BY BEN LEHMAN Marcel Proust’s, In Search of Lost Time is one of the most celebrated pieces of literature in history. First published in 1913, the story spans across seven volumes, over four thousand pages, and includes some two thousand characters. It chronicles the life of a fictionalized Proust — seen through the subjective lens of his own memories — the novel explores facets of life such as love, society, sexuality, and jealousy. A novelist and critic, Proust was born to a wealthy family in Auteuil, France in 1871. He was a frail, sickly child, and his ill health followed him into adulthood. Proust’s last years were spent confined in his Paris apartment, where he worked on what would become In Search of Lost Time. He died in 1922, leaving his brother Robert the task of editing and publishing the unorganized manuscripts. The final volume, appropriately titled Time Regained, was not published until 1927.
In Search of Lost Time begins with the famous “episode of the madeleine,” in which the narrator sits swirling a petite madeleine cake in his tea. As he brings the moistened cake to his lips, his childhood memories come flooding back in a tempest of nostalgia and beauty. He describes how “an exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.” It is this involuntary memory that sets off the epic tale. Proust’s writing is stunningly elegant, his syntax incomparable. He writes with a level of sophistication which few writers are capable of reaching. For example, when he’s writing about the recollection of a memory that has remained hidden within the depths of one’s mind, he says it “is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.”
His masterful command of language gives the novel an authentic feel. The reader imagines himself in an opulent Parisian parlor room with beautifully dressed aristocrats, or visiting Aunt Léonie’s rural home in Combray, or perhaps vacationing at a seaside resort in Balbec. This authenticity lends credibility to Proust’s philosophical musings on the human condition. The novel contains endless philosophical reflections that stray from the actual story. Proust will spend pages philosophizing about the effect a piece of art or music can have on someone, or even simple human interaction and behavior. While it’s tempting for the reader to gloss over these lengthy digressions, it is in these passages that Proust makes his most provocative assertions about life. Reflecting on the nature of time and relationships, for instance, Proust states, “Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them.” The most prevalent theme throughout the work, however, is love. Proust displays love with all the beauty and all the darkness that comes with it.
Anyone who’s ever been in love will relate to the novel. Proust said that love is ‘a reciprocal torture,’ but love that is unreciprocated is even more painful, and the lover is always hurt more than the loved. ‘Swann In Love,’ the short story within the first volume, is a demonstration of the damage that can be done when one person loves more than the other. When Monsieur Swann meets the beautiful and elusive Odette de Crécy, he pays little attention to her, and it’s not until he learns of her affection for him that he falls in love. This proves to be his downfall, however, as his love begins to consume him. But the deeper Swann loves Odette, the more indifferent she becomes to him. Swann’s lust, along with his unrestrained jealousy, drives him to insanity. He is never able to possess her in the way he wants. He spies on Odette and repeatedly humiliates himself, and the episode only ends when his love for her eventually fades.
In Search of Lost Time will leave the reader feeling both happy, like when the narrator begins a new romance, and sad like after the death of the narrator’s beloved grandmother. He will be confused – the rich prose can leave the reader a little lost at times – and enlightened, when he reads one of Proust’s aphorisms that makes him contemplate his own life, and maybe even a little bored at times – sometimes a conversation between characters on a piece of art can seem to be endless. To read all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time is not an easy task. It is a journey upon which one must embark with a certain level of dedication. Personally, I spent almost two years of my life on Proust. I would take breaks between each volume – some longer than others – but the desire to continue the dazzling story always kept me coming back. But for those who commit themselves to seeing it through to the end, the novel offers endless insights and infinite beauty.