I’ve just finished reading Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) for what seems like decades. For those who don’t know Proust’s enormous novel, it’s about 1.5 million words long where normally 100,000 words is easily enough for a good solid read. It is the equivalent of about fifteen good-sized normal novels and a blog post isn’t really the place to analyse such a literary beast. Even so, I’ve now read it so I may as well summarise the experience.
So what’s it about, this remarkable 20th century novel? Well it rambles a bit in places, that’s for sure and there isn’t a great deal of action. Proust was fascinated by the aristocrats of the Faubourg Saint Germain, setting out their elaborate caste structures and social habits in interminable detail. His is a grand novel of the Belle Époque, a vanished world which now seems almost as improbable as Jurassic Park. Overall I’m pleased to have read it and not just because I can now say I’ve read one of the greatest novels of the last century. It isn’t like any other novel I’ve read, partly because of the sheer length of it. By the time I reached the end, I felt as if I’d been on a long journey, which I’m sure was Proust’s intention. He wanted to write a truly grand piece of literature on a par with Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen or Balzac’s vast output of interlocking novels.
The book is written as a fictional autobiography, although the timescale and locations are similar to the patterns of Proust’s own life. Proust was gay and although the narrator of his novel isn’t at all gay, most of the major characters certainly are. Proust seems to hint at his own sexuality by giving to his main female loves the names Albertine and Gilberte.
The theme of the book isn’t Proust’s sexuality though, it is to do with self-knowledge, specifically the role involuntary memory plays in self-knowledge and in defeating the tyranny of time. He notices small details of his life such as the aroma of hawthorn blossom, the taste of madeleine cakes dipped in herbal tea as his aunt Léonie used to do when he was a child in the fictional village of Combray where he was born. To Proust, these evocative and long-lasting impressions are clues to what we are, to what has moulded us into the person we have become. It is vitally important to spot the clues as they occur, to notice the way simple everyday events trigger old memories and habits of thought. In this way we abolish the tyranny of time, become one with our multiple selves as the years pass by.
Was it worth reading such an enormously long novel? Yes it was, although it isn’t a trivial undertaking. It takes a huge amount of time and whole stretches of it are frankly dross, a sea of words seeming to serve no other purpose than to stretch out the book into a grand literary project. Because that’s an important feature of it – that’s why it feels as if you have been with Proust on a journey through his imaginary, yet not so imaginary life. Events from the beginning of the book, from Proust’s childhood in fictional Combray, do feel distant by the end.
Proust saw himself as a kind of literary philosopher, although his idea of philosophy is an odd mix of mysticism and a kind of early behaviourism. He is at his best on the importance of habit and the way new habits evolve, how important it is to note their evolution if we are to understand ourselves. An example he gives is the way we physically locate ourselves in a hotel room we haven’t visited before, the way we learn where the furnishings are without conscious effort, the way new habits simply establish themselves within us.
It is this habit of noticing tiny but lasting impressions, of noticing our own habits that to me is the best thing in Proust. His writing itself is patchy, lyrical in places, a dull and detailed examination of aristocratic mores in others. Yet unlike almost all other writers of fiction, Proust does leave you with something important, this habit of noting tiny everyday impressions such as the hawthorn blossom and the madelaine cake.
Is it worth reading? 1.5 million words is not something you can recommend to anyone. It’s a significant investment in time. Was it worth it for me? Yes – just.