Great Books From Different Traditions: France: Proust


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

One of the greatest themes of modern literature is time and the individual’s struggle to place itself either within the continuity of the temporal (Henri Bergson) or its struggle against the discontinuous character of moments in time (Gaston Bachelard) is one of its central conflicts. After Freud, individuals no longer needed to consider themselves as creatures defined by physical space; instead, modern humans were defined by time, and the novels of the great Modernist writers captured this new sensibility in numerous ways. Although Joyce’s Ulysses and Faulkner’s sagas of the South—The Sound and the Fury, especially—situate their characters in a linear narrative (a day in Dublin, a year in Yoknapatawpha County), the characters’ anxieties arise from their inabilities to live productively in time. Faulkner’s characters especially are haunted by the past and must find ways to reconcile their present lives to it, and generally they fail. Virginia Woolf, in an ironic reversal of Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” attempted to capture “moments of being.” Her characters slip in and out of streams of time, and the spaces they inhabit disappear. In Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, the characters live poised between the past and present as their memories and their consciousness form their world. Woolf completes a shift away from the Realist novel that had been underway since Proust’s magisterial À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). (Another translation of Proust’s French title—In Search of Lost Time—captures the fleeting nature of time and our desperate attempts to gain control over time.)

Like the novels of Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner (not to mention Dorothy Richardson’s now regrettably forgotten novel of time, Pilgrimage, and Djuana Barnes’ haunting Nightwood), Marcel Proust’s explores the terrors, the joys, the despair, and the hope of living life only in the dimension of time. For many readers, Proust’s project is daunting. It’s not a young person’s novel, even though the opening book of Remembrance of Things Past opens on the narrator as a young boy. It may be difficult for many Americans to read Proust simply because it takes time (no pun intended), and Americans complain that they don’t have enough time to eat, much less read a seven-volume novel of over 1,000 pages. Proust’s novel often resonates with readers beyond middle age who find themselves reflecting somberly about lost time and wondering about the ways in which they can recover that time. Living in time becomes a more acute experience as one grows older because time grows shorter with each passing day. Indeed, Proust’s epic offers a new treasure each time we open it. Novelist Jean Stafford once said that she had to start Proust’s novel over every five years because each time she read the novel she had already become a different person.

Proust’s monumental classic bridges the gap between the Realism of Flaubert and Balzac and the Symbolism of Baudelaire. Really a series of seven novels, Remembrance of Things Past moves between the continuity of a linear narrative and the discontinuity of a dream. He observed that “a book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices. If we mean to try to understand this self it is only in our inmost depths, by endeavoring to reconstruct it there, that the quest can be achieved.” Over a period of thirteen years, Proust wrote and published four volumes of his masterpiece. Although he likely began writing his epic novel in 1908, the first volume, Swann’s Way, was published in 1913. The second volume, Within a Budding Grove, was published in 1919 and won the Goncourt Prize. Two subsequent volumes—The Guermantes Way (1920-21) and Sodom and Gomorrah (1921)—were the last published in his lifetime. The remaining three volumes—The Captive (1923), The Fugitive (1925), and Time Regained (1927)—were published after his death.

Proust’s journey through time past weaves trance-like through the eccentricities of families, the shortcomings of social class, and the somnolent memories of youth. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin, writing of Proust, declared that “all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one—they are, in other words, special cases . . . The first revealing observation that strikes one is that this great special case of literature at the same time constitutes its greatest achievement of recent decades.” Benjamin proceeds to write that, “the thirteen volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu are the results of an unconstruable synthesis in which the absorption of a mystic, the art of a prose writer, the verve of a satirist, the erudition of a scholar, and the self-consciousness of a monomaniac have combined in an autobiographical work.” Proust’s melancholy and lyrical work indeed ferries the modern self to places where it must reckon with its identity, its development, and its very social existence. Confined to its solitary chambers, the modern individual can craft its own existence only through memory and a reshaping of the past.

Of course, Proust’s narrator is most famous for ingesting the magical little cookie that transports him through his past. “And once I had recognized the taste of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street . . . rose up like the scenery of a theater . . . In that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

Just as Remembrance of Things Past opens with Time, it ends with a vertiginous meditation of Time:

A feeling of vertigo seized me as I looked down beneath me, yet within me, as though from a height, which was my own height, of many leagues, at the long series of the years.
But at least, if strength were granted me for long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the result were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men first and foremost as occupying a place, a very considerable place compared with the restricted one which is allotted to them in space, a place on the contrary immoderately prolonged—for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch epochs that are immensely far apart, separated by the slow accretion of many, many days—in the dimension of Time.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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