt. Such a woman can not be allowed to get off free in his world like that – so she has a riding accident and the Narrator spends most of Volume 6 pining over this. I had very little time for Volume 6 because it felt that this ‘exit pursued by a bear’ style writing just cheapened their relationship instead of grounding it in the real life that I had come to expect.
A lot of this all seems to come down to one thing – the characters distaste of lesbianism. There is a hint of this very early in the book, but it really doesn’t come into full force until Volume 4 (Sodom & Gomorrah). This is when he starts to be more explicit with the ideas of homosexuality with main character starting to gain traits. His two lovers, his best friend and some men he socialises with at aristocratic salons (as in a gathering of artistic types, not a barbers).
There is an interesting split in how the book deals with gay men. Proust is clearly knowledgeable on the subject, but his character is straight. As such, there is a lot of interesting (non-explicit) detail about how gay men operated in the society as told by the narrator. It’s strange as the narrator never delves into the world himself and yet it shown to be very knowledgeable. He is, rather forward-thinkingly, understanding of it and doesn’t mind it until one of the character starts to prefer the company of 10 year old boys (this reveal irritated me as I hoped that a gay writer would not stoop to this stereotype).Still, there is some positivity to a number of these gay characters.
Lesbians, on the other hand are pretty much vilified. Pretty much all of them are described, on some levels, as predatory. There is a rather hyperbolic example of one dressing up as a man so they could pick up and do god knows what to young girls. Even the more everyday life lesbians are vilified by the Narrator. At no point does he really talk of love between two women and that is just damned wrong. Is this his way of justifying the way he was a bastard to Albertine and caused her death? By turning her and all WSWs into something dirty is he able to absolve himself of guilt? I don’t know the answer, it just really bugged me.
Look, this book is incredibly long and there is a lot I have not even got close to scratching the surface on. I just see that the word count on this post has passed 1700 and for me that means I need to make a close. In Search Of Lost Time is not a book I would not recommend for everyone. I would suggest the first volume, maybe even the second and then see how you go. But to go out specifically to read the entire thing… well you need to be crazy like me for that.