Thoughts on Proust – part one

Having now finished Remembrance of Things Past and having a couple of days to think about it all I wanted to put together some thoughts about the story, writing, personality of Marcel (the character) and a couple of points on the subject of time.

In this first mini-essay (not really what blogging is meant to be about) I’ll cover off the story and writing.

The story
Unlike most books, which have a tight plot structure, this is about real life and as a result doesn’t follow a pattern but develops organically. That makes it sometimes feel like it is not going anywhere quickly and in others numerous things happen at once without the chance to provide the reader with the usual descriptive analysis that is displayed elsewhere across the volumes.

There are a few themes throughout the books – age and loss of innocence spring to mind – but the most important are around the themes of deception and disappointment. Most people are hiding things ranging from homosexuality to support for Dreyfus. A few figures provide the examples of the first problem most notably M. de Charlus, Albertine and in the end Saint-Loup. In terms of the second people are guilty of switching sides on the Dreyfus case as well as later on showing sympathy for the Germans during the First World War.

Ultimately the story is about a man who has the luxury of wealth so has no need to find a job, who pokes around the edges of his ambition to become a writer before having his moment of realisation. As he grows up, and although the ages are hard to guess at so maybe a rough guide is the period covered is something like 30 years from the age of ten to forty, he falls in love with various women before developing a physical relationship with Albertine, who it transpires is a lesbian, and then leaves him and dies.

Sadly Marcel is ill when the war is taking place so that the story about how the war impacted on society and Paris is told in snippets but not in the sort of depth that he brings to bear at the start of the epic on Combray and Balbec.

The story could have just petered out but you end with this sort of Back to The Future type blinding flash moment when Marcel realises he could set out to produce an opus about time and memory and far from having to struggle with finding the subject matter for a book he has all he needs in his own head.

For me it is those last passages about time and writing that make the book a success because it could have just fizzled out because by volume seven the main characters are either dead: Swann, Saint-Loup, Albertine, M Verdurin and a few of the minor players or so old and changed they are no longer of great interest: Charlus, Mde. De Guermantes, Morel and Bloch.

Finally, the other comment I would make on the story is that trying to describe it is bound to put people off the journey. In pockets there are moments of great humour – based mainly around Charlus – great pain and friendship. It is not quite like holding a mirror up but there are aspects of Marcel’s existence and life that do resonate with your own – the feeling of paranoia and jealousy when you first meet your partner – as well as evidence if it was needed that people from time’s first beginning have lied, kept secrets and hidden their true selves.

The writing
The other feature of Remembrance of Things Past that can provoke today’s generation is the writing style. For those people who love deep detailed description this is a master class in how someone can use the power of the memory to recall events that clearly happened years before they have been written about. Some of the passages are truly beautiful and have rightly become famous. One of my favourites came from Swann’s Way:

“But in summer, when we came back to the house, the sun would not have set; and while we were upstairs paying our visit to aunt Leonie its rays , sinking until they lay along her window-sill, would be caught and held by the large inner curtains and the loops which tied them to the back of the wall, and then, split and ramified and filtered, encrusting with tiny flakes of gold the citronwood of the chest-of-drawers, would illuminate the room with a delicate, slanting, woodland glow.” (pg145)

He manages to get the most out of sounds, smells and locations using his skill to create, like a composer, themes that will echo at different volumes throughout the seven volumes. Things like the bedtime kiss from his mother, which becomes replaced by Albertine, becomes a recurring theme he refers to.

There is also an ability, although sometimes it is cut very close, where he pushes the naval gazing intense analysis of his social world to such an extent the reader could switch off, before changing location and pace. There are moments when deaths, marriages and changes to circumstances are reeled off quickly and others where he can quite happily spend half a book talking about the social circle that gravitates to the Verdurin’s in Balbec during his second summer there.

The other point that is worth mentioning is the way he manages to seamlessly move into a narrative voice that is able to report on for instance the courtship of Swann and Odette, despite the fact Marcel is not involved. That happens again with Charlus and Morel.

Some writers have referred to Remembrance of Things Past as almost a soap opera and that feeling is only the result of Proust’s ability to keep the reader guessing and add extra twists to the story line. For instance you were kept wondering if society would find out about Charlus and his homosexuality; if Saint-Loup and Gilberte really were in love; if Albertine ever really cared for Marcel and so on. It would be almost impossible to get readers to stick with seven large volumes, around 3,000 pages, if they didn’t feel it was going anywhere.

Proust’s achievement is that he manages to pull the story and the focus of the writing back at the end to be centred on Marcel and the whirrings of his brain and that is where crucially the story, writing and narrative point of view come from.


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