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.
If you like audiobooks, and you’re a French speaker, you can get a recording of the complete text of La recherche. If you’re not a French speaker, there’s an abridged audiobook version of Remembrance of Things Past (meaning it uses the older translation), from Naxos Audiobooks or an unabridged recording of Swann’s Way, from Tantor Media. (Naxos also has a 3-CD biography of Proust, called The Life and Works of Marcel Proust, written and read by Neville Jason, the narrator of the abridged Naxos version mentioned above. Finally, Jason also narrates The Essential Remembrance of Things Past, a 10-hour version of key scenes from the text. I’ve been informed by Naxos Audiobooks that they’ll be releasing full, unabridged versions of Remembrance of Things Past within the next year.
One other wonderful book that doesn’t fit in any of the above categories is Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time. This book presents all the paintings mentioned in Proust, with excerpts from the text to contextualize them. And, if you read French, go for the French version of the book with the original texts: Le Musée imaginaire de Marcel Proust : Tous les tableaux de A la recherche du Temps Perdu.
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.
Bonus: Proust’s longest sentence, from Sodome et Gomorrhe: