Halfway through the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust’s unnamed narrator muses on the inaccuracy of human judgment when it comes to, among other things, books:
So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when one speaks to him of a new “good book,” because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read, whereas a good book is something special, something unforeseeable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation of every one of them would not enable him to discover, since it exists not in their sum but beyond it.
Such a description perfectly encapsulates what it means to read Proust. It is—though I hesitate to say it due to its triteness—an irreplaceable and almost magical experience.
To some, the name Proust is evocative of that famous madeleine-and-tea scene from Swann’s Way. The name might engender delight because of the beauty and majesty of his prose. Or perhaps, to all those who remain unacquainted with his works, the name is merely a blank slate.
Regardless, below, I hope to share a few of my thoughts on one of the greatest writers I have ever had the pleasure of reading. This is a brief introduction to the Search, what it is all about, and why the modern reader should read the Search roughly a century after its original publishing.
Marcel Proust (1871–1922) was a French writer best known for his masterpiece, the seven-volume À la recherche du temps perdu, commonly translated as In Search of Lost Time. Set in fin de siècle France, the novel serves as a graceful commentary on the human condition, with profound, almost universal observations on life. His prose, meanwhile, is densely filled with vivid, thought-provoking metaphors and imagery.
Although he wrote the Search in a semi-autobiographical manner, understanding Proust’s own life is unnecessary for its appreciation. Indeed, reading the Search is often best done through a blind experience at first, resolving any wrinkles or questions about the work or its author later on. I, therefore, leave the discovery of Marcel Proust, the individual, up to each reader (I would suggest a biography, such as William Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life).
The discovery, however, of Marcel Proust, the writer, begins on the first page of In Search of Lost Time.
The Search details the experiences of the narrator as he grows up and matures. The progression is as follows, with volumes five to seven published posthumously:
- Swann’s Way (Du côté de chez Swann, also translated as The Way by Swann’s)
- In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, also translated as Within a Budding Grove)
- The Guermantes Way (Le Côté de Guermantes)
- Sodom and Gomorrah (Sodome et Gomorrhe, also translated as Cities of the Plain)
- The Prisoner (La Prisonnière, also translated as The Captive)
- The Fugitive (Albertine disparue or La Fugitive, also translated—albeit rarely—as Albertine Gone or The Sweet Cheat Gone)
- Time Regained (Le Temps retrouvé, also translated as Finding Time Again)
Through the over 1.2 million words that form the masterpiece, we, the readers, learn of the narrator’s life as he grows up in a bourgeois family, engages in high Parisian society, and searches for love. Proust is careful to never explicitly mention our narrator’s name, though it slips out twice in The Prisoner as Marcel.
I will call our narrator “M” to distinguish him from Marcel, the author. Yet, as we traverse through the novel, this distinction is increasingly blurred, and it becomes clear that M is, in fact, just a version of Proust in a diaphanous disguise.
At first glance, M is not particularly unique as we might expect from a protagonist. It is easy to express a level of contempt for him; the opulence of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the indolence we might perceive in M, the trivialities of his emotional fluctuations, and so on are all easy to deride. To some, the Search is but a several-thousand-page-long diary of a rich boy’s emotional awakening. There’s a superficial triviality—the seeming insignificance—in the jealousy, fear, or pain he experiences when they often have to do with love or social acceptance by aristocrats and socialites alike in various circles.
However, as we begin to understand our narrator, we recognize him ultimately as a closet outcast of sorts—as someone carried along by social ties and obligations, which were never truly internalized. M is unamused by the pompous grandeur of high society, as we come to see in The Guermantes Way. He is disappointed by the Duchesse de Guermantes, whom he idolized from a young age. He is likewise disillusioned by love through a series of romantic torments, first with his childhood crush Gilberte, then with Albertine, whom he meets in the second volume.
The plot of In Search of Lost Time traverses through the notable events in M’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. What strings these events together is not just their significance in the narrator’s life; it is also their significance in our own. The Search is Proust’s chef-d’œuvre, a clear and fundamentally unambiguous answer to the question of what the purpose of life is—what it is that we should pursue to realize true happiness. We receive Proust’s answer to this question from the eyes of our narrator as he embarks on a journey to answer the same question. We see him pursue love and fame, both of which fail to yield much meaning to him.
In the end, what M comes across is the notion of Habit—or rather, the conquest of Habit. This, in his eyes, is what sparks true joy in life.
What is Habit? Habit is the force that drives the mind to lethargy and the prosaic. Habit is what causes so much melancholy because it makes us think in mundane terms. Habit is what takes happiness out of much of life.
When we were children, we came across so much novelty—so much strangeness—that, over time, disintegrated into what we now consider commonplace. That visit to the store, the erratic sound of rain, the brief fright we feel from lightning and thunder that our parents tried to soothe—they are all things that we once felt deeply but now plainly disregard. There is no longer any joy of running out and playing in the rain, no joy in seeing rows upon rows of food at the grocery store. We now think of our drenched clothing and resulting shivers if we were to go out in the rain, or the prices of goods in the store and how they’ve risen since previous years. The work of Habit makes us get used to things until they’ve become prosaic—until they lose their innate charm. Habit takes away all that delight and leaves us only with the remaining gloom and despair.
So what does it mean to “defeat” Habit? It is not to continually find new things that surprise or entertain us—as wealth might allow us to do—because there will always be a limited span of “things that will give us happiness.” Rather, defeating Habit means taking our daily life and viewing it from the same perspective as a child, when the events of each day were, in fact, novel to us. We must work to remember the joy encapsulated in seemingly trivial things or events. It is something for which we must search. This is what allows us to disperse the boredom or lack of appreciation that we too often have.
And this is what is encapsulated in artists like Vermeer when they paint seemingly mundane scenes, allowing us to view them in a spectacularly novel light. This is the undertone that persists across the Search, driving it forward with a hidden gravity. The concept is apparent in the famous madeleine-and-tea scene when the narrator experiences “involuntary memory” of his childhood after tasting madeleine dipped in tea. The recognition of a simple pleasure in life makes it possible.
Indeed, the title of the novel, In Search of Lost Time, hints at how Habit squanders our time when we could be appreciating life for what it is, as an artist of sorts, viewing each day in the third person insofar as we can see the mundane imaginatively.
The Search is a relentless pursuit to recover “wasted” time and find meaning in existence. For M, and presumably Proust as well, this takes the form of writing. In the beginning, we see M as a timid writer — or not even a writer, merely one who aspires to become one. As he matures, there is constantly a source of hesitancy in his life — some reason why he cannot pick up his pen. It is only at the end, when time is “regained,” that our narrator realizes his calling and artistic fulfillment and ultimate triumph.
In the end, the modern reader should take away from their experience reading Proust a personal interpretation of what lies atop the pages. There are seemingly endless moments throughout the novel that resonate powerfully with the reader; there are quotable excerpts like the one above that somehow perfectly represent a feeling or condition that would otherwise go unrecorded in words.
The Search is an experience for readers to savor. And I am convinced that the reader will always come out of the experience with a perspective on life and the human condition that has been shifted, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the person, but shifted nonetheless.
Why Read Proust?
The Search wonderfully captures a sequence of emotions and ideas in a way that few writers, if any, can match. Its psychological and philosophical commentary on life, which spans all seven volumes, frequently materializes in the form of effortless, graceful parentheses. Just as its content of political and social examination—on the Dreyfus affair or homosexuality, for example—is rich with meaning and purpose, Proust’s poetic voice carries us through his world, both of the mind and in reality.
Today, In Search of Lost Time is firmly ensconced in the Western literary canon, a modernist marvel of literary bravura from a writer as great as pre-eminent contemporaries like Joyce and Woolf. There are no secondary sources that would replace the experience of directly reading it. The Search is, at least for me, an unforgettable journey.
Near the end of his life, as he was vigorously writing and editing the final volumes of the Search, Proust said:
If only I could do for humanity as much good with my books as my father did with his work.
Marcel Proust’s father, Adrien Proust, was a renowned epidemiologist who worked to eliminate cholera across France. In a similar thread, Proust’s literary ambitions ultimately lay in helping people discover a more fulfilling existence. It was his wisdom that he wished to convey. And to read the Search is to take up this opportunity to observe his insight on life.
And so we arrive at the point at which the reader picks up Swann’s Way and prepares to embark on the journey before them. It will be grueling at times. It will be time-consuming. It will occasionally be difficult to understand, with all the longueurs Proust inserted throughout the work. However, it will be well worth it.
One should not be intimidated by the length of the Search. Despite its voluminous nature, surprisingly little “momentum” is necessary for the reader to complete the work. Each page or little segment contains a small piece of Proust’s insights, often independent of other sections. It is, therefore, easy for readers to pause and resume their reading without losing track of the thread of events.
Proust’s works are emblematic of the artistic attack on Habit that he develops as his philosophy of life. It rekindles beauty, joy, and interest in seemingly simple events and experiences. It revitalizes and reminds us of sensations that are often lost amidst the chaos of the everyday. And it is for this that we should step across the threshold and begin In Search of Lost Time, starting with:
For a long time, I went to bed early. . . .