(Re-)Reading Proust: Memory and Exile

Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure.

Thus begins Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, a seven-volume novel about time, memory, perception, love, and disappointment. Translated as both Remembrance of Things Past and In Search of Lost Time – the latter being a more literal rendition of the title – Proust’s fictional cycle is often cited as being the longest novel ever written.[1] This seven-volume work[2] requires that readers make a long-term commitment to the story and its characters. Most people probably don’t get past the first volume, and perhaps a handful read it all the way through. For many, this book – or these books – lies perched on a shelf along with many other long books that one simply never has enough time to read, taunting the reader to take up the Proustian challenge.[3]

I’ve read La recherche three times: the first, in the early 1980s, in an English translation. When I moved to France in 1984 – initially to spend a year, but eventually staying in the country nearly three decades – I was optimistic. The very first book I bought was the compact, three-volume, leather-bound, bible-paper Pléiade edition of the novel. I paid 660 FF for it, at the Paris bookstore La Hune; that was about $66 at the incredibly beneficial exchange rate that I took advantage of that first year.[4]


Since then, I have read the novel twice in French. (I also “read” it once in French by listening to an audio recording of it.[5]) I didn’t read La recherche right away after I bought that leather-bound edition; Proust used a prodigious vocabulary in his work, more than 18,000 different words[6], and it took me several years to amass enough familiarity with the language to tackle it. But I did read it a few years later, taking the books with me when commuting on the Paris metro, busses, and suburban trains.

I don’t re-read many books, but La recherche is one that I try to rediscover every decade or so. I would put it alongside such books as Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, Updike’s Rabbit series, Ross Lockgidge Jr.’s Raintree Country, or Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. These great works have influenced my life, and I’ve returned to them as I age, seeking out new ways of understanding them. In a book as long and dense as La recherche, each re-reading peels off new layers of appreciation of the complex characters, and the long story Proust tells becomes clearer and more relatable. You can recall many of the milestones in the story, making it easier to follow. As you go through life, you live many of the experiences that Proust recounts in his novel, and each time you read about them, you can compare your life to his semi-fictional explorations.

When I read that opening sentence, I know that it is the first step on a long journey, one that may take a year or more.[7] But that sentence is also the promise of a return to a familiar world peopled with a large cast of characters, one that has become a part of me over the years. A friend told me, after he finished reading La recherche the first time, that when he got to the end it was as if he had lost a number of very close friends. You become so familiar with these characters, their actions, and their foibles, that they become part of your life. Great fiction can do this: you may not agree with the characters, you may not want to be like them, but when you stop reading about the greatest ones, such as Ahab, Leopold Bloom, or Harry Angstrom, there is a sense of regret, of loss.

I used to go to bed early.

Proust’s novel begins with a tale of the author – or the "narrator”[8] – relating his life as an anxious child waiting for his mother to come to his room and kiss him goodnight. And for some 3,000 pages, it unfolds this person’s life as he discovers the world, measuring it against his desires and expectations. The narrator wants to be part of aristocratic society in France, and, when he succeeds, he realizes that it wasn’t all he had expected, that the aristocracy is peopled with men and women no better than any others. In the end, he decides to write about his experiences, and the book ends with a circularity that harkens back to that first sentence.


Proust’s novel is considered to be a difficult read. In part, this is because of its length, but also because of the length and complexity of the author’s sentences. Many of his sentences are long: 50 words, 100 words, even longer. (They average just over 30 words long.) One is even 823 words long.[9]

But the most famous sentence is the first one, only eight simple words: "Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure." In a way, this is the French equivalent of "Call me Ishmael," a sentence so famous that even people who haven’t read the book have heard of its first line. Like much of Proust’s writing, it contains multitudes. Translating it into English is not simple, and the difficulty of translating this sentence can be applied to much of the rest of the novel. Proust cunningly opens the first book with a word that contains the word "time" (longtemps = a long time), which he also uses as the final word of the novel (le temps). But “longtemps” is a vague word, at least when you try to render it in English.

There are several ways one could translate this first sentence; here are a few examples:

I used to go to bed early.

For a long time I would go to bed early.

For a long time, I went to bed early.

Time was, I went to bed early.

One could choose any of these, except, perhaps, the last one, which clunkily tries to reproduce Proust’s use of the word "time" at the beginning and the end of the novel. This is just one example of the many subtleties in Proust’s writing, a great deal of which don’t make it through the filter of translation.

Proust’s language isn’t as difficult as it may seem. I realized this a few years ago when I listened to an audio recording of the complete La recherche. What I understood then was that Proust’s language is not a complex type of written language, but is rather much closer to spoken French. When one speaks, digressions are common, and Proust digresses a great deal in his sentences, making them hard to hold on to. Once you let yourself appreciate the rhythms of the sentences, once you read them and hear them as though they are being spoken, you find the key to appreciating his style.

I guess I’m part of an elite, that literary 1% who have read La recherche. But I’m also part of an even smaller group, those who have read Proust in French as well as English. People see reading Proust as a sort of Everest of literature. Is it really that hard to read? The language isn’t as daunting is it can seem when you merely measure Proust’s sentences. But the themes, the exotic characters – especially to those who aren’t French – make La recherche seem like some insurmountable literary challenge.

The madeleine

Proust’s story is full of delightful events, some of which have become emblematic. The best known is certainly the "madeleine" episode, where the narrator dips a madeleine – a small cake whose fluted back looks like a seashell – into a cup of tea. The tastes set off what he calls involuntary memories of his childhood in Combray[10], the town where he would often visit his grandmother.

"… I brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had let a bit of a madeleine soften. The moment the sip of tea mixed with bits of the cake touched my palette, I shuddered, aware of the extraordinary event that was occurring. An exquisite pleasure invaded me, naked, yet I had no understanding of its cause. It suddenly made life’s vicissitudes unimportant, its disasters inoffensive, its impermanence illusory, just as the feeling of love filled me with a precious essence: or, rather, that essence was not within me, it was me. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I hold onto it?"

Proust had an epiphany by drinking the tea with the madeleine. It awakened memories of the time when he had imbibed the same tastes as a child. This happens to many of us, if we eat a food that we used to eat as a child but haven’t eaten in a very long time, or if we here a song we haven’t heard in years that we used to listen to. There are other such epiphanies in the book, such as when the narrator sees a line of three trees, or when he slips on some paving stones outside the Geurmantes’ house. La recherche is full of memories, and memory, as an element of our apprehension of time, is part of the theme of the novel.

Throughout La recherche Proust also explores feelings of desire, expectation, and disappointment. He compares what he expects with what he experiences. And he looks at how art represents the world, examining three artists: a writer, Bergotte, a painter, Elstir, and a composer, Vinteuil. Through these three aesthetic creators, Proust looks at how the mind perceives the world.


Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure.

That sentence, for me, elicits its own kind of involuntary memory: that of voluntary exile. Proust is one of those authors who impelled me to learn French, which, in turn, led me to move to France. The French language, and, in particular Proust, are a sort of literary Ellis Island that opened the doors to a new country, and that affected my life in ways that I could not have imagined the first time I read that sentence in English. Re-reading Proust now awakens in me memories of displacement, of sloughing off the old, which had become too constricting, too conforming and starting a new life in a new land. Of shedding the suit and tie uniform of the corporate job for the backpack and sneakers of the wanderer, the traveller. The emigrant.

Now that I’ve moved on – I no longer live in France – that sentence holds a very different promise: that of a literary journey, one that may recall memories of living in France, but that will always be foreign. No longer am I an inhabitant of that country whose words attracted me, no longer can I claim a connection with that culture, except through my past.

I recall carrying a volume of the Pléiade edition with me to read on my commute when working as a teacher of English as a foreign language at a catering school in Paris. The principal of the school, seeing me always carrying that volume around (I didn’t carry a briefcase or knapsack at the time), asked one day at lunch if it was a bible. I could have responded that it was a bible of literature, but I didn’t; I simply said that it was a volume of Proust. I was met with a taciturn nod, which admitted neither an understanding of what was in the book’s pages, nor an ignorance of its contents. That nod may have contained a subtle gesture of shared understanding, like a wink between two people who have something in common. The name was certainly familiar to any educated French person, especially one with a responsibility for educating the country’s youth, but were the characters and plot something that woman had encountered in her life?

Buying that three-volume edition in 1984 was, in many ways, a challenge to myself that I would be able to read that book in French one day. When I was able to do so, it no longer seemed like a hurdle, and I felt that I fit in – more or less – in France. Yet I still stood out, as that principal’s nod suggested, as someone who read books that even the French didn’t peruse.[11] My attempt at integration had failed, rendering me as different from the French as I was when I arrived in the country.

Why read Proust?

With smartphones, smartwatches, Spotify, and Netflix drawing our attention away from longer, deeper cultural immersions, reading Proust can be seen almost as a radical action, a call to arms. It is an anachronistic approach to read a story that takes so long to complete. La recherche is the anti-Twitter, the anti-Facebook, it is the opposite of endlessly browsing Netflix, trying to find that elusive ideal movie to watch on a Friday evening.

Yet as we go further toward attention fragmentation, long, complex stories do attract the attention of millions of people. This can be seen in the success of “serial” TV dramas, such as The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. Granted, the themes are not the same – The Wire and Breaking Bad deal with crime, in very different ways – but La recherche is full of immoral, even amoral people, and notably deals with fringe sexualities throughout its stories. The characters are manipulative and conniving, and the novel is intensely realist. Is it really that different from watching Omar Little or Walter White?

In some ways, reading Proust is an act of rebellion against the new technologies that whittle away at our attention spans. La recherche is a long novel. It requires a huge commitment of time and mental energy. But we binge-watch TV series; why not binge-read a very long novel?

Like any work of literature, you read Proust because you want to hold up a mirror to your life. You want to examine how people live their lives in order to vicariously share their experiences, and to compare how you would act in similar situations. La recherche is not an easy read, and its themes and style are not for everyone. But you may find, if you embark on this journey, that you have entered a world that is so compelling that you want to explore it fully. La recherche contains multitudes, just like real life.

  1. When people talk about the length of novels, they generally cite a number of pages, but that definition depends, of course, on page size and font size, so it isn’t a useful measurement. When you count the number of words, Proust’s La recherche comes in at more than 1,200,000. According to Wikipedia, it’s actually the second-longest novel. The one that comes in first place is called a "novel sequence," and not a single work.  ↩
  2. Originally published in seven volumes in French, it is available now in a variety of editions of one, three, or four volumes in French, and generally in seven volumes in English.  ↩
  3. In a previous article, I include a number of links to editions of Proust’s work, as well as books about La recherche that readers can use to help guide them through this literary journey.  ↩
  4. It’s worth noting that in 1984 I could also buy two bottles of fine Bordeaux wine, such as Château Rothschild or Château Lafitte, for that amount of money. But that’s another story…  ↩
  5. I wrote about this audio recording here.  ↩
  6. I recall chancing upon a book at a French library which examined the vocabulary of La recherche, and which said that the novel contained 18,322 different words. When writing this article, I wanted to confirm that number, and was quite chuffed to find that I had remember the it correctly: Sur le Vocabulaire dans La Recherche  ↩
  7. If I read nothing but La recherche, I could finish the work in a few months; the audiobook version is about 128 hours long, so two hours a day for three months would be enough. But when re-reading it, I allow myself to read each volume with a break between them, not wanting to hurry the experience.  ↩
  8. Is the narrator Marcel Proust himself? It clearly is, even though Proust does not explicitly name him. There are two instances where he is called Marcel, though, in the novel.  ↩
  9. I resist the temptation to include the entire sentence, but here is the beginning of it: "Sans honneur que précaire, sans liberté que provisoire, jusqu’à la découverte du crime ; sans situation qu’instable, comme pour le poète la veille fêté dans tous les salons, applaudi dans tous les théâtres de Londres, chassé le lendemain de tous les garnis sans pouvoir trouver un oreiller où reposer sa tête…" See the full sentence here.  ↩
  10. Combray was based on a town called Illiers, southwest of Paris. The town changed its name to Illiers-Combray in 1971. Yes, I’ve visited it.  ↩
  11. For about three years, from 1990 to the end of 1992, I worked in a French bookstore in Laval, a sleepy town surrounded by verdant fields, on the border between Normandy and Brittany. We sold everything from best-sellers to literary fiction, and sold the Pléiade collection. In those three years, we probably sold two copies of one of the Pléiade volumes of Proust.  ↩