On finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

I want to write just a few words about finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; I don’t feel up to writing a big long summing-up post that tries to say smart things about what it all means, but I do want to say something. I am happy to have finished, but I do miss reading Proust a bit; I’ve been used to a near-daily dose of the narrator’s slow-moving, contemplative voice, and now I don’t have that.

It’s hard to see how a 3,000-page book without all that much plot, relatively speaking, could cohere, but I think it does. I found the ending, say, that last couple hundred pages, really did wrap things up; it provides an answer to the question that has haunted the whole book — will Marcel ever write his masterpiece? This is a question that has lingered from the very first volume when it becomes clear that Marcel has an interest in, and perhaps a talent for, writing. The answer the book provides is satisfying, and realistic, given everything that has happened up until that point.

My favorite volumes were the first two and the last one; the third and fourth, The Guermantes Way and Sodom and Gomorrah, got a little long, but then the fifth volume, which contains The Prisoner and The Fugitive begins to pick up a bit in preparation for the grand ending. It’s the long party scenes in some of the middle volumes that got tiresome. What I loved about the book are the insights into the mind, art, time, and love, but the novel is also obsessed with society and rank and how people behave at parties, topics that didn’t thrill me quite as much. But even here there are things to interest; Proust captures snobbery and hypocrisy and the deadness that can lie behind the glittering masks of high society beautifully well.

But mostly this novel is worth reading because of what it can teach about observing the world around you and in you. Proust has a meticulous eye for how the mind perceives input from the senses and for how we come to understand our experiences, and, of course, he has a beautiful way with a sentence to capture all that insight. I love how there can be so much wisdom and experience in one of those long sentences — how they can take in so much.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “On finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

  1. You make it sound really very lovely. 3,000 pages, though, is quite an undertaking! I think it is very impressive how you read it straight through. How many months did you work on it? Maybe someday I will give it a try.

  2. I have the complete three volume edition (Moncrief as translator?) and it’s one of those things…when will I have time to read Proust and Tolstoy and CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and David Foster Wallace’s INFINITE JEST….etc.

    Good on you for lasting through the marathon–you should get some some of badge, like with the Boy Scouts. For performance of duty above and beyond, etc.

  3. I think I love the sentences more than anything they describe. The first two books (only ones I’ve read so far) clarified for me the primary things I admire in literature, and art in general. You make me want to read the rest right now.

  4. I also liked the first and the last volumes best; though that’s not to say I didn’t like all the things between! Reading his narrative voice was worth it for me, whatever he was talking about. I was impressed by how he uses the idea of memory flooding back upon eating a madeleine at the beginning, and then uses a similar experience near the end which brings us right back to the beginning…

  5. I’ve been planning to read it one day…but why does it keep being a plan?

  6. I’m with Cliff. We should award some kind of badge or award for completing Proust.

    Which reminds me that I’m still with narrator at Balbec and he’s all whiny and has taken ill. *sigh*

    But without having completed Proust, yes, I agree that it is his ability to go all microscopic into our thoughts and experience. He takes all the tiniest human experience and expounds on them in rich details. Like a moment on a canvas.

    Okay, where’s my copy of Sodom and Gomorrah?

  7. Congratulations on finishing (I’m jealous). I’m still working on Swann’s Way, but I find that Proust’s writing does not allow for brief reading stints. I really need to sit down and allow myself to get lost in the language. But you’ve encouraged me to keep at it!

  8. I found your post via Reading Proust in Foxborough. I’m reading Proust for the second time through (now nearing the end of Sodom and Gomorrah). I’m finally learning to appreciate the salon scenes for the surreal quality of the conversation (Brichot, Mme Verdurin, the Baron thinking that Cottard is on to him, the hilarious non sequitirs and confusions). But yes, TGW and S and G are slow going.

  9. I am awestruck by your dedication. Even my mother (who teaches French literature in college) never managed to read more than Swann’s Way and bits and pieces here and there, which is what I had decided I’d do. Now you have set the new standard, I’ll at least resume my one-page-of-proust-a-day rhythm. That will keep me going for about ten years.

  10. Danielle — it took a little over a year; I started early in July 2006 and read about 50 pages a week, up until the end when I read a bit faster. It is definitely worth reading if you’re interested; it’s also worth reading in smaller chunks, I think.

    Cliff — you make me laugh; I’d love a badge! I could put a picture of it in my sidebar …

    Imani — yes, he does make you realize what it is you read for, doesn’t he?

    Melanie — I loved the way the end connected back to the beginning too! It gives the rather unwieldy book shape and is very satisfying.

    Book Lover — well, it is rather daunting, isn’t it? I wouldn’t have done it without the Involuntary Memory group blog — I have Stefanie to thank!

    Orpheus — you’ll get there! And then you’ll get a badge too :)

    Sarah — your reading method is interesting because mine seems to have been the opposite; I could do it in small chunks — trying to read for a long period of time would have worn me down I think. But whatever works, right?

    Michael — the second time?? Wow. I have thoughts sometimes about reading it again … we’ll see. Thanks for stopping by!

    Mandarine — 1 page a day would work! I do like the idea of having Proust as a companion for 10 years — you would have absorbed so much of his writing and his way of thinking, I’m sure.

  11. Hats off to you Dorothy for finishing in such a timely manner! I am still far from being done. If you are missing reading Proust though, you could always just pick up book one and start all over again ;)

  12. Dorothy, I am just so, so impressed to think you have read all of it. That’s amazing! And I think you sum it up perfectly here. I couldn’t agree more with you about those sentences – they are lush and replete aren’t they? And just beautiful.

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