Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 4, 2010

Recapturing Time

Continuing my series of comments on reading all of Proust’s A la recherche de temps perdu.
I’m not writing a scholarly article. My intention is to share with you my experience of reading the entire 7 volumes: my impressions, positive and negative. I assume that any avid reader of fiction is curious about this massive opus; I certainly always wondered what it would be like to read beyond the first volume, Swann’s Way. Now, as I approach the end of my year-long reading of the entire work, think of me as sending a few postcards from near the end of this journey to help you decide for yourself if you want to travel there. To see other entries in the series, pop open the “Categories” list in the right column of the page and select the category.

One of the things potential readers of ALRDTP generally are curious about is how much time elapses during the seven volumes. The short answer is: most of the narrator’s life. The book is narrated in the first person by an unnamed individual looking back over his life. The work actually covers more time than that, as you’ll see.

The title of the work itself includes the word “time.” That title, “In Search of Lost Time” signals, first, that Proust’s narrator is relating his life from his present perspective: describing how he and the world have changed over the course of his life. Proust, though, is after something more, something more deeply significant. His object is to explore not only how one can recall the past through recollection (most novels, after all, are a retelling of some character’s past), but how one might be able to recreate the past, to experience it again, fully, with all the emotions and immediacy that one would feel if once again immersed in those days. He is, as the title tells us, “in search of lost time,” both in the sense of remembering it as well as literally reclaiming it, attempting to live in “lost time” once more.

The narrator starts in a traditional way. The first sentence of the book begins a recollection of scenes from his childhood. But Proust does not have the narrator proceed from there to relate his life chronologically throughout the novel, although there is a general progression from childhood to manhood to maturity. The novel’s structure is more complex. Beginning with his account of his childhood, our narrator introduces, one after another, a large cast of characters. (See my comments about his characters HERE.) Many of them will remain part of the action for thousands of pages and dozens of years. When it suits Proust’s purpose the narrator will look back further in time to give us some of their history. At other times he will leap ahead in a form of extended foreshadowing to refer to events that will happen years later. Successfully carrying off this complex interlocking of characters, times and settings is one of the accomplishments that marks Proust as one of the great writers. (Let me mention that Proust, a careless editor of his own work, sometimes failed, occasionally losing track amidst his mammoth opus, putting characters into scenes after they were already dead, or telling us that we were going to learn something more about a certain character later but forgetting to tell us about it. Perhaps he died before he got to writing those events.)

I’ll give just a couple of examples of how this shifting of temporal perspective works. The novel has scores or hundreds of instances.
While telling the story of his childhood, about fifty pages into the book, the narrator jumps ahead to a time ten or twelve years later than where he started the narrative. He then describes the book’s most famous scene, the madeleine, when the narrator was perhaps in his early 20s (no scholar has been able to pin down a precise chronology of this massive work: Proust is elusive about years and ages). At this point, we have a man in his 50s recalling his early childhood, but stepping aside from strict chronology, giving us a quick flash-forward. The 20-something narrator visits his mother, who offers him a cup of tea and a petite madeleine. He dips a piece of madeleine into his tea. That single taste causes him to have an almost preternaturally vivid recollection of his early childhood, when his grandmother would give him the same bite of a madeleine soaked in tea. It virtually transports him and recalls to mind not only the scene of childhood, but the emotions, thoughts and experience of being a child again. This event is central to Proust’s intent. In seeking to repeat this literal recapturing of a lost time, the narrator recounts as much as he can remember about his life: events, emotions, people, places, in search of other clues that will provide that same cathartic link to recreating his past.
In a more complex set of temporal relationships, the narrator spends much of the novel’s first volume, Swann’s Way, in telling the history of Charles Swann and his love affair with Odette de Crecy. Interesting in itself, the story is only a groundwork for much of what happens in the ensuing six volumes (which is one good reason to keep reading after you’ve read the first volume). The aristocratic, sophisticated socialite Swann risks social censure from his well-connected circle by courting the less-than-respectable Odette. The ins and outs, ups and downs of their relationship serve as a kind of mirror in which the narrator sees other relationships — including his own with his own lovers — throughout his life. The most obvious parallel is the narrator’s first love interest, Albertine, Swann and Odette’s daughter. As we witness his romance with Albertine and countless other events of the narrator’s life, there are constant touch-points with the life of Swann, who becomes a kind of ghostly avatar from the past, hovering over the narrator’s present. Other sub-plots involving the narrator’s friends and acquaintances are also meant to be viewed in light of Swann’s experience. This awareness of the past always lying just beneath the surface of the present is part of the delightful richness of Proust’s writing.

In every scene of the novel, which encompasses hundreds of scenes, we do not get a just straightforward description of the action. We get detailed, sometimes painfully detailed descriptions of what the narrator is thinking and feeling about what’s happening, about what’s being said, and about his reactions to other people in the same room. Often we get the same sort of in-depth psychological examination of other characters in the scene (though how a first-person narrator knows this information is never clear). Therefore, it typically requires about 100 pages for him to relate each dinner party or soiree with a dozen or more people present, all of whom are well-established characters in their own right. There’s a lot to put on the page for Proust to accomplish his purpose. In a single dinner party, we not only have the conversation between the narrator and Bergotte, the famous writer, but long asides about Bergotte’s career, Bergotte’s own evaluation of how his work is valued by the characters present at the party, and representations of the multiple opinions of how several characters present view Bergotte and his work.

The reason Proust needed so many, so very many words to tell a life story, something other authors accomplish in a few hundred pages, is that relating what happens in one person’s life is not the point of the novel. Instead, after providing thousands of pages rife with detail of events and what the narrator and others are thinking, feeling and experiencing while the events unfold, Proust wants us, as we come to the end of this vast narrative, to be able to accompany the older narrator as he attempts to reconstruct the past in its entirety and reincarnate a younger version of himself.

Does he succeed? Does he, in the end, recapture time? I’ll get to that as we finish the book.

Is it worth the effort? For me, yes. But there is a lot of talking, a lot of interior monologue, a lot of introspection and internalized observation. That leaves the question, well, does anything really HAPPEN in this story, or do we just have 3,000 pages of description of pointless dinner parties and musical evenings? That question will lead us to the next installment in a couple of weeks: PLOT — or lack thereof. Does anything really HAPPEN?
© 2013 Brad Nixon

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