Several years ago I bought all six volumes of Proust’s monumental work, treating myself to both the French original and the English translation by Mayor and Kilmartin, and thus embarked upon the journey into the remote but vibrant world of French society, manners and mores of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the course of my reading, which has taken several years and veered from the French to the English and back again (but mostly in English), I have become acquainted with a wide panoply of characters as well as with the complex observations contained in Proust’s disquisitions on a myriad subjects, encompassing art, philosophy, architecture, social mores, psychology, sociology, literature and, above all, the nature of Time itself.
The first lines of the first volume set us firmly in the hero’s childhood, with the immutable sentence “For a long time I would go to bed early.” (Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.) And so, as we read on, we find ourselves absorbed into the life and times of the hero as well as those of the people he encounters in his daily routine. Later on, as he grows older, as he gets to know more people, he becomes involved in the social life of French aristocratic society, develops friendships, has love affairs and moves from one physical setting to another. These settings are brought to life through the individuals who people them, whether they be the servants who constitute the background to the daily routine and who nonetheless play a role through their personalities and their machinations, described so vividly by Proust. Foremost among them is Francoise, the cook and general factotum in his parents’ house, who plays a prominent part in young Marcel’s life, has definite likes and dislikes and doesn’t hesitate to express an opinion about events and individuals. She also features in his final volume, where he equates his writing a book with her sewing a dress, but also refers to her presence and attendance to his needs while he is working, thereby bringing his association with her to a full circle, and so we realise that it is she, the ignorant, illiterate but good-hearted peasant woman who is the backbone and eternal verity of his life. Throughout the books contemporary events and movements impinge on the lives of the characters, whether this be the Dreyfus affair and the effect this had on French society and culture, the First World War, with the bombing of Paris and evacuation of its residents, the life of the leading actresses of the day, or the life of military conscripts.
Proust depicts the social life of the higher bourgeoisie first in the countryside (‘Combray’) and subsequently in Paris. Through his parents he gets to know the families who live in the region and starts to take his place in society. Through their vacations by the Normandy seaside (‘Balbec’) he becomes acquainted with (and fascinated by) various young women, and these are depicted as complex, volatile yet attractive beings. His on-off love affairs with first Albertine and then Gilberte run through the six volumes like a silvery stream, and it has been said that it was Proust’s own homosexuality that led him to choose feminised forms of male names for these characters. The theme of homosexuality is hinted at or described extensively throughout all six volumes, and especially in volume 4 (‘Sodom and Gomorrah’). It is by now impossible to disconnect aspects of Proust’s personal life from his fictionalised account of his life as presented in ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ and this is particularly the case towards the end of the sixth volume, when he ‘suddenly’ realises that it is his mission in life to write a book and ‘predicts’ that in order to do this he will have to sleep by day and write at night, which is what he actually did (and had been doing for several years). Volume 6 contains many profound insights into the nature of Time and its effects on life and the individual, as well as into the nature and role of literature, constituting an object lesson to every aspiring writer.
Now that I’ve managed to make my way through all six volumes I feel that it is incumbent on me to begin from the beginning and start reading them all once more, this time with a greater understanding of what is happening and where the author is taking me.