På Sporet Af Den Tabte Tid (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust, org. published: 1913-1927, various translators, Forlaget Multivers.
I’ve reviewed every single volume on goodreads, so if you’re interested in those you can find them here.
I finished the first volume* (part one of Swann’s Way) of In Search of Lost Time in January, and I finished the very last volume (part two of Time Regained) on April 11th.
For the better part of three months these books have been my companions. I did my best to read them parallel to our lectures on each volume at uni. I was semi-successful (mostly I’d be in the middle of a volume when we had our lecture on it). I’ll be honest: going through every volume with someone who knew what was going on in it was immensely helpful. It made it easier and more interesting to read. I had to read it pretty fast (faster perhaps than I’d recommend), which caused some stress, because I felt like I should constantly be reading Proust, but I’m glad I did it. I think you gain a lot from having previous volumes fresh in your mind when starting the next one (as with all books).
But it was frustrating because you (well maybe some of you, but not me) can’t read much of Proust in one go without going a little mad. It’s too condensed, too heavy, simply too much. And yet I’ve had days where reading Proust was pretty much everything I did. I’ve never been so committed to a single piece of literature before. It’s been crazy; wonderfully, stupidly crazy.
I feel I’m coming out of a haze.
A few weeks ago I turned the last page and I still can’t quite believe it. Our professor told us that we should prepare for a Life Before Proust and a Life After Proust. I thought he was exaggerating. He was right. There is a difference, and I know that everything we go through changes us and we’re constantly evolving as people, but this change feels tangible.
Perhaps it’s the product of spending about 4500 pages with the same author, an author who is so intent on reflection; whether it be reflecting on life, memory, art, love, death, society, authorship, literature, sexuality, literally anything under the sun – Proust considers it.
The very final volume, very near the end, has the narrator talk about the book he’s been inspired to write (perhaps the one we’re reading) and his concerns if there’s enough time to write it, because he’s growing more and more ill. Here it gets complicated, because the book the narrator talks about writing is not really, of course, the book we’re reading. And yet, it’s hard not to consider is as such, and there is a duplicity in it. Marcel Proust did almost finish his work, we’ve just read it, but he died before he could finish editing the last volumes. He died before he could read his own complete work through from one end to the other.
While the narrator thinks about the book he hopes to write, he also addresses his readers (and Proust, the author, may be addressing his). He says that he hopes they’ll read his book, not to understand what he has gone through, not to understand who he is, but that they’ll use it as a tool to look inside themselves, to find themselves within the pages of his book. Not to find him; to find ourselves.
“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”
I nearly cried. Thinking about it now I want to cry.
Because at the end of my reading experience I did find myself in his novel, I found myself all throughout reading, to be honest. But more than that: I changed. I became someone new. I’ve hated and loved reading this – and love wins, because it pushed me into considering so many different point of views, it taught me so many things. Some I disagreed with, some I recognized, some I’d never seen before, and always, always it made me reflect on my own views, on who I am.
In Search of Lost Time contains immense beauty, incredible intellect and wit, it’s frustrating beyond belief, sometimes grotesque and provoking, sometimes brilliantly wondrous, and it’s meaningful through and through. I found myself bored and annoyed, but I kept on reading, not merely because I’d made a deal with myself to finish the goddamn thing, but because I knew it was getting somewhere.
And the final part, Time Regained, is what we’re getting at. It’s Proust vision laid bare, his vision for his novel, for memory, literature, art. For life. Among the many, many thoughts and arguments Proust presents, his final one, his conclusion, is worth staying for.
We are all, the narrator (and Proust) concludes, merely human bodies, taking up a point in space, but at the same time we transcend it, in each of us is stored memories, multiple people we’ve been throughout the years. We command an immense range in time; we’re mortal and eternal. Parts of us will last forever, and it’s these parts, this ideal essence that appears before us whenever we experience an involuntary memory. And it’s this ideal essence, this immortal part, that Proust attempts to capture in his novel. Time and life is not merely a series of moments following each other, it’s every moment stacked upon each other as well. Every moment, every you you’ve ever been, ready to come back to life, brought forth by the right smell, the sight of a pretty girl, a song. When we remember we are two people at once, we inhabit two moments: the present and the past, and we both live through the past moment and look at it in hindsight. We see the truth of it this way.
He does it well.
My soul is exhausted, full, and satisfied. I feel like I’ve been on a long journey, that I’ve walked and walked and walked and can finally rest for a moment. I’m ready to greet whoever I’ve become on the other side of Proust. Not a lot has changed, I look the same, I sound the same, I love the same people. But I see the world a little differently, so many things will reflect Proust from now on. He’ll never leave again. You don’t forget someone you’ve spend 4500 pages with.
For these 3 months everything I read, watched, talked about, I couldn’t help but view in the light of Proust. He was always there, he always had something to say. I honest to god kept circling back to him, regardless of the topic.
Anything has the power to transform you, as long as it finds you at the right time. But I think Proust has the power to transform no matter when you meet him – perhaps that’s simply because anyone you spend so much time with, anyone you freely choose to let yourself get submerged by, can’t help but move you. Or perhaps it’s that great art simply does that.
If I’ve learned anything it’s that Proust can always be found on my shelf, and in my memory; better, even, when visited by another me, in another time.
I’ll see you again.
*Originally In Search of Lost Time is 7 volumes, but my edition has 13 as a lot of them have been split into two, I suspect for translation purposes.