In Search of Lost Time- Proust   Leave a comment


Writing a review of this mammoth book reminds me of the Monty Python Proust summary competition, where each competitor had to recount the point of the novel in only a few second. The point being it was impossible as the book, or series of books, are so vast.

It is of course on the 1001 books to read before you die list, and i took it on as a challenge when i discovered the full audiobook set was available on scribd at no extra cost (apart from the low monthly fee). I read them all in 1 month, maybe next time i will read the print version, but definitely found the audiobook version a boon of this first attempt.

I must admit, I am slightly chuffed at having finished the set, as I know no one else who has.

The books have only been translated into English a couple of times, so the translation you will meet will be probably over 100 years old. There is another one being done, but is not complete yet.

This is the work Proust is famous for, although he did write other things.

The books are usually in 7 volumes, the titles of which do vary. Essentially it is a fictional biography of a man, suspiciously like Proust in many ways.

Vol 1 (Swann’s Way) begins with childhood and we learn about the boy from his own point of view looking back on his youth. His family and close servants are included as characters, the narrater is always the main character and he tries to explain their actions and their motivations himself from the advantage of hindsight. He talks a lot of his separation anxiety he experienced with his mother, which reappears later in his relationship with Albertine.

Among the characters are M. Swann a neighbour and friend who often comes to dinner and has a dubious past; he married an ex prostitute and she is shunned from society.
Part of the book is often removed and published alone, and is called ‘Swann in love’.

Vol 2 is based in a seaside town of Balbac and covers his teenage year, his discovery of girls and his close relationship with his grandmother.

Vol 3 (Guermantes way) covers the narrators adolescence, his first love and his introduction to the Guermantes family when his family move into a flat in the same building in Paris. As he comes of age he moves into society and begins to attend the many dinners, parties etc of the Paris Elite.

Vol 4 (Sodom and Gomorrah) is mainly to do with the society characters he comes across. There are long descriptions and dialogue from these parties. Many characters are introduced, but most of these characters remain throughout the entire series. The focus of this book is homosexuality, which the narrator discovers is more prevalent than he believed. M Charlus, whom the narrator comes to know well is found to be homosexual, and we learn about his exploits. The narrator also develops a relationship with a girl, Albertine, but the accusation of lesbianism hangs over her too.

Vol 5 (The Captive) The narrator has persuaded Albertine to move in with him, but he suffers terrible jealousy over her and keeps her almost imprisoned in his flat. The books progresses the lives of the other characters, but mainly focuses on this relationship and the agonies of them as the narrator struggles to understand and trust Albertine. Inevitably the relationship disintegrates and she leaves.

Vol 6 (Fugitive) Immediately after he sends her away, he regrets his decision and seeks to get her to return, however Albertine dies falling from a horse. The narrator now struggles with grief, as he realises he did love her. His obsession also drives him to find the truth about her motivation in the relationship, to bring him closure.

Vol 7 (Time Regained) This is written after the end of WW1 and brings us up to date with all of the characters. Many have married and moved on or died. The narrator begins to realise he is old, and talks about how he feels about aging.

The book is often said to be a biography Proust. He was exposed as a homosexual only after his death by his partner, Andre Gide. It is notable that all of the females in the story, Albertine, Andree and Gilberte have masculine names and so are they really meant to refer to his male loves, but in disguise?

Most of the books discuss memory, how things are different with hindsight and how certain small details will spark off a whole memory. Proust’s detailed description of Paris society at the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th century is often an exploration of snobbishness, of jealousy and deceit seen in the interactions of the characters.

This book has no tight plot, I have sketched out the loose plot running through the book. None of the characters drive the plot, they are all passive, including the narrator. The book contains a lot of symbolism, but that would take much more space than I have here. Proust talks a lot in the later books about the nature of art, painting and music. I found his description of his childhood separation anxiety and the way it returned as jealousy and control in his relationship with Albertine to be very convincing, and must be biographical. Proust also discussed his chronic illness, which is also biographical, as he suffered from asthma, fatigue and anxiety throughout his life.

Some parts drag, I have to admit, but if taken at a gentle pace, this is a relatively easy book to read. I recommend it and challenge you to give it a go.


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