Friday, 25 May 2012

On Finishing In Search of Lost Time

A few weeks ago I finished reading the final volume of In Search of Lost Time. The Penguin edition is in six volumes: The Way By Swann's; In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower; The Guermantes Way; Sodom and Gomorrah; The Prisoner and The Fugitive; Finding Time Again. Full disclosure: I gave up about a third of the way through The Prisoner and The Fugitive because the endless  obsessive details and worryings over Albertine's faithfulness and doings started to feel repetitive after one hundred and fifty pages. Otherwise, I have slogged through the lot, even if reading The Guermantes Way felt like hitting my head with a hammer at times. I'm glad I did.

I have memories of trying to read Scott Moncrieff's translation when at university and suffering badly. I find the Penguin translations effortlessly readable and without the give-away signs that it was written to be "accessible". If you're a reader, you know you have to read Proust. You don't have to do it now, and some knowledge of the history of the time will help, or the younger amongst you will be wondering why he doesn't just track Albertine's smartphone with Footprints.

You don't review Proust, and more than you review Beethoven or Aristotle. Along with Musil's Man Without Qualities, Joyce's Ulysses, James's Late Novels (The Wings of A Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl), In Search of Lost Time is canonical. I glanced through it about ten years ago one Saturday morning in a Waterstones and bounced right off it: the subject matter seemed to me frivolous and ultra-refined. One day I just bought the Penguin edition volumes and put them on the shelf to read later, and three years ago or so, I was ready to read it.

Everyone starts with The Way by Swann's and very few get any further: it's actually quite a tough read in places. Instead, start with In The Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom, which should remind you of being a teenager and has the most laugh-out-loud moments, as well as some of the most memorable images and episodes. I suspect I will appreciate The Guermantes Way more the second time around, but I'm not at all sure I'm going to rush back to Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust's look at the homosexual and lesbian scene amongst the aristocracy. By today's standards, even in comparison to The Well of Loneliness (one of many books I've read and almost completely forgotten: I remember it as being emotionally but not physically explicit), his treatment seems tame, but he thought it was scandelous at the time.    

You need to know who these people are he's talking about, so you need to read the others before reading Finding Time Again. And if you're under fifty, don't bother reading it at all, because you won't have the life experience to make sense of it. I would not have understood what on earth he was talking about ten years ago, but oh boy do I now. The second half is a prefect description of the sense of change, falling and increasing irrelevance that one feels as one's hair gets greyer: Proust's narrator returns to Parisian society after a long period in a sanatorium and finds it full of people he's never heard of, who would never have been allowed past the door when he climbed his way through the window - the narrator is a social climber. It's a meditation on the exact ways his High Society has now become marginal and a memory of itself: mod out the details and it's about your life, but only if you are the narrator's age. As I get older, I get further from the rest of the world, which is full of strangers I don't want to do with, and what means more to me are the memories. Proust felt the same way. Reading that second half of felt like having some of myself explained to me.

The whole project is about the importance re-living one's life through memory. Important, that is, if you're a reflective, distracted, intellectual who wasn't too engaged with the practicalities of the world. Which is me. The point about his madeleine is that it brought the events back to him with a richness that they didn't have at the time. Only through memory can he understand what happened and see it for what it was. This isn't the "we need to live more in the moment, and pay attention to our lives" cliche: Proust's point is that it's exactly "living in the moment" that prevents us from understanding its significance and depth. That's what memory is for: it's only when we have time to remember an event fully that we can see what it really was.

This is why everyone looks at photographs, and older people write private memoires. This is what we have left of our lives. Proust didn't need a day job and was a great writer, so his memoire will have to stand for all those of us who do and aren't.

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