Reading Remembrance of Things Past has been a life ambition for me. It was never particularly high on the list, nor is it a particularly valuable way for one to spend several dozen hours of one’s life. But for someone going to an elite college in the United States in the 1980s, Proust was one of those monuments of literature that it seemed like you were supposed to read in order to consider yourself an educated person. (I doubt this is still the case, given the diminished stature of literature in American culture, France’s loss of the peculiar cultural hegemony it once enjoyed, and, of course, the passage of time.) I read most of the comparable classics by the end of college—I won a race against the conductor Alan Gilbert to read War and Peace, which of course is breezy and entertaining compared to Remembrance of Things Past—but Proust just represented too much of a time commitment.
Now that I’m in my fifties, though, and some of the other life ambitions have been checked off, it seemed like it was time. I actually began the first volume about five years ago and read it on and off for more than two years before finishing it. In my defense, I read it in French. Then, after my father died last fall, my parents’ copy—pictured above—was among the few books I kept from his library. I read volumes two through four in the C. K. Scott Moncrief translation before switching to the new translation, which I found much more clear. (The difference between the two can be summed up in their titles: Remembrance of Things Past has a lovely ring, but it’s from a Shakespeare sonnet and has a completely different meaning from In Search of Lost Time, the literal translation of the French title.)
I just finished the last volume this morning. And my reaction, which has been taking shape in my head for the past few volumes, is: What a waste! Not a waste of time; the book is enjoyable enough to read, and it contains a kind of writing, and a kind of internal psychological description, that I have found nowhere else.
A waste of talent, however. Proust had the ability and the patience to describe the minutiae of his own thoughts and feelings, and the thoughts and feelings of people around him, and the details of how people communicate, and the way the outside world is reflected in our consciousness, to an extraordinary level of detail. But the world he chose to describe was, to a large degree, the world of Parisian high society, and the interpersonal dynamics he chose to illuminate were the petty rivalries, ambitions, and jealousies of people seeking to elevate their place in society. That’s not the entirety of the book, but still, for example, more than half of the last volume—137 pages in small print in the Moncrief translation—is dedicated to a blow-by-blow account of a single party thrown by the Princesse de Guermantes.
And even when we are not in some Parisian party, we are still in the narrator’s mind. And for much of his adult life, that mind is taken up by (a) sexual attraction to girls and young women, (b) jealousy, (c) fascination with gay men, complete with homophobic stereotypes that horrify contemporary readers (yes, I know Proust was gay), and (d) fascination with lesbian sex. Volumes four, five, and six deal with little else. The narrator describes perpetual jealousy as if it is a necessary component of love—indeed, the very thing that makes love what it is—which, from my own experience, I find to be preposterous. The fascination with what women might be doing behind closed doors is sophomoric. I understand the literary interest in occupying the mind of someone who is not yourself, but the narrator’s insistence that his particular obsessions are common to all men (not women—the book seems to be written exclusively for men—is tiresome.
The other thing that wears you down is Proust’s/the narrator’s obnoxious snobbery. His contempt for other people’s intelligence, opinions, artistic tastes, and conversational skills is a constant throughout the novel, but it bursts into full bloom in the middle of the final volume, where Proust spends 37 pages explaining to the reader what the whole thing is all about and why it is a masterpiece beyond all other types of literature. (The 37 pages are inserted into the discussion of the Princesse de Guermantes’s party, on the pretext that they are thoughts that ran through the narrator’s head as he entered the building.)
I prefer David Lynch: I just watched Mulholland Drive, and I think it’s a better movie because Lynch did not stop near the end and lecture the audience on how the plot was structured and what everything in it meant. Yet Proust, with his penchant for repetition, hammers home what exactly he means when he describes an instance of spontaneous, involuntary memory, and what it all means for the human condition, as if afraid that otherwise no one would understand his genius. In case you still didn’t get the point, he says this:
“How much better life seemed to me now that it seemed susceptible of being illuminated, taken out of the shadows, restored from our ceaseless falsification of it to the truth of what it was, in short, realized in a book.”
Really, the genius was obvious enough without its self-proclamation.
In any case, I’m glad to have read it. I may even read it again someday. I think it is one of those novels that will be more enjoyable the second time around after you know the significance of all the scenes early in the chronology. (Only in Proust do you have to wait 2,000 pages to find out what something ultimately meant.) But it could have been so much better.