Having consulted the official Tony’s Reading List (the excel sheet where I’ve recorded everything I’ve read since the blog began at the start of 2009), I find that I finished Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way), the first part of Marcel Proust’s epic novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), in April 2011. However, given the speed at which I was reading the book back then, I suspect that I started out on the journey towards the start of that year, meaning that I’ve been reading the book on and off (mostly off…) for around seven-and-a-half years now. You can imagine, then, my feelings a few weeks back on finally turning the last page – it’s been quite a journey…
Today, then, sees me take one last look at a magnificent book. Yes, there will be plot details, so look away now if that might bother you, but let’s face it – this was never really about the what, but the how. One last time, if you please 😉
The final sections of what eventually became Le Temps retrouvé were always designed to finish off Proust’s work, but the book itself underwent some dramatic changes along the way. Having created the frame of the novel, consisting of stories from the narrator Marcel’s youth and his reflections in old age, the writer went back and filled in the gaps, expanding on the narrator’s relationship with Albertine and exploring the lives of certain characters, notably Baron Charlus and Robert de Saint-Loup, further. While always pressed for time (pun intended), the writer was able to add more to his novel for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he initially struggled to get the book published. Secondly, there was the small matter of the First World War intervening…
The ‘finished’ version of this seventh volume of the novel (in some ways, the book was never really completed) is divided into three main parts. The first, shortest piece describes several years in the narrator’s life, including visits he pays to Gilberte in Tansonville. Here he brings us up to speed with what’s been going on among his friends, while also discussing Saint-Loup’s sexual inclinations. The second part then has us moving on to war-time Paris, where in the darkness brought about by the nightly air-raids, we see the sexual activities of another character in far more detail.
However, the real core of Le Temps retrouvé is to be found in the second half of the book. Set several years later, the story has Marcel finally returning to Paris after time spent in various sanatoria, and his return to society takes the form of a daytime salon at the home of the Princesse de Guermantes. His dreams of becoming a writer are a thing of the past; until, that is, the miracle of involuntary memory occurs once more, giving him fresh hope. Once inside the party, though, he returns to reality. The changes he finds on the faces of the people he used to know remind him that time is no longer on his side. Will he be able to put pen to paper before he too fades away?
It’s been a long, hard slog, but it’s all definitely been worth it, and despite some never-ending passages, Le Temps retrouvé is possibly the best book of the seven. This final part features a nice mix of old friends, new revelations and theorising, circling around in the usual mesmerising style and bringing the novel to a satisfying close. Another reason I enjoyed it is that at around 350 pages it doesn’t overstay its welcome, unlike some of the bloated middle volumes. I suspect these extended sections, with one lengthy dinner party after another, are the reason it took me more than seven years to get here.
The move into the war years also brought a fresh angle to the story, with the characters we’ve grown to love (or loathe) having to adapt to the new circumstances. Gilberte has moved back to Tansonville (which has magically shifted to be near the battle front…), and in her letters she describes for Marcel the effects of war on the idyllic countryside of their youth:
La bataille de Méséglise a duré plus de huit mois, les Allemands y ont perdu plus de six cent mille hommes, ils ont détruit Méséglise mais ils ne l’ont pas pris. Le petit chemin que vous aimiez tant, que nous appelions le raidillon aux aubépines et où vous prétendiez que vous êtes tombé dans notre enfance amoureux de moi, alors que je vous assure en toute vérité que c’était moi qui étais amoureuse de vous, je ne peux pas vous dire l’importance qu’il a prise.
p.63 (Gallimard, 2016)
The battle of Méséglise lasted more than eight months, the Germans lost more than six-hundred-thousand men there, they destroyed Méséglise, but they never took it. The little path that you loved so much, the one we called the hawthorn way and where you claim that you fell in love with me during our childhood, when I can assure you in all honesty that it was I who was in love with you, I can’t begin to tell you how significant a role it played.
*** (my translation)
The place where they took their innocent childhood walks has now become ground zero for the battle for supremacy between the two armies. The church has been destroyed, the countryside devastated – and as for the poor hawthorns…
Back in Paris, Marcel takes a look at war-time society, noting the changes brought about since the start of the conflict. While there are some restrictions, the parties keep on coming, just with fewer young men in attendance. The city, though, is the scene for a different kind of war, this time waged by Madame Verdurin on Baron de Charlus, whose stock has fallen dramatically. His German roots allow him to see both sides of the war, in contrast with the rabid nationalists all around, and when he happens to bump into Marcel in the street, he shows a calm understanding of the reality of the conflict. However, after bidding him farewell, Marcel later catches sight of him again in a most unexpected situation:
Alors je m’aperçus qu’il y avait dans cette chambre un oeil-de-boeuf latéral dont on avait oublié de tirer le rideau ; cheminant à pas de loup dans l’ombre, je me glissai jusqu’à cet oeil-de boeuf, et là, enchaîné sur un lit comme Prométhée sur son rocher, recevant les coups d’un martinet en effet planté de clous que lui infligeait Maurice, je vis, déjà tout en sang, et couvert d’ecchymoses, qui prouvaient que le supplice n’avait pas lieu pour la première fois, je vis devant moi M. de Charlus. (p.122)
Then I noticed that there was a little round window on the side of the room where someone had forgotten to close the curtain; walking on tip-toe in the darkness, I crept up to this little window, and there, chained to a bed like Prometheus to his rock, receiving blows from Maurice with a studded whip, I saw, already overed in blood and sporting bruises proving that this wasn’t the first time he had undergone the ordeal, I saw before me Monsieur de Charlus. ***
The scene is reminiscent of his earlier overhearing of the Baron’s tryst with Jupien, but this time our narrator has a view of what’s happening. This naturally leads to musings on the effect of imminent death on people’s sexual appetite as Marcel compares the war-time behaviour to the last days of Pompei, with anonymous fumblings in the dark Métro. Sodom and Gommorah, indeed…
As you may have noticed over the course of my Proustian journey, there’s a distinct metafictional aspect to the book. The last sections of Le Temp retrouvé take us back to the start of the novel, and we hear of the madeleine again, this time joined by a number of other examples. It’s at this point that the narrator makes clear what has been alluded to all along, that the real focus of the book as a whole is Proust/Marcel working himself up to being able to write the novel that we’ve been reading. Perhaps the core of the whole series is an extensive passage placed just before Marcel enters the salon at the Princesse de Guermantes’ palace, providing insights into his writing and his attempts to write what is and not just what is seen:
Il me fallait rendre aux moindres signes qui m’entouraient (Guermantes, Albertine, Gilberte, Saint-Loup, Balbec, etc.) leur sens que l’habitude leur avait fait perdre pour moi. Et quand nous aurons atteint la réalité, pour l’exprimer, pour la conserver nous écarterons ce qui est different d’elle et que ne cesse de nous apporter la vitesse acquise de l’habitude (p.204)
I needed to restore to the slightest signifiers surrounding me (Guermantes, Albertine, Gilberte, Saint-Loup, Balbec, etc.) the sense that habit had taken from them. And when we have attained this reality, to express it, to preserve it, we must discard all that diverges from it and which the acquired swiftness of habit never ceases to bring us. ***
In effect, the writer is describing here as a future task what he’s actually in the process of bringing to a close.
Proust’s not alone in ending a series of works with a gathering of friends, but what sets his farewell apart is the focus on the savage toll time has taken on his cast. After years, possibly decades, away from the scene, Marcel searches for traces of people he once knew behind double chins, snowy beards and gaunt cheeks. Cleverly, the changes are not confined to physical appearance. Old enemies welcome him with open arms while acquaintances ask to be introduced to him (again), having forgotten that they were once on an intimate footing. Anyone who has accepted Facebook requests from school friends decades after their last encounter will know what he means…
It’s not just the people who have changed, though. Society itself, which seemed immutable, has somehow renewed itself since Marcel first entered it. Most of the old stars are there, but there’s been a shift in importance, and the social order he thought set in stone has changed, leaving these old-timers as outsiders, forgotten by the new darlings of the dinner party set. It’s a stark reminder that time never stands still, but that these alterations occur so slowly that only an abrupt break in the passage of time, such as the one caused by the narrator’s long absence from the capital, can make us aware of the transformation. Of course, the most important effect of all these changes is a personal one. Like Marcel, the reader is forced by the changes they see to reflect on the passage of time: if everyone else has changed so much, what has happened to me?
Le Temps retrouvé is a wonderful book in its own right, but having finally come to the end of À la recherche du temps perdu, it’s time to step back and reflect on the novel as a whole. What come to mind are all the memories, vivid at the time, that have faded by the end (for writer and reader alike…). Towards the end of the novel, the narrator proposes the idea of time passing moment by moment, frame by frame, and not as a continuous thread, and the work as a whole can be seen as Proust’s attempt to realise this concept by examining each moment in its entirety. One question remains, though – is it even possible to write such a book?
Que celui qui pourrait écrire un tel livre serait heureux, pensais-je, quel labeur devant lui! Pour en donner une idée, c’est aux arts les plus élevés et les plus différents qu’il faudrait emprunter des comparaisons; car cet écrivain, qui d’ailleurs pour chaque caractère en ferait apparaître les faces opposées, pour montrer son volume, devrait préparer son livre, minutieusement, avec de perpétuels regroupements de forces, comme une offensive, le supporter comme une fatigue, l’accepter comme une règle, le construire comme une église, le suivre comme un régime, le vaincre comme un obstacle, le conquérir comme une amitié, le suralimenter comme un enfant, le créer comme un monde sans laisser de côté ces mystères qui n’ont probablement leur explication que dans d’autres mondes et dont le pressentiment est ce qui nous émeut le plus dans la vie et dans l’art. Et dans ces grands livres-là, il y a des parties qui n’ont eu le temps que d’être esquissées, et qui ne seront sans doute jamais finies, à cause de l’ampleur même du plan de l’architecte. Combien de grandes cathédrales restent inachevées! (pp.337/8)
How happy the writer who could write such a book, I thought, and what labour ahead of them! To provide a sense of the task, we must borrow similes from the most elevated and different of arts; for this writer, who must all the while allow the various aspects of each character to appear, to show their depth, must prepare the book, fastidiously, with a constant regrouping of strength, like a military offensive, bear it like fatigue, accept it like a law, construct it like a church, follow it like a diet, overcome it like an obstacle, conquer it like a friendship, nourish it like a child, create it like a world, without leaving aside those mysteries whose explanations are likely to be found only in other worlds and the premonition of which is what moves us most in life and in art. And in these great books, there are sections that have only had the time to be sketched out, and which will undoubtedly never be finished, owing to the very magnitude of the architect’s plans. How many great cathedrals remain incomplete! ***
There may be a few loose bricks here and there, and the final structure might not be quite as it appeared in the initial plans, but there’s no doubting that Proust’s literary cathedral is an awe-inspiring monument to his talent. I suspect that, just like those soaring buildings he compares it to, it will continue to attract readers in search of quality writing for centuries to come, and I’m sure I’ll be paying it another visit in the future, too…
…assuming, of course, I can find the time…