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Recently read: Remembrance of Things Past

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on December 31, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Marcel Proust. Remembrance of Things Past

Proust’s project in Remembrance of Things Past (also known, more recently and accurately, as In Search of Lost Time) is, as he puts it in the last sentence of the work, to attempt “to describe men first and foremost as occupying a place, a very considerable place compared with the restricted one which is allotted to them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure—for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch epochs that are immensely far apart, separated by the slow accretion of many, many days—in the dimension of Time.” One and the same person can, at different points in his or her life, occupy different social circles, ranks, families, ways of life, and so on. The project of exploring these differences requires Proust to painstakingly recreate the social worlds of his childhood, of a period before his birth, as well as the social world that coincided with his young adulthood and then his middle age, and to follow a number of characters through those periods.

Proust pursues this all in an astonishingly long-winded way—3294 pages in my edition. One of Proust’s several rejection letters read famously, “I may be dead from the neck up, but I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.” I believe the reviewer was referring to the Overture which opens Swann’s Way, the first novel in the series. If so, it’s actually more like fifty pages. There are a number of dinner parties in the book. The shortest is about the length of a decent sized novella. The longest of these dinner parties seemed to me to last well over 200 pages: almost every word, every glance, from every participant recounted, meditated upon, digressed from. Long twisting sentences, paragraphs that stretch three pages, an epiphany that stretches over the last 200 or so pages—Proust can go on and on.

So, if you haven’t tried it, is worth it? It’s hard to say. 3294 pages is about 100 hours of reading, give or take a few dozen hours. You could read a lot of awesome books in 100 hours. I had to repeatedly resist the temptation to pick up something else just to take a break, since I knew that if I lost my momentum, I would probably not finish (as happened to me about ten years earlier when I only got a few hundred pages in). Don’t be mad at me if you waste a bunch of time trying to like the book. For what it’s worth, though, I found ROTP one of the most remarkable books I have ever read in my life. And for all the frustration I felt with it (on which more below), when I turned the last page I had already decided that I would read it again, and possibly again after that.

In part what is so amazing about ROTP is that Proust is able to capture in the most minute detail what it is like to be a conscious human being. The momentary, fragmentary thoughts that flit in and out of our consciousness a hundred times in an hour while we’re occupied with other things, or simply lying in bed letting our minds wander, and that are forgotten almost as soon as they’ve passed—Proust is able to slow time down in his narrative, to capture these thoughts, and to set them out carefully for our inspection, connecting them with other thoughts and connecting, and connecting, until we start to sense the outlines of a vast set of interconnected associations standing behind consciousness and shaping it in more or less subtle ways. I’ve simply never come across anything like this before—not like this, not with such care, and fidelity and assurance.

Because ROTP is about time in the way I described above, the subject of Proust’s reflections is usually only obliquely time. As he traces different lives, especially his own, through different periods, to which are attached very different social stations, sensibilities, and preferences, the narrator has a great deal of time to reflect on the preoccupations of those lives. Since Marcel, the narrator, is given to obsessive jealousy, this preoccupation becomes one of the great secondary themes of the novel. I would guess that somewhere around a third of ROTP is taken up with this theme, also counting the obsessive jealousy of Charles Swann concerning his lover Odette, which prefigures in significant ways the narrator’s own jealousy concerning his lover Albertine.

Personally, I find obsessive jealousy a pretty boring theme. I’m not an especially jealous person. I never really understood Othello either. Worse even than boredom with this theme is the fact that Marcel seems incapable of genuinely loving (at least as I can recognize it) the object of his obsessive jealousy, who, when she isn’t the occasion for spasms of jealousy, actually bores the crap out of him. And no wonder. For all his incredible powers of perception into his own mental states, and for all the acuity that allows him to see through Albertine’s dishonesty, Marcel seems deeply uninterested in her as a human being, in really attempting to see the world through her eyes.

So, this is a pretty serious problem for the novel as a whole: Marcel is a cold fish with a boring preoccupation and a tendency to go on about it at great length. And that coldness extends through the entire novel. There are very few moments of genuine human warmth in those three thousand odd pages. Nor do I think this is a case in which Marcel Proust, the writer, is wiser than his narrator, Marcel, or his own novel. There seems to be something deeply stunted in the novel’s view of the capacities of human beings for genuine love, friendship and affection.

So it was tough going at some points. But I found in the end that what is remarkable and, as far as I can tell, utterly unique, in ROTP outweighed what was frustrating, repellent, or boring in it. So, as long as it was, I hope at some point in the future to spend a few hundred more hours in Proust’s company.


Author: DC
Date: 2010-01-04

There’s something quite amusing about referring to Remembrance of Things Past as ROTP.

As with a lot of great French works, I fear that my French is good enough to read it but not good enough to really enjoy or truly appreciate it (or not to end up wondering whether I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read the translation). Also, my pride is great enough that I would be reluctant to read the English version.

Author: Chris
Date: 2010-01-04

Ha! I wish I didn’t know how you felt. I hate it when pride does that. Luckily for me, I really, really had no option of reading it in French. The other day, I thought it might be fun to take a crack at a bit of Montaigne, and I gave up after 10 minutes. I think I’ll have to start my French up again with something very basic when I have a lot more time free.

Author: DC
Date: 2010-01-07

Modern and non-fiction are the two recommendations I would make - Montaigne is too ancien, fiction has too big a vocabulary. Although Camus is pretty easy. “Existentialism and Humanism” by Sartre is very short and something I remember being able to read in French and understand philosophically quite easily. Extremely short too. Paul Lafargue’s booklet “Le droit a la paresse” is enjoyable and available on the Marxist Internet Archive.

That’s a pretty random list of recommendations derived from the all-too-brief mental file entitled “books I have genuinely enjoyed reading in French”. But anything non-fiction is usually pretty easy, I find, so long as it’s not too antiquated.

Author: Anne
Date: 2010-01-07

I like this review a lot, Chris.

Also, try something like Murder on the Orient Express to pick up your French. That’s what S did when he had to get working French for his exams.

Author: Chris
Date: 2010-01-07

You’re so right about fiction and vocabulary, DC. I like to tell people that Aristotle’s Metaphysics is way easier Greek (once you get used to it) than Aesop’s Fables.

Although I’ve changed careers, I still put in an hour or two a week reading Greek for fun. My current project is working (very, very slowly) through the Odyssey. The vocabulary is still slowing me down quite a bit. It’s wonderful when I breeze through an entire sentence without having to look up any words, though. A recent triumph was the sentence: “For I am ashamed to be naked in the presence of fair-tressed maidens.”

Thanks, Anne. I felt embarrassed to be saying so little about such a big book, so it’s nice that you liked the post.

Author: Nick
Date: 2010-03-05

Congratulations, you may now stand shoulder to shoulder with Lucien Bouchard.

Author: Chris
Date: 2010-03-05

He’s read it at least twice, though, hasn’t he?