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.)
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.