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. This seven-volume work 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.
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.
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.) 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, 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. 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.
As regular readers of Kirkville probably know, I’m a fan of Marcel Proust. I recently started re-reading A la recherche du temps perdu, but was sidetracked by moving house. Some time ago, I listened to the entire work, on a French audio recording. But not all Proustians are French speakers. Proust actually has quite a following in the US and England, and his popularity is such that Naxos Audiobooks has recently released the first part of a complete, unabridged recording of Remembrance of Things Past (also know as In Search of Lost Time).
The narrator, Neville Jason, has one of those smooth, soft English accents that lulls and entrances you. His reading is leisurely and relaxed. He takes his time, allowing you to absorb the work comfortably, without speaking too slowly, as is sometimes the case on older audiobook readings. Jason’s reading is a performance, but it also sounds like he’s sitting by your side, reading from the book, like a friend. In addition, his French accent is quite good, and when he speaks the names of French people or towns, it sounds as it should.
Swann’s Way is more than 21 hours long, and is only the first of seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Naxos will be releasing each volume individually, and will most likely offer a box set with the entire text – which will be more than 120 hours – when all the titles have been released.
If you want to listen to Proust, and don’t speak French, Neville Jason’s recordings are excellent. For now, this is the only complete recording in the works. Simon Vance, who is also another wonderful narrator, has recorded Swann’s Way, but it doesn’t look like this will be a complete recording of all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, as this recording was released in September, 2010, and no follow-up has yet been released.
In 1981, when a revised English translation of Remembrance of Things Past was published in hardcover in the United States, I bought a massive, three-volume set of what was said to be the greatest novel ever written. (And also the longest.) A friend of mine had been reading it in an older edition around that time, and I was tempted to discover this work that so enthralled him. I remember lugging the huge, black-bound volumes, each of more than 1,000 pages, with me to and from work, and reading on the subway and bus. I had a long subway ride – from 179th St. in Queens to midtown Manhattan – and to come home I would sometimes take an express bus, which took a bit longer, but at least let me read by daylight. It took a very long time to read the entire work – I don’t remember exactly how long – but since the work’s theme is time, this was fitting.
Reading Proust got me interested in French culture. I had already read a number of French authors, such as Camus and Sartre, and Beckett (if you count him as French), and I decided that I wanted to learn French to read them in the original. (I had studied French in high school, so I had some background.) Proust’s writing is more complex than that of many other French authors, so while, at the time, I thought I wanted learn French to read Proust in the original, I never thought that would actually come true. I took some French lessons, then, a few years later, saved up enough money to move to France for a year, and ended up staying.
I came to France in the fall of 1984, where I had rented a house for a year, in the southwest of the country, with the same friend who had introduced me to Proust, and with two others would would come and go during the year. Stopping by Paris first, I visited some bookstores, and my first purchase was the three-volume Pléiade edition of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. (The Pléiade editions are unique. They are small, pocket-sized leather-bound books printed on bible paper, which generally contain complete works of great authors, often in multiple volumes, with from 1,000 to 2,000 pages each. Published by Gallimard, this series is considered to be a pantheon of great writers.) This was the then definitive edition of the novel, published in 1954, and given its compact size, you could have probably fit a half-dozen of them in the huge box that held the English translation.
I would repeat my initial Proustian experience a couple of years later in Paris, when my French, and my vocabulary, did, indeed, reach the level required to read the novel. (I recall reading a book about Proust at some point, in a Paris library, which said that Proust used 18,322 different words in his long novel. Vocabulary was therefore essential.) I carried these smaller volumes with me on the metro and busses in Paris as I went to and from work. At the time, I was teaching English to French executives, and I would always have a book handy to read during my commutes, and when waiting for classes to begin. As I look at these well-worn volumes now, I recall that period with a certain nostalgia; one could say a Proustian nostalgia.
I read La recherche a few more times after that. In the late 1980s, a new Pléiade edition was issued – it contains four volumes, costs more than twice as much as the old edition, and has twice as many pages, as each volume contains huge swaths of “variants,” or drafts that Proust wrote. I haven’t read these variants, in part because they are in tiny type (the Pléiade volumes already use a small font, but the back-of-the-book material is even smaller), and in part because there’s enough to read without going into the variants. I listened to the work once in an audiobook recording of 128 hours, which is a magnificent way to discover Proust. And I’ve just started reading this work again.
Proust has a reputation for being difficult. The novel is long – initially published in seven volumes, it comes to 3,000 to 4,000 pages, depending on the edition and font size. His writing can be hard to follow at times; Proust is known for writing long sentences, one of which is 847 words long. (I append that sentence, in French, at the end of this article for the curious.) And his work contains dozens of major characters and hundreds of minor characters, which can be hard to follow. Nevertheless, his writing is easy to read, not hard. He’s no James Joyce, and he’s no proponent of the nouveau roman. Proust’s writing flows smoothly, lyrically, as if he was speaking to the reader. (All but the Swann in Love – Un amour de Swann – section is written in the first person, so he is actually speaking to you and me.) The important discovery I made about Proust’s style occurred, in fact, when I listened to an audiobook version of La recherche in French. It became immediately apparent that Proust’s style was simply spoken French written down on paper. His long, sinuous, rambling sentences were simply the way people spoke when they went on and digressed. With this understanding, Proust’s style became nearly transparent. (I say “nearly,” because you still have to pay attention when a sentence goes on for a long time; however, if you get lost, just start over and read it out loud.)
Proust’s novel is about time. The first English title, Remembrance of Things Past, was chosen by the translator who had only read the first volume, and who didn’t know where the work was going. It was taken from a sonnet by Shakespeare, and, while it does wax poetic, it is far from the simplicity of the actual title of the work: In Search of Lost Time, or A la recherche du temps perdu. (It’s important to note that, in French, this title is slightly more ambiguous than in English; “temps perdu” is both lost time and wasted time. (An aside: French toast, in French, is “pain perdu,” or lost/wasted bread.)) The first book begins with the word “Longtemps,” or “For a long time,” and the last book ends with the word “temps,” or “time.” The entire story is about the changes that time causes on people, how people react to the passage of time, and the desire, sometimes, to get back the time that has passed.
Readers today have a much easier time with Proust than I did at first, as there are a number of books that can help you on your journey. Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life is a sometimes serious, sometimes humorous look at Proust, his work, and his way of viewing the world; this is a good introduction to the work. William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life, sadly out of print, is the best English-language biography of Proust, who famously claimed that one shouldn’t concern oneself with an author’s life when reading their works. Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time is another useful guidebook, as is Malcolm Bowie’s Proust Among the Stars. Offering less analysis than the previous books, Patrick Alexander’s Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past is a cheat-sheet for readers: it contains a plot summary, a cast of characters, and more useful information to keep you from getting lost. Finally, a wonderful series of video lectures by William C. Carter, Proust scholar and biographer, provides an excellent “course” in Proust. This web site, available on a one-payment lifetime subscription basis, includes lectures and regular Q&A sessions via webcam, as well as a forum. (If you join, you’ll see me on the forum; I’ve volunteered to help moderate and administer it.)
So, where do you begin if you want to read Proust? You should simply dive in and start with the first volume, Swann’s Way, in a recent translation, or Du côté de chez Swann, in the Folio paperback edition, if you read French. The nice leather-bound Pléiade edition is attractive, but the books are too long, in my opinion (much longer than the older edition that I carried around in my Paris days), and at that price, I don’t want to read them in the bathtub. But there are a number of different editions in French: there’s a 2,400-page one-volume edition, which is too bulky to read comfortably, and another edition in two 1,500-page volumes, which is a bit easier to handle. Other French publishers have released their own editions in paperback, since the work went into the public domain.
Reading Proust is a long process; one that never ends. If you “get” Proust, you’ll realize that when you get to the end of the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, you’ll want to start over. Not right away, of course, but the aftertaste of lost time will linger, and a few years later, you’ll get the itch to read it again. For me, this itch sneaks up on me every five years or so, and with each reading I understand more of the vision of this unique author who managed to write in such a way as the reader can learn to see the world differently. It’s the voyage of a lifetime, and you can start any time.
This weekend, I’m re-reading a little book that I’ve found very enjoyable: How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton. De Botton is a Swiss writer who lives in the UK and writes in English; I consider him to be a “popular philosopher.” He has written books about philosophy, travel, business and work, our perceptions of status, and much more. In this 1997 books, de Botton examines the life and work of Marcel Proust, and shows us how reading this work can help us understand, as Proust said, that, “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Proust is perhaps one of the most daunting of authors. He didn’t write separate novels, but one long work, A la Recherche du temps perdu, or, In Search of Lost Time. This work covers thousands of pages, and follows its protagonist (the “narrator”) from his childhood through his adult years as he discovers aristocratic society in France. With long sentences, florid descriptions, and acerbic characterization, Proust presents a portrait of a society that, behind the glossy surface, is wicked and deceitful. Yet in spite of the length of the work, In Search of Lost Time is funny, strange, and a delight to read. Proust’s style is verbose, but his writing is musical.
I first read Proust in 1982, when a revised edition of an earlier English translation was released. In three large, hardcover volumes, this book was quite heavy, and I read it on the subway and bus as I went to and from work in New York City. When I moved to France in 1984, the first book(s) I bought was a three-volume Pléiade edition of the work (now superseded by a later four-volume edition; the extra girth is made up of notes, sketches and variants). I’ve since read Proust twice in French, and once in audio. Every few years, I get an itching to read him again, and this often starts by reading a book like de Botton’s or a biography of the author’s life.
But even if you haven’t read Proust, or don’t plan too, this little book about Proust can delight you and give you some interesting lessons about life and literature. Proust can change your life, if you take the time. Read this book to find out how.
Interestingly, this book tends to get filed in the “self held” or “self development” category, in addition to being put on the “literature” shelves. I guess it is, in some ways, a guide to living, but, then again, isn’t all great literature?
I’m a fan of audiobooks, and I was tempted to buy this in audio to listen to when walking. But seeing it at $20 (on the iTunes Store) quickly dissuaded me. Paying twice as much for an audiobook is ludicrous, especially as I know how much audiobooks cost to produce. It’s a shame, because a book like this at $10 would probably sell a lot better.
I’ve long been a fan of Marcel Proust, author of A la recherche du temps perdu (or In Search of Lost Time, in English). Last year, a French publisher released a complete audio recording of this extraordinary novel, on 111 CDs, read by 6 well-known French actors. It clocks in at just over 148 hours, and I have been enjoying listening to these recordings in recent weeks. I’m not listening to it all at once, but rather one section at a time. The length and complexity of this work is part of the charm that makes this one of the pillars of French and world literature.
Since most of my readers don’t speak French, you might want to check out an English version, such as the 39-CD abridgment by Neville Jason. This is a good start, while waiting for Naxos (the publisher of this audiobook) to release a complete version in the near future.
If you’ve never read Proust, you might want to try the only part of this epic novel that is really a stand-alone section, Un Amour de Swann. In English, you could start with Swann’s Way , the first volume of the series. This is a great novel of decadence and passion, written in an inimitable style.
[Note: I wrote this review back in 2000, and just stumbled on it. I haven’t edited it, other than correcting a few infelicities in the writing. I read this book in French, and the review discusses the book’s content, not its translation.]
I was expecting to read a real biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, but it turned out to be a long book of little more than intellectual masturbation.
I find some of the pre-publication comments on the Amazon.com site quite perplexing– “critically acclaimed, best-seller in France…” Critically acclaimed, for this sort of book, means only that the author’s friends, and his publisher’s hirelings, wrote excellent reviews of the book–in France, it is all too common to see reviews written by writers who publish or act as “series editors” for the same publisher as the book they are reviewing. Unlike in the US, where reviewers are independent, at least in some periodicals, these reviews are nothing more than advertisements. And best-selling, well, that is of course relative. Having worked in a French bookstore for several years, and being involved in publishing in this country, I know that this means only that the book sold better than expected. When you read the term “best-seller” in English, you tend to think of such books as Tom Clancy or John Grisham, and I can imagine that this biography sold nowhere near one tenth, even perhaps one one-hundredth of what those books sell in France.But I wonder exactly what the critics acclaimed in this book? Was it the overlong lists of people Proust knew, the thousands of footnotes, the never-ending quotes with which the author peppered his text? This is a fine example of a biography that was written for scholars and is, as is often the case, poorly written; it inspired, as I read it, nothing more than a desire to get to the end. The author writes like a scholar, which is fine if you like that style (although I feel sorry for the translator who has to put this work into English). But this is a minor problem compared to the total lack of character that he develops.
For me, the benchmark for literary biographies is the Richard Ellman biography of James Joyce . Not only does Ellman examine the author’s life and work, but ties the two of them together. At the end of the book, the reader has the feeling that he or she “knows” Joyce, that he understands his personality. In this book, the personal aspect is totally missing–if I hadn’t read other biographies of Proust before, I would undoubtedly not understand his life. While Tadié mentions often enough Proust’s illnesses and anxiety, and mentions his homosexuality more than enough, the reader learns very little about Proust other than the people he met and added to his novel. For while La Recherche is a roman a clé, and it is useful to know who the characters represent, it is also a highly introspective novel where a better knowledge of the author is far more valuable to its understanding.
One example: those who know about Proust know about his cork-lined room at the end of his life, but Tadié mentions this only in passing. I would think that this part of Proust, the anxious, obsessive part, is far more important than the number of times he ate dinner at the Ritz.
Reading this book was a real chore. Hardly a paragraph goes by without one or several quotes from Proust’s correspondence, from works written by others about him, or texts by the many people he met. This cuts the text up, giving the author no room to stake out a voice for himself. And when he does try and use his own voice, it is in the excessively pedantic, and overly “precious” style of French pseudo-academic writing.
The author is clearly writing to defend his own approach, one that has not been unanimously accepted. Roger Shattuck’s review of the latest Pléiade edition in French, published in the New York Review of Books, points out how Tadié has taken the work and turned it into a huge mass of sketches and drafts. [Unfortunately, this review is no longer available on the web, unless one has a subscription to the New York Review of Books.]
It can be difficult to take a person like Proust and make him more human, to make readers understand who he was. Growing up in a bourgeois family, independently wealthy, at least until the First World War, Proust is not the kind of person that I feel great sympathy for, at least not when reading this biography that sounds like the very long society page of a newspaper. Yet, when reading La Recherche , I feel such incredible affinity with this lonely man whose life was full of suffering. It is a shame that there is such a difference between the Proust of his work and the Proust of this biography.
In the end, I gave up and skipped over the last few hundred pages, out of lassitude. I found little in this book that was interesting. For a biography that better depicts Proust as the person he was, and gives insight into his life and feelings, the book written by William Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life , is far more interesting. The Tadié book is useful perhaps if you want to look up who was the source for a given character, but other than that, read Proust’s work–you will learn far more about his life in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.