Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 17, 2010

Opening Proust

During the time I’ve kept this blog, I’ve been making occasional posts about my reading of the entirety of Proust’s A la recherche de temps perdu. You can see those by clicking on the corresponding Category over in the right-hand column. I still have some observations to make on the work as a whole, as well as one I want to write about Proust as one of the great constructors of sentences in any language. However, one of my faithful readers contacted me this week to say he now had the first volume of “Search” from the library, and asked for some tips on launching into it. Here’s what I wrote to him.

You are about to begin making your own judgment as to whether or not this is a great novel, an okay novel, or one of the world’s bigger mysteries regarding celebrity and fame, like most of television. You already know that I hold it in high regard, but it clearly isn’t for everyone. It’s important to know that M. Proust’s book is slow going. I’d probably have finished the seven volumes in about 8 months if I’d kept at it steadily, but I am just about the fastest reader I know. One does not read this book quickly. There are, I would say, two primary reasons that it’s slow going. The first is the sentences. They’re gigantic sentences, and they can go on for a long time. A lot of times you have to stop and read a sentence a second time to really grasp what he’s saying. Not many writers can accomplish what Proust did in composing those sentences, and they’re one of the reasons that I kept going, because he’s just such a masterful writer. But don’t be discouraged if you find yourself getting lost in them – I think everyone has that experience. Try to enjoy the fact that you have to read a sentence a second time, just appreciating what a complex writer the guy is.

The other reason the reading goes slow is that there’s just not a lot of slam-bam action. Proust is writing a story about his main character, but his goal is to get us to the point, seven books later, that the character has grown up and has a revelation about how human memory works and how he figures out how to recapture his memories and then use them in being a writer. It was a radical approach back when Proust started writing it about 1909. And that’s the point of the title of the whole collection of 7 books, which is accurately translated “In Search of Lost Time.”  The narrator is searching for “lost time,” memory, and the books are about his process of doing so. A lot of things happen, but they take place in his boyhood home or at parties and dances and “salons” of aristocratic people, artists, musicians, scholars, etc. who he closely observes.

The most important person from this circle he meets early in life is Charles Swann, who’s a well-educated suave aristocrat who is a friend of the narrator’s family, and older than the narrator. Swann falls in love with a woman named Odette de Crecy, and his affair with her, and then his marriage to Odette make him something of an outcast. In telling Swann’s story, the narrator is actually giving us a kind of flashback that happens before the rest of the books. Swann and Odette are also important because the narrator later falls in love with their daughter, Gilberte.

The reason Proust spends so much time telling Swann’s story in this book is that it sets up themes that he’ll use later in telling the narrator’s own story. Swann is also similar to the narrator, because although he is supposedly writing a through study of a classic painter (darned if I can remember who right now), he never seems to make any progress on it. The narrator is the same way, saying all the time he’s growing up that he’s going to write, he never seems to get much writing done.

The title of this first volume, Swann’s Way, makes more sense if it’s translated “The Way Past Swann’s.” The narrator’s family spends its summers in a little village called Combray, which is outside Paris (the real Proust’s family summer place was similar, just outside Paris and, in fact, today it’s pretty much been swallowed by the city, so it’s not far outside the city). That’s where the books starts, with the narrator as a boy staying at his grandmother’s house in Combray. The narrator is probably describing a time that takes place around 1883 so there’s not a lot of entertainment other than visiting other people and taking walks. There are two walks that the narrator’s family takes. One of them is “the way past Swann’s.” Swann has a country place, and so that’s the source of that name. The other walk is the Guermantes Way, which goes in the direction of the estate of an aristocratic family named Guermantes (they never actually reach the Guermantes estate – it’s too far for an easy walk, but that’s the general direction). (Multiple characters from the Guermantes family show up as the books go on).

By the way, the question of exactly what year any of the action in the books is taking place is a mystery. Scholars have studied the books trying to figure out what year it is when particular things happen, and Proust never gives any good clues, and was actually a fairly careless writer about the time sequence. The “flashback” to telling Swann’s story is describing a time maybe around 1877, which, in the novel, is about the time the narrator would have been born.

There are great characters in this book. I wrote one of the blogs about characters. They’re very impressive creations.

In all honesty, the second volume (Commonly translated as “Within a Budding Grove,” but more accurately as “In the Shade of the Young Girls in Flower”)  picks up considerably, and is one of my favorites. The narrator goes to spend part of the summer on the coast of Normandy, and gets infatuated with a group of young girls, one of whom, Albertine, plays a big role in several of the books later on. If I re-read any of the books, I think that’s the one I’ll re-read.

Have fun! Let me know what you think.


  1. In order to really really judge a novel one should read it and unfortunately I haven’t been able as of yet. I will though… sometime. I will let you know when I read it. It is, though, completely you’re credit that aroused my interest in Proust. So at least you’re telling of it is excellent.


  2. Hopefully the faithful reader is of an age to understand, has the patience and breaths remaining to finish the seven volumes.


  3. I’m stuck after the second volume of the Modern Library edition. Need to start again soon before I lose the trail.


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