Marcel Proust’s long novel, entitled À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), is the story of a man who wants to become a writer, and wants to understand the world around him. He eventually embarks on his writing project after he understands that time has passed, and that he has been learning to become a writer all these years as he has negotiated the world around him and become disappointed in everything he thought would be important.
Two expressions are important in understanding Proust: temps perdu and temps retrouvé. The first, lost time or wasted time, is what the unnamed narrator of the novel is searching for. He finds it in unexpected ways, through the involuntary memories that come to him when he dips a madeleine into a tisane, when he sees the two bell towers in Martinville, when he smells the odor of the public toilets on the Champs-Élysées, when he sees the three trees in Balbec, and when he trips over some flagstones in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Guermantes. All of these experiences trigger something in his mind that open up access to forgotten memories, memories that are strong and that make up much of his being. 1
Is the narrator searching for lost time or looking for lost time; or is he doing neither, but simply discovering lost time through involuntary memories? The translation of these terms is important, because the verb "rechercher" has several meanings, including search, look for, and research. (Chercher is the basic word that means to look for, but it doesn’t work as a noun; recherche is the noun form of that verb.) It’s obviously not the last, but between the first two, there is a difference in English. Search implies a more active process than look for, it suggests a careful and thorough process, where as look for is a bit more vague. Throughout the novel, the narrator suggests that these memories are accidental, as if he simply chances upon these moments. But, at the end, he realizes that these accidents are part of something bigger.
But is he even searching for lost time, or is it simply the time that has passed that he is nostalgic about? In Proust et les signes (Proust and Signs), Gilles Deleuze mentions that “Il y a des signes qui nous forcent à penser le temps perdu, c’est-à-dire le passage du temps, l’anéantissement de ce qui fut, l’altération des êtres.” (There are signs that make us think about lost time, that is, the passage of time, the annihilation of what was, the transformation of beings.) Is Proust’s temps perdu simply time that has passed, like the grains of sand in an hourglass? Is temps perdu simply the past that we can never relive, other than through the experiences of memory, voluntary or otherwise?
A paragraph in Sodomme et Gommore explains what the narrator discovers about time:
Tant de fois, au cours de ma vie, la réalité m’avait déçu parce qu’au moment où je la percevais, mon imagination, qui était mon seul organe pour jouir de la beauté, ne pouvait s’appliquer à elle, en vertu de la loi inévitable qui veut qu’on ne puisse imaginer que ce qui est absent. Et voici que soudain l’effet de cette dure loi s’était trouvé neutralisé, suspendu, par un expédient merveilleux de la nature, qui avait fait miroiter une sensation-bruit de la fourchette et du marteau, même titre de livre, etc. — à la fois dans le passé, ce qui permettait à mon imagination de la goûter, et dans le présent où l’ébranlement effectif de mes sens par le bruit, le contact du linge, etc. avait ajouté aux rêves de l’imagination ce dont ils sont habituellement dépourvus, l’idée d’existence, et, grâce à ce subterfuge, avait permis à mon être d’obtenir, d’isoler, d’immobiliser — la durée d’un éclair — ce qu’il n’appréhende jamais : un peu de temps à l’état pur.
Proust is saying that, by reliving these moments of involuntary memory, he manages to make a link between the past and the present, and experiences “a bit of time in its purest state.” In these moments, he experiences epiphanies, the perception of the fundamental nature of existence.
So, how do we translat temps retrouvé? Time Regained is the standard English translation of this final volume of the novel, but that may be adding too much baggage to the word retrouvé. French has two basic words for find: trouver and retrouver. Both mean the same thing, and they can be used more or less interchangeably. J’ai trouvé mes clés means I found my keys, but so does J’ai retrouvé mes clés. You can use the word trouver for something you discover; you generally use the word retrouver when you find something you have lost, but, in general, trouver fills that need. Is Le temps retrouvé the fact that Proust discovered that he can relive the past through those moments of involuntary memory, that the past is never really lost, and that it can be recovered? Time Regained is certainly not what Proust meant; he intended the title of this volume to mean that the lost time, or the past, had been found, nothing more than that. Even worse is the more recent translation Finding Time Again.
That leaves us with the two expressions, lost time and found time. I’ve turned the words into the correct English word order, because that’s another problem with the translation of these titles: it’s The Brothers Karamazov fallacy. The correct translation of Dostoyevsky’s novel should be The Karamazov Brothers, but some translator early on felt that it sounded more ominous the other way around.2 Time Lost and Time Found or Time Regained sound more formal, and are not what Proust would have intended.
Proust also suffered from a title malfunction, with the original English translation of his novel called Remembrance of Things Past, a phrase taken from a Shakespeare sonnet. He hated this. The proper title, at least in terms of translation, In Search of Lost Time, was restored in recent decades, but this title sounds like a journal article, not a fiction. Should it be Looking for Lost Time? The French À la recherche suggests a gerund (French doesn’t have a direct equivalent for the English -ing verb form), and is probably closer to what Proust meant. This title includes the idea of an active process, not one where lost time will be found accidentally. (Even though the moments of involuntary memory in Proust are all accidental.) Interestingly, Finding Time Again suggests that active process, which is not present in the French title Le temps retrouvé. The French suggests that time is found, not the process of finding it. A better title might be Rediscovering Time, or Looking Back at the Past, or even Reliving the Past.
Lost Time and Found Time; the two key terms of Proust’s novel. The first is part of the overall title, and the second the title of the final volume. The search for lost time that is the thread of the first six volumes comes to its conclusion when time is found in the final volume.
But Proust’s original title for the overall novel, Les intermittences du coeur, has little to do with time. (He eventually used this as the title of a section of Sodome et Gomorrhe.) If anything, it’s a medical term, which could be used for an arrhythmia, and, given that Proust’s father was a doctor, could be a metaphor for the body and the soul. The Irregularity of the Heart, or of Love; this is not very poetic. Perhaps something more creative would work, such as, Love’s Inconsistency, or The Fluctuations of Love, or Unpredictable Love; any of these would be close to his original meaning. Time is certainly one of the variables of love, but with this title, the narrator is no longer searching for anything; he is analyzing time’s effect on love and human relations.
Finally, it is important to point out that the first and last words of the seven volume novel are related. The novel opens with Longtemps je me suis couché de Bonne heure. (For a long time, or I used to go to bed early), and ends with dans le Temps, "in Time." Proust capitalized Temps in the final volume, when Time was a grand concept. For example:
N’avais-je pas vu souvent en une nuit, en une minute d’une nuit, des temps bien lointains, relégués à ces distances énormes où nous ne pouvons presque plus rien distinguer des sentiments que nous y éprouvions, fondre à toute vitesse sur nous, nous aveuglant de leur clarté, comme s’ils avaient été des avions géants au lieu des pâles étoiles que nous croyions, nous faire ravoir tout ce qu’ils avaient contenu pour nous, nous donner l’émotion, le choc, la clarté de leur voisinage immédiat, qui ont repris une fois qu’on est réveillé la distance qu’ils avaient miraculeusement franchie, jusqu’à nous faire croire, à tort d’ailleurs, qu’ils étaient un des modes pour retrouver le Temps perdu ?
Here, Proust discusses how dreams can be "one way to find lost Time." In this sentence, I’d probably use the verb "recover" instead of "find." Which brings us to another question: is the novel abound finding lost time or recovering, perhaps rediscovering lost time? Proust writes, Seul il avait le pouvoir de me faire retrouver les jours anciens, le Temps Perdu, devant quoi les efforts de ma mémoire et de mon intelligence échouaient toujours. Il here refers to the taste of the madeleine, that experience of involuntary memory that I discussed earlier.
Proust writes, Ce n’était pas plus sur la place Saint-Marc que ce n’avait été à mon second voyage à Balbec, ou à mon retour à Tansonville, pour voir Gilberte, que je retrouverais le Temps Perdu, et le voyage que ne faisait que me proposer une fois de plus l’illusion que ces impressions anciennes existaient hors de moi-même, au coin d’une certaine place, ne pouvait être le moyen que je cherchais. It wasn’t his second trip to Balbec or his return to Tansonville that would allow him to recover/rediscover/restore lost Time…
He says, Alors, moins éclatante sans doute que celle qui m’avait fait apercevoir que l’œuvre d’art était le seul moyen de retrouver le Temps perdu, une nouvelle lumière se fit en moi. He realized that the only way to recover lost Time is through works of art. Lost time, wasted time, time that has passed that can never be recovered; the ill, aging narrator wants to write his work of art, in order to recover, perhaps relive that lost time of his past, and, at the end of the work, realizes that he now has all the material that he needs, he has lived all the experiences he requires, he has watched as the characters in his life story have all grown old, as they have succumbed to Time.
See also: (Re-)Reading Proust: Memory and Exile.
See this video by Antoine Compagnon, Proust scholar and editor of the Pléiade edition of La rercherche.
Painting by Sean Fleming.