My Year of Reading Proust

Memories from reading ‘In Search of Lost Time’ in lockdown

I started reading Proust around Eastertime last year. England was in its first lockdown, I was no longer travelling for work, no longer going out or meeting up with friends and had more time than ever on my hands.

You need a lot of time to read In Search of Lost Time: it’s the world’s longest novel (according to The Guinness Book of World Records) with 9,609,000 characters (including spaces), 1.5 million words, more than 400 characters, over 3600 pages, published in 6 volumes (or 7 depending on your edition). It’s the only novel I know that comes with its own set of indexes — one of characters, one of real people, one of places and one of themes.

In Search of Lost Time is not just famous for its length, it is also famously good. Proust is often called “the greatest novelist of the 20th century”[1] and his epic masterpiece is also given superlative titles such as “the most respected novel of the twentieth century.”[2] I had wanted to read this novel — the perfect match of quantity and quality — for over 20 years, from the time when I was studying a PhD in French literature.

(Sidenote: My thesis was on a novel by Andre Gide, a contemporary of Proust. Among other things, Gide is famous for rejecting In Search of Lost Time when Proust sent his manuscript to the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, the publishing house where Gide was the director— the publishing equivalent of turning down The Beatles.)

One reason that I had prevaricated so long before reading it was because, having both studied and taught French, I had originally felt that I should read it in the original French rather than in translation. And then, about 12 years ago, soon after I’d been living in Brussels for nearly three years and once more speaking French, my boss in the House of Lords (where I was working at the time) started to read it in French, and I was again tempted to do so but was again put off by the enormity of the task. I had, however, once bought a copy of the first volume in an acclaimed new English translation, and it was sitting in a box in our attic.

So, when the government imposed the first lockdown in England and I was looking for a really good novel to read, having just finished reading a play and having enjoyed two great novels earlier in the year (Flights by Olga Tokarczuk and 4321 by Paul Auster), I turned to Proust.

I’m so glad that I read it in translation — even in English there were some words I didn’t know and many sentences that I had to reread (they can easily go on for a whole page), and my French is no longer up to it.

I finished volume 1, Swann’s Way (513 pages, not including notes, addenda and a plot synopsis), in early May and knew I wanted more. I immediately bought the other five volumes with some tokens I had, and I continued to read them at the rate of about a volume a month.

I finished volume 2, Within a Budding Grove (629 pages) in early June; volume 3, The Guermantes Way (691 pages) in late July on holiday in Pagham; volume 4 (615 pages) in mid August; and I finished volume 5, The Captive and The Fugitive (793 pages, originally published as two separate volumes) in mid September on holiday in the Wye Valley.

However, just over a third of the way through the final volume, volume 6, Time Regained (450 pages), I had a stroke. For a while afterwards I didn’t read anything, and when I started reading again, I felt like I wasn’t up to reading Proust. However, I picked it up again in mid-December and with just two days left in the year I finished it late on 29 December.

“Proust’s writing — the fantastication of it, the fine spun texture of it, the power pace and percipience of it — is a song of intellectual gladness.” [3]

Passages of Proust have been nothing like anything I’ve ever read before — more beautiful, more lyrical than any other book I know. His descriptions — of music, art, books, the passing of time, love, desire, death, loss and remorse — are intricate and rich and contain amazing depths.

He also describes things — such as consciousness, memory and thought — in ways that I had never thought about or articulated before, and yet his descriptions are so accurate that, as I read them, I intimately recognised them as part of my own lived experience, albeit things that I’d only experienced subconsciously:

“That’s what Proust, at his best does: he lifts isolates parts of our lived experience we could not have named, but that we recognise when they are laid out on the slab.” [4]

Admittedly there were other passages didn’t pique my interest at all, and some of the salon discussions and dinner party conversations — for example. about etymologies of place names, histories of French aristocratic families and the minutiae of class distinctions — seemed a bit interminable. There are also pages upon pages discussing contemporary politics (and in particular, the Dreyfus Affair and the different splits over time in French society between people who supported Dreyfus and and people who condemned him) that rather passed me by.

But oh, the writing! It is sublime. And the book as a whole is symphonic; it has an incredible architecture that only becomes apparent in the later volumes.

The magical writing far outweighed the few bits I was less interested in, and I don’t think think that I’ve ever before thought so much before finishing a book about wanting to re-read it. Nor have I ever imagined possibly re-reading a book in a different translation.

“In the present sorry state of the world, we may find ourselves returning to Proust for a new sense of mental largeness and potentiality. We may go back to Proust, as if to a great poet, to be reminded of the wonders that such language can still perform. Proust’s novel is a three-thousand page incantation, an exercise in word magic, a tonic, a restorative for any reader” [3]

I didn’t annotate the book(s) or take any notes, I just read for pure pleasure. In the final volume, it is striking how the older narrator distils his rich lived experience down to just a few key incidents, people and places. And so, whilst I wait a little while before I read it again, I thought I might capture a few of these for myself, to help them to live on in my own memory. These are the episodes that have particularly stuck in my mind:

Swann’s Way

  • Bedtime at Combray — the narrator as a child falling asleep, his magic lantern, waiting for his mother’s goodnight kiss
  • The madelaine dipped in a cup of tea
  • Swann’s Way — the Hawthorn lane and hawthorns in flower, seeing Gilberte for the first time
  • The Guermantes Way — Seeing Mme de Guermantes for the first time in church
  • Swann in love — Listening to “the little phrase” in Vinteuil’s violin sonata, the cattleyas, Swann outside Odette’s window at night
  • Seeing Mme Swann on the Allee des Acacias in the Bois de Boulogne

Within A Budding Grove

  • Seeing the actress Berma perform for the first time— having high expectations and then being underwhelmed
  • Playing with Gilberte in the Champs d’Elysees
  • Balbec — the train journey there (including the girl at the station selling coffee and milk to people on the train), the Grand Hotel (and the hotel manager’s way of speaking), views of the sea, meeting Robert de Saint-Loup, seeing the blossoming girls for the first time, meeting Elstir and seeing his paintings, nights at the Grand Hotel (his grandmother’s taps on the bedroom wall, Albertine staying the night, inviting the narrator to her room and pulling the bell when he tries to kiss her)

The Guermantes Way

  • Walking for miles in Paris to pass Mme Guermantes in the street
  • Doncieres — Visiting Robert de Siant-Loup at his cavalry barracks, sleeping at Doncieres, the fire in his room, dining in the restaurant with Robert’s friends
  • Returning to Paris and seeing his grandmother, who has been ill, reading a book, unaware of his presence; the death of his grandmother
  • Saint-Loup jumping along a bench in a cafe, over wires and past his friends in order to sit next to the narrator without the narrator having to move
  • Mme Guermantes’s red shoes and red dress going to the Princess de Guermantes’s party

Sodom and Gomorrah

  • Charlus and Jupien getting together like a bee and an orchid
  • The Guermantes’ determination to go to a fancy dress ball despite the death of their cousin
  • The narrator’s grief following the death of his grandmother
  • La Raspelière — The Verdurins’ ‘Wednesday’ gatherings (including a couple of passages I found a bit tedious: Brichot’s etymologies of local place names; Charlus holding forth on the hierarchy of European nobility); the train rides there; the beautiful views of the sea from on high; the sensation of fresh air on a hot day; seeing an aeroplane for the first time
  • The narrator’s first trips in a car

The Captive and The Fugitive

  • The sounds and cries outside the narrator’s window on the streets of Paris
  • Marcel watching Albertine sleeping
  • Bergotte’s death: he ate some potatoes, went to an exhibition of Dutch painting to look at a Vermeer painting in search of a detail he had not previously noticed (a little patch of yellow wall), and died there
  • The concert at the Verdurins — a septet play an unpublished work by Vinteuil, the return of “the little phrase”, Mme Verdurin’s reactions as she listens to the music
  • Albertine’s death

Time Regained

  • Aircraft in the sky above Paris during the War
  • M de Charlus in a brothel during the War
  • M de Charlus after his stroke
  • The narrator stumbling on an uneven paving stone outside the Princesse de Guermantes’s reception — and his reflections on unconscious memory, art and the novel
  • The narrator’s reflections at the party on age and the effects of time on people

“The novelist, in Proust’s account is a heroic discoverer of beauty in the bric-a-brac everyday life.”

Moreover, as well as providing me with many wonderful memories, reading Proust has also helped me to appreciate life in new ways and to find beauty in things that previously I have allowed to pass me by — such as hawthorn flowers, and the feeling of fresh air on your face as you open the door on a hot day…

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