Please note: this is also known as Remembrance of Things Past and is in the list as such.
I’ve always said that I’d rather a book be short on plot and long on thought than fast-paced and full of clever plot devices but lacking realistic characters and something thought-provoking to sink my teeth into. The fact that I truly loved reading this 3000-page novel, from beginning to end, puts my money where my mouth is. After all, the first volume (Swann’s Way) opens with 30-ish pages describing that weird feeling of waking up and not knowing for a split second where, who, or when you are.
In Search of Lost Time is impossible to summarize, but here I go: The novel is about Marcel (the narrator, not the author) discovering, after a long life of distractions and failures, that he can reach the goal of writing a novel that he gave up long ago. The novel has two “I’s” – both young Marcel and old Marcel (writing the novel we’re reading) wax and wane throughout. This provides the reader with two different looks at characters and events that combine to give us a more rounded perspective. As Roger Shattuck, literary critic and Proust scholar says, this is just like the way that our two eyes with their slightly different locations on our face work together to give what we see depth.
There are dozens of central characters and plot points and hundreds of pages of philosophical musings and digressions, but the last 100 pages are a glorious culmination. Proust comes at his major themes from an endless variety of closely-associated angles, teasing out every nuance. Ultimately, I feel comfortable distilling In Search of Lost Time down to the following themes, in order of increasing importance, that will continue to haunt my thoughts for a long time:
Art and Literature – Proust is very clear that both literature and art are tools for human growth and reflection. This does not, however, mean that reading a good book or watching an acclaimed play will automatically change the reader/viewer and help her grow. Rather, literature and art are means to an end, starting points. As Marcel (our narrator) describes the readers of his novel: “For they were not, as I saw it, my readers, so much as readers of their own selves, my book being merely one those magnifying glasses… I would be providing them with the means of reading within themselves.” Merely having and experiencing the tool isn’t enough, the reader must then do his or her own internal work to gain from the experience.
Identity – We are, each of us, an endless number of people. As we change over time, we become new people. Additionally, we are a different person in the eyes of each person who knows us. As Marcel describes himself: “I was not one single man, but the march-past of a composite army manned, depending on the time of day, by passionate, indifferent or jealous men.”
Memory and Time – I’m discussing these two themes together because they are so interwoven. Proust very thoroughly show how our memories aren’t static, but are shaped and filtered by how our identity changes and what happens to us over time. Life weaves new connections and ideas around old memories, changing them. Proust also argues that the more we consciously focus on creating or thinking about a memory, the less real and visual it will be because we wring all the strength out of it. Involuntary memories – what readers of In Search of Lost Time would call “Proustian moments” – are the most potent. The most famous Proustian moment in the novel is when the narrator takes a bit of a madeleine cake he has dipped in tea and very suddenly recalls his childhood in an extremely sensual way. This moments allows the narrator to occupy two time periods at once, the one he is in and the one he recalls – he “experience[s] in a flash a little bit of time in its pure state.” The novel closes with a rapid succession of five such moments, which ultimately lead the narrator to write his novel.
It took me six months to work my way through In Search of Lost Time and I would not be exaggerating to say that the experienced has changed me. My perspective has deepened, my self-visualization has been refined. And, to end on a lighter note, I’ve found another reason to read literature to add to my growing mental list:
“To read genuine literature is to accumulate within oneself a fund of possible experiences against which to achieve an occasionally intensified sense of what one is doing, to recognize that one is alive in a particular way.”
Through literature, the young look forward to life, and the old look back at it.