Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten great books #2: In Search of Lost Time

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In Search of Lost Time

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

The best clue I’ve found for understanding the work of Marcel Proust is Roger Shattuck’s observation, in his useful study Proust’s Way, that the author’s most immediate precursor is Scheherazade, the legendary author of The Thousand and One Nights. In Search of Lost Time has less in common with the novels we’re used to reading than the volumes of myths and fairy tales we devour in childhood, and I suspect that it would seem more accessible to the many readers who currently find it bewildering if, as Shattuck suggests, it had been called The Parisian Nights. Proust is a teller of tales, and like Homer, his work is infinitely expansible: an exchange that lasts for two lines in an oral epic like The Iliad could have been expanded—as it probably was for certain audiences—into an entire evening’s performance, and Homer uses his metaphors to introduce miniature narratives of human life that don’t otherwise fit into a poem of war. Proust operates in much the same way. One observation leads naturally to another, and an emotion or metaphor evoked in passing can unfold into three pages of reflections. In theory, any good novel could be expanded like this, like a hypertext that opens into increasingly intimate levels: In Search of Lost Time happens to be the only book in existence in which all of these flowerings have been preserved. Its plot could fit into a novella of two hundred unhurried pages, but we don’t read Proust for the plot, even if he knows more about suspense and surprise than you might intially expect. His digressions are the journey, and the result is the richest uninterrupted slice of a great writer’s mind that a work of fiction has afforded.

And the first thing you notice about Proust, once you’ve lived in his head for long enough, is that he has essential advice and information to share with us about everything under the sun. Proust is usually associated with the great twin themes of memory and time, and although these are crucial threads, they’re only part of a tapestry that gradually expands to cover all aspects of human life. At first, it seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy and obsession should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape, not to mention a mine of insight into such diverse areas as art, class, childhood, travel, death, homosexuality, architecture, poetry, the theater, and how milk looks when it’s about to boil over, while also peopling his work with memorable characters and offering up a huge amount of incidental gossip and social reportage. When you look at it from another angle, though, it seems inevitable. Proust is the king of noticing, and he’s the author who first awakened me to the fact that a great novelist should be able to treat any conceivable topic with the same artistic and intellectual acuity. His only rival here is Shakespeare, but with a difference. Plays like Hamlet speak as much in their omissions and silences, leaving us to fill in the gaps. Proust, by contrast, says everything—it’s all there on the page for anyone who wants to unpack it—and you can’t emerge without being subtly changed by the experience. Like Montaigne, Proust gives us words to express thoughts and feelings we’ve always had, and if you read him deeply, you inevitably reach a point where you realize that this novel, which seemed to be about everything in the world, has been talking about you all along.

Written by nevalalee

September 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. I was badly in need of a post like that.
    A beautiful and quite costly box set of all 6 volumes was really tempting me,but I wasn’t sure if I should buy it. But your post has convinced me. :)
    I hope I will like Proust as much as you do.


    October 26, 2013 at 7:51 am

  2. So glad to hear it! Within a Budding Grove is my favorite—it takes some patience to get there, but please don’t stop reading until you get to “Place-Names: The Place.”


    October 26, 2013 at 8:51 am

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