Saturday, December 9, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (91 down, 9 to go)

(translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)

...a work of art is the only means of regaining lost time. ~ Marcel Proust from Remembrance of Things Past

Guinness recognizes Remembrance of Things Past as the longest novel in the world: over 9.6 million characters. In my version, that equates to 3,165 pages.

It took me around 100 hours – “lost time” I will never get back. I have never been more relieved to finish a novel.

The unnamed protagonist and narrator is the only child of an upper-class French family, late 19th and early 20th century. He is a sickly, aspiring writer, dilettante, idler, and heir to a comfortable fortune (semi-autobiographical). He has keen insight into the thoughts and hearts of others, but is himself incredibly double minded.

I was not invested in the narrator. He is not likeable, but neither is he unlikeable. Like his name, he is a blatant nullity. The numerous other characters are similarly uninspiring. They are flawed – vain, duplicitous, arrogant, snobbish, ambitious, hypocritical, fickle, insecure, suspicious, and perhaps above all ridiculously pretentious, but in spite of these foibles, they were largely uninteresting.

The plot is a remarkable nothing as well. I believe it is intended to be a philosophical treatise on memory, cyclical patterns in our existence, and the meaningless of life. I think it is also commentary on the vanity and decline of French aristocracy. In 3,000+ pages, there are numerous minor themes such as the arts influence on society, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and the Dreyfus affair that divided France at the time.

The prose is complex, possibly suffering in translation, but not without truth or beauty:
For my intelligence must be a uniform thing, perhaps indeed there exists but a single intelligence, in which everyone in the world participates, towards which each of us from the position of his own separate body turns his eyes, as in a theatre where, if everyone has his own separate seat, there is on the other hand but a single stage. 

…it has indeed been said that the highest praise of God consists in the denial of Him by the atheist, who finds creation so perfect that it can dispense with a creator.

Some have called this “…the most respected novel of the twentieth century” or similar hyperbole. I’ve read numerous commentaries asserting the greatness of this novel, but very little explanation of what makes it great. I know it’s terribly presumptuous of me, but in my opinion it’s the emperor’s new clothes.

I may just be very simple; don’t trust my opinion. Read it yourself when you can spare a couple months.

My Rating: 1 ½ of 5 Stars

The title: À la recherche du temps perdu, has received different English renderings. Today it is commonly known by the literal translation – In Search of Lost Time. However, in the earlier translation that I read, Moncrieff and Kilmartin took poetic license from Shakespeare to render the title Remembrance of Things Past.

When I originally came up with my list of The 100 Greatest Novels, I did not realize the two titles were one and the same novel. Consequently, I did a disservice to the author. This novel should have been ranked #39 vs. #91. It’s complicated, but if you are curious as to why, read my explanation of my rankings HERE.

And now, I’m taking a brief break from my quest to read a couple SHORT Christmas Stories – emphasis on SHORT.

Other excerpts:

Then a new light arose in me, less brilliant indeed than the one that had made me perceive that a work of art is the only means of regaining lost time.

I had lived like a painter climbing a road which overlooks a lake hidden by a curtain of rocks and trees. Through a breach he perceives it, it lies before him, he seizes his brushes, but already darkness has come and he can paint no longer, night upon which day will never dawn again.

I had a feeling of intense fatigue when I realized that all this span of time had not only been lived, thought, secreted by me uninterruptedly, that it was my life, that it was myself, but more still because I had at every moment to keep it attached to myself, that it bore me up, that I was poised on its dizzy summit, that I could not move without taking it with me.

If at least, time enough were allotted to me to accomplish my work, I would not fail to mark it with the seal of Time, the idea of which imposed itself upon me with so much force today, and I would therein describe men, if need be as monsters occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space, a place, on the contrary prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant period they have lived through – between which so many days have ranged themselves – they stand like giants immersed in Time.

Proust makes NUMEROUS references to other authors and literature. Sometimes by naming the author, sometimes by naming the book, other times by referencing characters (Capulets and Mantagues). I probably missed some references, but I know he referred to:

Jonathan Swift
Émile Zola
Henrik Ibsen
Nikolai Gogol
A Thousand and One Nights
But most ironically, Proust referenced The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, which is next up in my Greatest Novels Quest.



  1. Congrats on having the stick-to-it-ive-ness to finish the whole thing!

  2. Your review made me laugh. Is that worth the 100 hours you can never get back, lol?! I do want to read this but many other books are before it, and at the rate I'm going, I'll have to wait until I'm in heaven to get to it. In any case, a pat on the back for you, and my sympathies!

    1. That is definitely some consolation - happy to have made you laugh.

  3. Finally, I'm not alone!
    I thought it was something in me that I failed to see anything great about this book. Actually I read The Swann's Way, and even that one I failed. I did not know what to think of it, and literally almost fell asleep reading it. But kudos to you for ever finishing it!

    1. It's not much more than a bucket list item for me. Ditto....glad to know I'm not alone either. Sure are a lot of people that love it though. 5 and 4 stars on Goodreads outnumber 1,2,and3 combined 5-1. I don't get it.

  4. I just saw this on Goodreads. I'm with you. I've heard so much about this book I bought the set, although I haven't read it yet. I will probably feel the same way you do, but, like running a marathon, I will at least have the sense of accomplishment that I did it.

    Sometimes I wonder if people want to sound intellectual so they bandy books like this about, rather than because they actually enjoyed it. I thought your point that everyone says it's great without explaining why was well taken.

    1. I think sometimes that's it...just trying to sound sophisticated, but I have to allow for taste. I'm sure there are some who really love this. But for me, there is this and a few other "great works" that just don't do it for me. Glad I'm not alone.

  5. Interesting take. I recently started reading volume one and it is by far the most profound work I've ever read. It is certainly a philosophy of mind in motion, with social commentary sprinkled in. Each sentence is a world, even when rendered in English, which I am sure detracts from the quality.


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