After about twenty years of saying I was going to read it, I have. If you’ve been following me for a long time, you’ve also been following my progress through Marcel Proust’s A la recherché de temps perdu. (If you’re new to Under Western Skies and you want to catch up, click on “A la recherche de temps perdu” in the “Categories” widget in the right column). So, class, I’ve finished my assignment, and I’m ready to give my Book Report.
All the books say to open your presentation with a joke. Here’s mine.
So, Marcel Proust walks into a bar and takes a stool. Some guy over in the corner recognizes him from the old days back in Combray and says, “Hey, Marcel, what’s happening?”
Bartender slaps his head and says, “Sacre bleu! Now we’ll be here all night!”
Yes, M. Proust wrote a long book. That’s one reason that it’s so well-known: notorious, even. But it’s still in print not just because it fills a lot of otherwise empty shelf space. It’s a great book, and now I can say that from personal experience, rather than based on the authority of certain ivy-covered professors, (as Tom Lehrer said). It is also a difficult book. Part of what makes it difficult is that Proust invests hundreds and hundreds of pages describing in great detail the lives of characters who seem merely peripheral to the life of the novel’s narrator/protagonist. Most of these characters are from the aristocracy or are aspiring to enter the aristocracy, a pursuit which doesn’t seem all that noble or worthwhile or even interesting to us here in the 21st Century. Much of this “action” that our narrator describes in almost maniacal detail is not dramatic or exciting in any overt way, nor are these numerous characters particularly admirable. Why, then, did he do it, and where does it get him (and us)?
Well, there once was a writer named James Michener. Michener developed a distinctive manner of beginning all of his books. He went back to the very beginning. If he was writing about the American West, he described how dinosaurs originally roamed the tropical swamps that covered that part of the planet. When he wrote about Hawaii, he described the eons during the formation of the earth as tectonic plates were sliding around, leaving cracks through which volcanoes erupted and formed islands in the primordial seas. Michener built his geological/paleontological stages for the human drama he was going to set upon them, convinced that human life is influenced by place.
Proust had a daring idea. His goal in writing the book – aside from the mere storytelling aspect, which, in his book, is vast in scope – was to have a writer — our narrator/protagonist — describe all the details of an entire life that, considered together, explain how he came to be a writer, and how all the scores of people and scenes and events shape the very work he is going to create.
Therefore, with sometimes excruciating thoroughness, we follow not only the forty or so years of the narrator’s life, but also the lives of other characters, some from the generation before him. Proust’s objective only becomes clear in the final hundred pages or so, placing him in the Hall of Fame of writers of cliffhangers. There, as our narrator is poised on the edge of being an “older” man (probably 50 or so), he returns to Paris after WWI, and meets again many of the members of the society in which he’s moved for decades. But everything is changed. The war, of course, wrought incredible desctruction on France, including the lives of some of the characters we met. The people he knew are older, or deceased. The members of the haute monde themselves are new, different people, which is a shocking revelation to him, since he accepted as a kind of faith that the world of the privileged was a closed and exclusive one. Everything has changed.
On that same evening of this return, he has in quick succession a series of experiences similar to the famous scene of the madeleine dipped in tea that provided the first of the brilliant recollections from his past life in the very first volume of the novel. Those moments pay off the entire game: he grasps how he is going to realize his lifelong ambition of being a writer. He understands that all the people he’s met and their interrelationships, all the places he has visited, and — most importantly — the changes that time has worked on everything IS his subject. His book, he suddenly realizes, will attempt to capture the impossibly complex ways in which the myriad conditions of a life, which seem static and fixed at any one moment, are actually an unceasing flow; every experience we have revises our understanding of what has come before and further alters us. His task as a writer, he decides, will not be to merely describe events and people and places, but to provide such a complete understanding of one moment or one character or one location that when time has passed and he encounters that same person or place later, that we will understand how time in its infinite complexity and brutal inevitability changes it all. Most importantly, we will understand what it means to write, and why one would do it.
His momentary epiphanies brought on by the taste of the madeleine, the sound of water in a pipe, the sound of steel clanking recall tiny slices of similar experiences in his past. He resolves to recall his entire life so clearly that he can convey to a reader the power that such insignificant things can have in not only recalling something from the past, but elucidating how different now is from then. He must, he realizes, recapture time, in order to put into his book the knowledge he’s gained about this multi-dimensional interrelationship between past and present.
In other words, it’s a trick. Proust’s narrator has spent 3,000 pages telling us an astoundingly complex story, the whole point of which was to get us into that room in the Guermantes’ palatial Paris home with all the information we need to understand how it is he resolves to write the book we’ve just read. That is why, despite the fact that we like some characters and detest others and care not one way or another for many, and don’t always find our narrator himself all that sympathetic a character, that his story matters. It is not really about those people or places or the events of their lives. It’s what makes the book one of the first great modern novels: it’s about the novel itself, and about — really — every writer’s search to accomplish the impossible: to recapture lost time.
It’s a staggering achievement. Proust spent perhaps a dozen years on the book, writing much of it out himself in longhand, dictating some of it, mostly (unfortunately) without editorial help. How he kept it straight in his head and how he was able to juggle the vast scope of the story with his conclusion in mind is hard to imagine. When the conclusion comes, and we sit there with the narrator, his vision finally clear both to us and to himself, it’s a great moment.
It was worth it.