*from “À la recherche du temps perdu”, novel in seven volumes by Marcel Proust (1871–1922).
Richard Lea wrote in The Guardian of 14.11.13:
“I pulled my copy of À la recherche du temps perdu off the shelf just last week. There – I’ve said it. I was looking for the passage right at the beginning where he conjures up that feeling of waking in the middle of the night and not knowing where you are, or indeed at first who you are. It’s a feeling which – as the narrator confesses around nine pages into his exploration of this fleeting sensation – never lasts more than a few seconds, but which he finds so unsettling it calls into question the stability of the entire world. As Scott Moncrieff’s translation has it:
Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, by the immobility of our conception of them. For it always happened that when I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything revolved around me through the darkness: things, places, years
One hundred years after the release of the first volume – published by Grasset on 14 November 1913 at the author’s expense after André Gide advised Gallimard to turn it down – this 10-page opening sequence reveals something of both Proust’s method and of his enduring appeal: the precision with which he anatomises our inner life, the seriousness with which he examines how our personal experience shapes the world around us, the finesse with which he conjures up his luxurious surroundings.
Despite all of these obvious qualities, despite the fact that it’s one of only a handful of books that I find myself returning to again and again, it’s not a book I ever recommend. It’s such a giant cultural artefact, such a pinnacle of achievement, such a perfect expression of a certain aesthetic, and so very, very long that even admitting I’ve read it feels like the worst kind of literary one-upmanship – let alone admitting I read it in French (long story). But this bulk, the very heft which makes it such a bookish status symbol is not only central to Proust’s artistic project but one of its greatest pleasures.
The memories that the narrator recalls over the course of seven volumes include childhood anguish in the country, an intrigue with a courtesan, a portrait of high-society entertaining, an exploration of fin de siècle gay life, a relationship doomed by jealousy and more and more and more. It’s a novel so voluminous, so capacious, so complete you can spend weeks, months or even years submerged in its crystalline waters. When you surface – gasping a little from the spectacular dénouement – you find that the world you have just left seems big enough, mighty enough to encompass the world around you, to measure up to life itself. For about a year or so after I finished Le Temps retrouvé I couldn’t read another novel without thinking Proust had written it already.
It’s a universe that you are obliged to explore at the languid pace of Proust’s serpentine prose, snaking from enumeration towards explication, from description into deviation. And this is the other reason why I never find myself pressing a copy into someone’s hand. After all, I read it in French (did I mention that?), so that page by page, sentence by sentence, word by word my experience of reading À la recherche was bathed in the glow of Proust’s voluptuous prose, drenched in the rare perfume of a second language. Quite apart from the difficulties in reproducing the temporal subtlety of Proust’s “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure”, neither Moncrieff’s “For a long time I would go to bed early,” nor Lydia Davis’s “For a long time I went to bed early,” really cuts it.
And yet, and yet … there I was, just last week, pulling it off the shelf, because nothing else I’ve ever read really gets that experience of a midnight waking, really understands that sense of total emptiness – nothing else I’ve ever read really nails it. Proust is more than just an inspirational self-publisher, a fine stylist of French prose or a badge of literary honour. One hundred years after the publication of Du côté de chez Swann, maybe I should get over my mild case of literary embarrassment and start recommending À la recherche after all.”