Reading the first volume of Proust’s mammoth In Search of Lost Time is akin to undergoing an initiation ceremony: the air is rife with rumours of what is to come; you are conscious only of your naivety and ignorance; there is nothing that can be done to prepare yourself for the experience; once you’ve done it, you can’t help but swagger… just a little.
I feel very happy that the first of the six volumes is now under my belt. It’s not an easy read but this is not because it is boring or badly written. In fact, its the fact that it’s so well written that makes it a challenge. I guess undergraduates listening to Einstein or Feynman lecture would have experienced the same thing. You know you’re in the presence of genius, and you know that, unless you keep up, you’re only going to affirm how different genius is from your own puny stature.
This volume opens the novel with the narrator’s (dare I say author’s?) childhood. He is, like us all, beset by common insecurities about himself, his family and his surroundings. Yet, at the same time, his reserved introspection gives him the ability to observe. The novel is crammed full of his observations from individual flowers to the great themes of life love and death. His scrutiny is remarkably indiscriminate.
If there is a story, it revolves around uncle Swann and what seems to be his doomed love for a woman whose physical reputation far outweighs her moral reputation on the scales of their provincial French community. In observing this, which covers hundreds and hundreds of pages, I found a clash between the supposed youth of the narrator and the events taking place. How on earth was this young man supposed to have been party to such intimate details? Is this a fault in the novel’s construction or is this an intentional part of the time warp involved in reading Proust?
Just as the narrator reaches the peak of his criticism of the hapless Swann, and as the volume is drawing to a close, the youngster falls into the same trap himself. I’ve heard others say that this frustrated them, that it showed a level of hypocrisy. Far from it. Having got about halfway through volume two, I now know that this is Proust outlining the inevitable in us all: those behaviours we find so repellent in others are usually those we are most susceptible to.
The prose is beautiful and is some of the most evocative writing that I think I’ve ever read. It wasn’t only this style that was unique at the time; to allow observation, and not plot, to drive the novel was a revolution in literature. Today, those of us who avoid the fast food literary diet of airport novels probably take this style for granted in much of contemporary writing. But slap this in front of anyone who prefers Picoult to Proust and you’d better make sure you know the basics of resuscitation.
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|RATING||As Proust intended this to be a single novel, I won’t be rating Remembrance of Things Past until the final volume.|