- In the Shadow of Young Girls In Flower
- The Guermantes Way
- Sodom and Gomorrah
- The Prisoner and the Fugitive
- Finding Time Again
This book contains three, more or less stand alone, stories.
Part I: Combray
In the first part the narrator is a young boy who finds it difficult to sleep at night. He obsesses over his need for a good night kiss from his mother. She is downstairs at a dinner with the family and M. Swann, a neighbour. He pens a note to her (!) to ask her to come to him and the faithful maid takes it but she won't come up. This is described in great detail, with long, convoluted sentences, full of sub-phrases, until I, if not the young boy, was nearly asleep. It is obsessively detailed. After nearly fifty pages of insomnia (on the author's part, not necessarily on the part of the reader) comes the famous part in which, presumably as an adult (Proust can be somewhat jumbled and confusing about chronology), the narrator tastes the Madeleine cake crumbled in tea which awakens memories of his childhood and then returns to his memories of childhood in Combray where he went walking either the Way by Swann's or the way by the Guermantes and of the various people in the village. And he hears a lot of social snobbery from his parents and grand-parents.
Some of my favourite lines:
- “If, in my own bed, my sleep was deep and allowed my mind to relax entirely; then it would let go of the map of the place where I had fallen asleep and, when I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was.”
- “summer bedrooms where you love becoming one with the soft night, where the moonlight leaning against the half-open shutters casts its enchanted ladder to the foot of the bed, where you sleep almost in the open air, like a titmouse rocked by the breeze on the tip of a ray of light.”
- “Even the very simple act that we call ‘seeing a person we know’ is in part an intellectual act.”
- “What I fault the newspapers for is that day after day they draw our attention to insignificant things whereas only three or four times in our lives do we read a book in which there is something really essential.”
- “Once in my room, I had to stop up all the exits, close the shutters, put on the shroud of my nightshirt.”
- “Unfortunately, having acquired the habit of thinking out loud, she did not always take care to see that there was no one in the next room.”
- Two panels of the bookshop door are “more sown with ideas than the door of a cathedral.”
- “What should we care for if we don't care for our lives, the only gift the dear Lord never gives us twice over?”
- “Even women who claim to judge a man by his appearance alone see that appearance as the emanation of a special life. This is why they love soldiers, fireman; the uniform makes them less particular about the face.”
The second part relates the story of Swann, a young man about Paris, and his introduction, in a salon, to Odette de Crecy, a member of the demi-monde, that is to say a kept woman, with whom Swann falls in love, whom he starts to give presents, and the subsequent events when the Verdurins, in whose exclusive Salon Swann meets Odette, exclude him from their circle so that he is parted from Odette, who nevertheless continues to see other men; it is the story of Swann's growing jealousy; again it is chronicles in minute, obsessive detail and described in sentences such as this one, which go on and on and on:
- “Then, suddenly, he wondered if this was not precisely what was meant by ‘keeping’ her (as if, in fact, this notion of keeping could be derived from elements not at all mysterious or perverse but belonging to the intimate substance of his daily life, like that thousand-franc bill, domestic and familiar, torn and reglued, which his valet, after having paid the month’s accounts and the quarter’s rent for him, had locked in the drawer of the old desk from which Swann had taken it out again to send it with four others to Odette) and if one could not apply to Odette, starting from when he had come to know her (because he did not for a moment suspect that she could ever have received money from anyone before him), those words which he had believed so irreconcilable with her - ‘ kept woman’.” Wow! A single sentence containing two pairs of brackets!
- “Once or twice on such evenings he experienced the sort of happiness which, if it had not been so violently affected by the recoil from the abrupt cessation of anxiety, when would be tempted to call the tranquil happiness, because it consisted of a return to a peaceful state of mind: he had dropped in on a party at the painter’s home and was preparing to go off again; behind him he was leaving Odette transformed into a brilliant stranger, surrounded by men to whom her glances and her gaiety, which were not for him, seemed to speak of some sensual pleasure that would be enjoyed there or elsewhere (maybe at the ‘Bal des Incoherents’ where he trembled at the idea that she would go afterwards) and that cost Swann more jealousy than the carnal act itself because he had more difficulty imagining it; he was already on the point of passing through the studio door, when he heard himself being called back with these words (which, by cutting off from the party that end which had terrified him so, made the party seem in retrospect innocent, made Odette's return a thing no longer inconceivable and terrible, but sweet and familiar and abiding next to him, like a bit of his everyday life, in his carriage, and divested Odette herself of her too brilliant and too gay appearance,shows that it was only a disguise which she had put on for a moment, for its own sake, not with a view to mysterious pleasures, and that she was already tired of it), with these words that Odette tossed at him, as he was already on the threshold: ‘Wouldn't you wait five minutes for me? I'm leaving, we’ll go back together, you can take me home’.” An even longer single sentence containing, again, two pairs of brackets, and innumerable commas.
He seems to be endeavouring to do with these sentences that which he discerns in Chopin: “When she was young she had learned to caress the phrases of Chopin with their sinuous and excessively long necks, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by seeking out and exploring a place for themselves far outside and away from the direction in which they started, far beyond the point which one might have expected to reach, and which frolic in this fantasy distance only to come back more deliberately - with a more premeditated return, with more precision, as though upon a crystal glass that resonates until you cry out - to strike you in the heart.”
But he can be brief and concise and to the point. Well, nearly:
“curiosity, that excessive interest in life which, when combined with a degree of scepticism concerning the object of their studies, gives certain intelligence men in any profession ... a reputation of having minds that are broad, brilliant, and even superior.”One of his many strengths is his updated descriptions. He might be writing about French social snobbery in the 1890s but some of his metaphors are incredibly up-to-date and everyday:
- “He would get into his carriage, but he would feel that this thought had leaped into it at the same time and settled on his knees like a beloved pet which one takes everywhere and which he would keep with him at the table, unbeknownst to the other guests.”
- “You're only a formless stream of water running down whatever slope it finds, a fish without a memory, without a thought in its head, living in its aquarium, mistaking the glass for water and bumping against it a hundred times a day.”
- “You don't choose to go holiday-making in latrines in order to be closer to the smell of excrement.”
- “‘You wouldn't want her to live the way you do, with your broken furniture and your threadbare carpets,’ she said to him, her bourgeois difference to public opinion prevailing, again, over her cocotte dilettantism.”
- “Swann immediately recognized this statement as one of those fragments of true fact which liars, when caught unprepared, console themselves by introducing into the composition of the falsehood they are inventing, believing they can accommodate it there and steal away its resemblance to the Truth.”
Part III: Place-names: the name
And the final part is back to the narrator who meets Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette (whom he had already met, by chance, in part one), and falls in love as a child, playing childhood games with her, and then becomes obsessed about seeing her, and when he can no longer see her he becomes obssessed about seeing her mother in the parade at the Bois de Boulogne, where he hears other men talking about her reputation and admitting that they too have slept with Odette.
- “That day which I had so dreaded was, in fact, one of the only ones on which I was not too unhappy.”
- “The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions that formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is only regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.” (Last line)
Three stories about obsession then, described in obsessive detail, and in long intricate sentences. A lot of the obsession involves the place of a person in society (Proust's obsession with the finer details of social life is perhaps why Virginia Woolf loved him rather than James Joyce, whom she thought common; Woolf was a massive snob; Proust says that Swann married "a woman of the worst social station, practically a cocotte"; it might be argued that Proust attacks and satirises the pretensions of social snobs and that he is therefore not a snob but he certainly feels that educated and intelligent people are superior to ill-educated and ignoratn people and he is therefore clearly an intellectual snob), as if he or she were an organism whose place in the grand ecosystem that is life cannot be understood without a microscopic examination of each facet of their ecological niche. And on that level, it is a masterpiece.
But it is exhausting to read.
Is Proust a genius?
- "The trouble with Proust is that sometimes you go through an absolutely wonderful passage, but then you have to go about 200 pages of intense French snobbery, high-society maneuverings and pure self-indulgence. It goes on and on and on and on." Kazuo Ishiguro
- "If you have read all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, you should be very worried about yourself. As Proust very well knew, reading his work for as long as it takes is temps perdu, time wasted" Germiane Greer
- "I find the endless sentences distancing, the people without interest." Susan Hill
Arthur Quiller-Couch, in Shakespeare's Workmanship, states that “The half of artistry consists in learning to make one stroke better than two. The more simply, economically, you produce the impression aimed at, the better workman you make all yourself.” If he is right then Proust, who routinely used ten words when one might have done, apparently under the impression that brevity was simply laziness, was not an artist, let alone a genius.