Reading Proust: An Introduction

By Sam Tanenhaus
May 2, 2013

proust 1896

c. 1896

One hundred years after its publication, “Swann’s Way,” the first volume in Marcel Proust’s cycle “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” — “In Search of Lost Time,” better known to many Anglophone readers as “Remembrance of Things Past,” the Shakespearian title used by Proust’s first English translator — doubles as thematic “overture” and Michelin guide to the most captivating, ambitious and elusive of modern novels.

The glittering surface of “Swann’s Way” presents a Manet-like canvas of belle époque France, a sumptuous world of fashionable salons and tranquil summer homes populated by characters — old and young, rich and poor, artists and aristocrats, footmen and physicians — who spring at us with comic ferocity: their sufferings and delusions, their petty cruelties, their self-destructive obsessions and corrosive vanities. By the end of the giant cycle (some 4,000 pages) these fictitious beings will seem realer than the members of one’s own family.

But within the space of far fewer pages, 200 or so, the reader grasps, just as readers did in 1913, that Proust is a novelist of limitless talent: a preternatural observer, inspired mimic, prodigious wit, fluent narrator, ingenious coiner of images and words. And he knows everything, sounding at times like a botanist, at others like a painter, architectural historian, musicologist, literary theorist. He seems to have read every book, seen every play, and absorbed the contents of entire museums along with the principles of medicine, diplomacy, etymology and more.

Yet all this only touches the outskirts of Proust’s herculean purpose. As the sinuous sentences unfold, aphorism following insight, metaphor converted into syllogism, we realize Proust is as rigorous a thinker as he is fabulist, heir to Descartes, companion to Freud. He is not “simply” writing a novel. He is bending the girders of an inherited form into a new science of understanding. He means to unlock the “laws” of human psychology — of hidden motive, desire and crippling habit — and so perhaps arrest, if not defeat, the ravages of “Time.”

We know this is his intent because he frankly tells us so. The novel’s narrator addresses us with the brazen directness of our own moment’s memoirists, though Proust is strangely self-effacing, even his terrifying omniscience grounded in his repeated insistence that he really knows nothing at all.

Inevitably, the first pages of “Swann’s Way” announce that the grand investigation to come must be autobiographical and must begin in childhood, for the impressions gleaned then will determine a lifetime of tiny misconstruals and fatal miscalculations, of revelations that would not surprise us, and they do each time, if only Proust, and we, had been paying closer attention.

These first pages also set forth Proust’s theory of “involuntary memory,” encapsulated in the famous incident of the madeleine soaked in tea. When the narrator presses the spoon to his lips, the sensation looses a tactile flood that transports him to the past — not the known but the latent or repressed past, hitherto concealed from him by the organized recollections of “voluntary” or conscious memory, the prison of falsehood each of us constructs in the effort, we think, to uncover the truth, though in fact it only makes it more elusive. Not that “involuntary memory,” the morsel of tasted cake, makes Proust the master of reality. On the contrary, he is allotted only flickering glimpses, which will accost him unpredictably and, often, woundingly.

“Swann’s Way” and the six novels that follow can be read as the mounting sequence of these glimpses. Everything else, in the rich and varied universe Proust has invented, exists only as the stage for these scattered lightning-flashes. The most cerebral of writers, Proust seeks finally to free himself, and us, from the shackles of intellect and reason.

But what is the cost of this search for understanding, this attempt to possess, or “recapture,” lost time? In his brilliant, cryptic little book “Proust” (1931), Samuel Beckett argued that the author exhibits

complete indifference to moral values and human justices. Flower and plant have no conscious will. They are shameless, exposing their genitals. And so in a sense are Proust’s men and women, whose will is blind and hard, but never self-conscious, never abolished in the pure perception of a pure subject. They are victims of their volition, active with a grotesquely predetermined activity, within the narrow limits of an impure world. But shameless. There is no question of right and wrong.

If Beckett is right, then Proust has repudiated what some maintain is the novel’s most honored function, the moral education of the reader. What do you — panelists and commentators alike — think?

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