“Life is too short, and Proust is too long.” – Anatole France, French writer and poet
Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Nobel laureate Anatole France died in 1924, three years short of seeing the publication of the complete seven volumes of Proust’s autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time.
My reading journey began in 2013 when I read the first two volumes, Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove, as a Read Along on Ripple Effects. For reasons I can’t recall, it took me a few years to get through the third volume The Guermantes Way, finishing at the beginning of 2018. After that, I thought, that would be all for me.
I’m glad I came across Emma’s Book Around the Corner in January of this year to learn that 2022 is the Centenary of Proust’s death (July 10, 1871 – Nov. 18, 1922). That prodded me to finish up the remaining three volumes. Also, since I own the Modern Library six-volume box set, I hate to see it as just a decorative item, however smart it does look.
So glad I finally finish the last three volumes this year in nine months, just in time for the centenary of Proust’s death in November: Vol. IV Sodom and Gomorrah, Vol. V The Captive and The Fugitive (originally in two volumes), and Vol. VI Time Regained. For me, a hobby Proust reader, not until I come to the last volume Time Regained do I realize the significance of the first three volumes and why Proust writes in such minute details about the narrator’s childhood and youthful experiences.
There are many websites and scholastic discussions on this 4,300 page autobiographical novel. Instead of summarizing––an impossible task for me––I’ll pick out those passages or ideas that have stirred up some ripples within me filtered through the lens of a movie reviewer, hopefully offering something that’s different and easy to chew.
At the end of Volume VI there are over 200 pages listing characters, places, and themes. Some of the subjects in the 44 pages of Index to Themes include beauty, brothels, dreams, literature, language, music, painting, politics, the Dreyfus Affair, anti-semitism, war, love, sexuality, old age, death… just to name a few. Imagine you’re standing by a smorgasbord of a huge array of culinary offerings, yes including those that are hard to digest or don’t agree with your system, and you can only eat so much, of course you would pick and choose your favourite foods. So, here’s what’s on my plate at this buffet.
In the last part of Vol. VI: Time Regained, the narrator discovers the crucial dimension of Time. Surely, Time over the years has rendered many people he has had crossed path with in his life frail and infirmed, or lost their good looks due to ageing, and some have died, like Swann. But the subliminal power of memories allows him to relive his childhood experiences once again and see these people reappear in his mind as he had known them in his youth. His memories have preserved them like they have not grown old.
So the end of this long book brings readers back to the beginning. It’s not so much about going back, but rather, bringing the past to the present as the two form a continuation of life. Yes, a virtual back to the future.
A reader bearing with him from the beginning and now reaching this eureka moment can feel the narrator’s joy in discovering this secret chamber deep in his psyche where he, unknowingly, has stored up treasured moments of his past. The length of the book could well be a virtual reality as we see his life unfold at a slow pace, then vicariously feel the joy of the discovery of this hidden, mental treasure trove years later. Sharing such ecstasy with readers has now become the purpose of his writing:
The happiness which I was feeling was a product not of a purely subjective tension of the nerves which isolated me from the past, but on the contrary of an enlargement of my mind, within which the past was re-forming and actualizing itself , giving me –– but alas! only momentarily––something whose value was eternal. This I should have liked to bequeath to those who might have been enriched by my treasure. (VI: 513)
The above quote found towards the end of the long book brings readers back to the beginning. Many movies are just like this, a bookend finish: The last scenes bring viewers back to the beginning scenes, revealing their significance and then move on to wrap up the whole work. That’s the feeling I got when reading the last volume, Time Regained. Proust brings us back to the pleasure of enjoying the madeleine soaked in tea, the ringing of the bell on the garden gate when he was a child waiting impatiently for his mother to see Swann off so she could come up to kiss him goodnight, Combray memories, the Swann and the Guermantes way––precious scenes to go one full circle back to the beginning–––to regain Time, to cherish a life in continuity. Call it the Circle of Life if you will, but to the narrator, the present has never been separated from the past.
Another ripple from my mental pond is how mindful the narrator is in his everyday living. BTW, he is also called Marcel, so I take it as Proust’s own view of things. His exceptional sensitivity and the minute details in his observation and introspection form the signature of his book.
As I read how he’d stop and see things and people with incisive perception, a movie quote comes to mind. Nope, not from any old sage but spoken time and again by a high school wise guy who wants to play hooky for a day. In a very Proustian posture, Ferris Beuller (Matthew Broderick) lies in bed one morning as he considers a good reason for skipping school that day:
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you can miss it.” –– from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986, directed by John Hughes.
Ferris Bueller might not have read Proust, but just shows how relevant Proust can be in contemporary life.
Past Proust posts on Ripple Effects: