Why read Proust?

Should we bother?

In 1913 the first volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) – namely, Du côté de chez Swann (The Way by Swann’s) – was first published.  In 2013, should we care about this (in)famous work?

The value of À la recherche depends on the justification of this principle: that a work of art that vividly reflects one life, one place, one period, has universal significance.  Although it can be criticised, on various grounds (especially its pessimism about love), there is a universality about the work.


Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was born in Paris and lived there all his life.  He ingratiated himself with prominent members of Parisian ‘society’ and was known as a social butterfly and dilettante writer.   

In 1905 his mother (to whom he was very attached) died.  He withdrew from social life. In 1908 he started work on À la recherche – he continued work on it until the end of his life.  Later parts were published after his death.  It is likely that he would have revised them if he had had more time.

Proust indeed constantly revised his work: he transposed certain passages and kept on adding to it.  He knew how it would end, but he kept amplifying the middle.

Du côté de chez Swann, then, was published in 1913.  His publisher refused to back it,  unless Proust cut a few hundred pages from the end.  Proust complied and improvised an epilogue, to round off the truncated first volume.  The discarded passages were incorporated in the next volume, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, which had to wait until 1919 to appear.

World War I, indeed, gave Proust lots of time to expand his magnum opus and to write an account of the wartime bombing of Paris (which appears in the final volume, Le Temps retrouvé).

The result is a very long book – six volumes in the recent Penguin edition.

What is it all about?

It traces the efforts of the protagonist/narrator (who remains nameless and writes in the first person) to become a writer.  The history of his attempts is itself the novel.  He looks back at his life, aided by his insomnia, and recalls the places where he has stayed and the people he has known.  He records the influence on him of a fictional writer, a painter and a musician.

It reflects certain aspects of life in France’s Third Republic.  It reflects the huge output of artistic activity at the time and also technological change (the arrival of the motor-car, the telephone and the aeroplane).  There are many references to the Dreyfus Affair, which divided France for many years, and in which Proust himself was involved (on the side of Dreyfus).

In particular, it reflects the life of fashionable Parisian ‘society’, with its rival salons and coteries.  Snobbish behaviour on the part of the participants is closely observed, in a way that is comical and subtly satirical.  (Edmund Wilson compares Proust with Dickens.)  Indeed, snobbery is shown to be a suitable topic for literature.  Any pretensions to an exalted status, either claimed by aristocrats or social climbers, or ascribed to them by others, are undermined by the continual revelations of their true characters, including their selfishness and cruelty on occasions.

It has to do with love.  It demonstrates a pessimistic thesis, namely that, insofar as we fall in love, we are doomed to suffer anxiety and jealousy, and concomitant unhappiness.  The narrator/protagonist loves (or thinks he loves) two women in succession – Gilberte and Albertine.  His emotional immaturity and ineptitude doom him to failure with both women.  He tries to restrict Albertine’s movements and asks her awkward questions – she runs away.

Charles Swann, the protagonist’s alter ego, is a womaniser: he has a taste for women from lower social classes but avoids entanglements with them.  He becomes seriously infatuated with Odette, although she is not his “type”: the ensuing relationship has a bigger impact on him, and greater consequences, than all the previous ones. 

The novel is very concerned with homosexual attraction too.  (The fourth volume is called Sodome et Gomorrhe.) The overtly homosexual characters, in particular, are not portrayed sympathetically (despite the fact that Proust himself was homosexual):

“Homosexuality figures in Proust almost exclusively under the aspect of perversity, and it is in general unmistakably associated, as in the incident of Mlle Vinteuil, with another kind of perversity, sadism.” [Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle, Chapter V] 

The sexuality of certain other characters remains ambiguous: the pieces of evidence are contradictory.  Both the protagonist and Charles Swann are preoccupied at times with the proclivities of the women they pursue, but they never achieve certainty.  The treatment of this theme by Proust is peculiar and unsatisfactory: it probably reflects contradictions within the writer himself.

The loving relationship that shines out from the pages is that between the protagonist and his grandmother (reflecting, no doubt, Proust’s own relationship with his mother).  His grandmother is caring and unselfish.  Her final illness and death are vividly and movingly described in the third volume, Le Côté de Guermantes.

I have mentioned recalling the past, above.  Now, Proust has a great deal to say about memory and its workings.  He makes a distinction between a memory recalled by voluntary effort and an involuntary memory that takes us by surprise.  He prizes the latter more highly.  The operation of involuntary memory is exemplified by the well-known incident (in Du côté de chez Swann) where the protagonist eats a “madeleine” cake and experiences the revelation of scenes from his own past – his life as a child in Combray.

Proust has a lot to say about all the arts, particularly examples from the Renaissance up to his own period.  He conveys a deep knowledge and appreciation of them.  The arts, indeed, form a quasi-religion for his protagonist (and hence, no doubt, for Proust himself).  A great feel for Venice is conveyed in a chapter in Albertine disparue (in the fifth volume of the Penguin edition).

Finally, the novel spirals around its central themes and characters.  Places, incidents, people are continually revisited, and each time new aspects are revealed.   Proust shows that (a) we do not know everything about a place, an event or a person at first sight, and (b) that people change (and age).

So what?  Advice to the potential reader.

Although the novel may be regarded as faulty in some ways (it is lengthened, perhaps excessively, by the late inclusion of the Albertine story), it has to be admired for (a) the overarching structure, (b) the spiralling technique of visiting and re-visiting important themes (elaborating on them, the while) and (c) providing insight into human feelings and behaviours.

Give it a go.  Enjoy the comedy.  But prepare yourself for an encounter with very long sentences, with subordinate clauses that refine the message or picture.

Read it in translation, unless your knowledge of French is excellent.  See for example the 21st century Penguin edition, In Search of Lost Time, where each volume is assigned to a different translator, who also provides an introduction.

Suggestions for further reading (two short, worthwhile pieces, chosen from the many available)

  1. There is an excellent chapter on Proust and À la recherche in Edmund Wilson’s  1931 Axel’s Castle – a study in the imaginative literature of 1870-1930 (Fontana)
  2. Albertine, the novel by Jacqueline Rose (Vintage, 2002), cleverly retells the story of Proust’s character from her point of view.  (You do not need to know Proust’s original to appreciate this take on the story.)


David R Harries

January 2013



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