I’ve spent the last two years reading In Search Of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, and a few weeks ago I finally finished the seventh and final volume. Here’s the review I posted to my Goodreads account:
I don’t even know how to start reviewing a story I’ve been reading for the last two years. It was wonderful, of course it was, but while I enjoyed reading it the whole way through, I feel like the real point didn’t become clear until the very end. It was worth waiting for.
So, to start with the plot: through seven volumes, we follow the life of Marcel, apparently the last heterosexual man in all of Paris, from his childhood in the countryside through his ridiculous social-climbing adulthood, all kinds of high society intrigues and scandals, friendships, girlfriends, drag kings and queens, mistresses, weddings, jealousy, death, Venice, S&M brothels, war, infidelity, basically every aspect of the French aristocracy’s snobby, hilarious, superficial existence. The story is completely soapy and addictive, like if The Young and the Restless were a novel that impresses people when they hear you’re reading it. You will not be bored.
So that’s the story. But the real point is how Proust tells the story. In my Goodreads review for the second book I wrote, “Proust explains so many things I always knew somehow, but never recognized or was able to put into words. So many times, I’ve read a paragraph and said to myself, ‘I knew that! I’ve thought that!’ on some unconscious, nonverbal level. It’s a rare book that can introduce you to parts of yourself that you realize, as you read, have always existed, unrecognized until now.”
At the end of the final volume, when Marcel decides to leave the party and embark on his masterwork (In Search Of Lost Time itself), he clarifies his project to himself using almost the same words I did: he wants to re-create life itself, using exacting descriptions of thoughts and sensations, and thus connect his story with his readers’ own experiences on all levels: emotional, intellectual, and deeply visceral. Proust’s project is to tell a story that will resonate with us on our own terms, that will provide us with the means, not of reading his story, but of reading our own within ourselves.
His project really boils down to the essential problem of literature. What is its purpose? At the end of the book, when Marcel is at the Prince’s party and makes up his mind to go home and write his masterwork, he decides that literature should give readers a means of looking inward, refining and discerning parts of themselves that they may not have been aware of or developed otherwise. At one point in the story, Marcel tells the painter Elstir that, “We cannot receive the truth from anyone; we have to create it for ourselves.” Is there any truer method of communication? You can’t learn about life just through living; that’s only half of it. You must also reflect. In Search Of Lost Time is a book that can introduce you to yourself. As he inventories and records the richness of his character’s inner life, Proust invites us to do the same and gives us the tools to make sense of our own experiences.
And, at the end of the book, as he sits in the Prince’s study planning the novel he will finally write, Marcel brings all of the preceding six books’ worth of events together in service to his theme, the true purpose of art and literature: connecting with others by connecting with yourself. It’s beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it except for that. This book changed my life. It really did.