on August 4, 2002
Modern Library's Volume V deals with the relationship between Marcel and Albertine. It is a complex, psychological relationship to say the least. In the Captive, Albertine lives with Marcel in his apartment in Paris and in The Fugitive one wonders who is, in fact, more captive -- Albertine or Marcel. It would seem to be Albertine for whom Marcel possesses an obsessive love and concurrent fear of her sapphic penchant. But it is also Marcel who will sacrifice experience if he makes a commitment to her. Who is more free, the captive or the fugitive? Proust raises questions about how to serve best the artist's quest for beauty. In fact, how does one really ever "capture" the beauty of life in art or music or literature? Even in a masterpiece, is it not beauty the fugitive that usually dwells just beyond one's capture? Or like Vinteuil's septet or the music of Wagner or the painting of Rembrandt, is the best for which one can hope of fugitive beauty only a brief fleeting experience? Are the vast tracts of time spent to understand the beauty and meaning of life worth it? As a writer does he not habitually surrender life in order to capture it? Or is the pursuit of the capture of the beauty of life in fact where one realizes its most sublime value? One sees in Proust toward the end of The Fugitive a member of society who respects it but chooses by reasons of health not to position himself so visibly within it. Despite his family name and vast but dwindling fortune inherited from his beloved grandmother, he seems to become somewhat ultimately disenchanted with the intricacies of Faubourg-St. Germain society to which he devotes so much of his writing. He recognises society's shallow obsession with materialism and rampant snobbery but his own place in society is captured by its complex history and tacit rules and Marcel is inescapably a captive of his own culture. When Albertine is lost to him toward the end of the volume, as in the prior volumes, the story line's serial intrigue advances most. Characters from prior volumes reappear, reminiscent of Balzac, whom Proust adored, but like him they change,too, and usually for the worse over time. The great tapestry of the characters of Proust -- Albertine, Gilberte, Swann, Brichot, Bloch, Charlus, Morel, Saint-Loup -- ultimately surprise and usually disappoint him. As to nagging questions about Proust's own orientation, "Personally I found it absolutely immaterial from a moral standpoint whether one took one's pleasure with a man or a woman, and only too natural and human that one should take it where one could find it." I found myself wishing that Proust had written more about Bloch and Saint-Loup and Gilberte, and less about Albertine. But she was, like his work, the one obsession, the endeavor of which understanding he could never escape and never quite marry -- she was his beauty and his art. She was the breath of life itself from his pen and from his experience of life as seen through the eyes of a true genius.
on July 14, 2002
This volume contains parts five and six of Proust's huge novel; additionally, these two parts represent the first posthumous releases from A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. If there was any doubt in my mind that these parts, published without the author's oversight, could not continue the excellence of the preceding parts, this fear was quickly dispelled. The Captive and The Fugitive contain some of the most beautiful of Proust's prose, as well as insights into Parisian society, art and the inner thoughts of the narrator not contained elsewhere in the novel.
The Captive, originally published in 1923, tells the story of Marcel and Albertine, now kept by the narrator in his Paris home. This co-habitation is not based on love, nor even lust, but on the obsessive jealousy of Marcel based on his almost psycopathic fear of Albertine's lesbian proclivities. By this point in the novel, Marcel has removed himself from society and is content to remain for the most part in his room. Albertine, living in an adjoining room, is allowed out of the house only with a chaperon and to destinations decided in advance by Marcel. It is the ironic twist that Proust puts on the idea of imprisonment that forms the backbone of this part of the novel. Not only is Albertine kept prisoner by Marcel, but Marcel is no less the prisoner of his own obsession.
It can arguably be stated that each of the parts of the novel corresponds to one of the senses. If this is the case, the Captive surely corresponds to the sense of hearing. It is while listening to Vinteuil's septet that Marcel realizes that art is more than the mechanical manipulation of ideas by color, words or music. Just as Vinteuil has created a complex musical form out of the "catchy" phrase so admired by Swann and Mme Verdurin's little group, Marcel awakens to the limitless possibilities of artistic expression. This epiphanic moment awakens in the narrator a desire to commit himself to the life of a writer. In order to accomplish this wish, he decides that he must end his affair with Albertine. Marcel's decision to part with Albertine on his own terms is thwarted when he learns that it is she who has made the final break and has left his apartment.
Thus begins The Fugitive (originally translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, with a freight train full of poetic license, as The Sweet Cheat Gone). The Fugitive represents the most introspective part of a very introspective novel, and in it Proust's zeal for self-examination is pursued with un-relentless fervor as layer upon layer of the author's persona in exposed to the reader.
Marcel's world is turned up side down when he learns that Albertine has died in a riding accident. His obsession, so debilitating when his mistress was alive, continues unabated after her death and the narrator continues with his scrutiny of Albertine's private life as if she was still alive. He finally realizes that obsession cannot be eliminated by death and that relief can only come with the passsing of time and the ensuing state of oblivion. Although Albertine's memory has not been totally erased, the torment that she has caused Marcel diminishes greatly and he is able to resume his life and work.
However, it is a different world into which Marcel emerges after his long period of grief. Just as Marcel's personal life was changed by a freak accident, the social life in which he has emersed himself is going through social changes just as fundamental. The old aristocracy, becoming more and more deperate for cash, is falling prey to the easy lure of mariages of convenience in which aristocratic titles are exchanged for hefty dowries. His two friends, Gilberte Swann and Robert de Saint-Loup, are married to each other thus accomplishing what Charles Swann could never do - have his daughter received by the Duchess de Guermantes. Even more revolutionary, a simple seamstress (Jupien's niece) marries into the aristocracy forever destroying any romantic impressions that Marcel might still hold of the Guermantes and Meseglise Ways. Clearly Marcel's world is changing, but it is the change in his friend, Robert de Saint-Loup, that causes him the greatest pain as he realizes that even friendships are all too often broken by the passage of time.
on January 1, 2002
I read this entire opus in the summer of 1975, while lounging around the local pool and tennis courts, as a young seeker of wisdom and truth. I had read Mann (MAGIC MOUNTAIN),Musil (MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES), WAS AMAZED, GAVE THIS ONE A SHOT. A lot is very slow going,but it's true this is a book that really makes you appreciate beauty, and frankly be glad that you (I) have eyes and ears. Most people, it seems, go thru life without really bothering to appreciate the everyday beauties that are all around us,corny as that seems. Walk around your neighborhood some evening.How many people will be strolling outside enchanted at the the stars/heavens? For every one,there are probably a thousand watching an obnoxious sit-com with canned laughter. You see, a great artist like Proust makes us look at the world in this way. Walk into even a do-it-yourself clothing shop,and notice all the patterns. Most of us barely pay attention. Proust' ways of seeing,and describing are like any great painter. He often invokes Vermeer, a fair comparison.He is awed by cathedrals,landscapes,you name it. And his discussions of the Great War, including some admiration for German soldiers, are a surprise. Yes, it goes on and on,and I could not make the effort now,except to browse thru it. BTW, I prefer Mann and Musil, who seem to have a better story line,and stringer narrative. Marcel's mother complex,and all the super-long interrelationships and descriptions may put you off, for good reason,but even just browsing thru this shows you this fellow had phenomenal powers of observation,even forgetting all the rest of the greatness of this wondrous, if boring at times, work of art.
on December 8, 2001
Yes, one more review of this monster, only because I have some different views on a few of its features. But first, to reinforce what others have written, it's a tremendously satisfying read. I read it twenty years ago and am now almost finished for the second time. I picked it up again because I was so tired of flailing around looking for something worthwhile to read--with all the jillions of books out there, the number of truly rewarding ones is remarkably small.
But it's amazing how different the experience is the second time around. The first time, I was so completely enchanted by the style alone, and gave my concentration to it so completely, that I missed a lot of the "story" (if it could be said to have one). Now I'm beginning to think that that is part of Proust's enormous joke on the reader.
Here is a narrator who succeeds wonderfully in rendering every character in his story--every character, that is, except himself. Even his girlfriends--given what we now know about Proust's having modelled them after men he was obsessed with--come across as quite believable females, even if they are a bit hazy around the edges compared with, say, the vibrant and robust portrait of Robert de Saint-Loup that fairly leaps from the page. And in Mme Verdurin and Baron de Charlus he creates two of the great characters--the great people--of all literature. But he fails to create a believable person in his narrator! For despite the narrator's claims that his company is ardently and constantly sought by everyone from soldiers in their barracks to dukes and duchesses in their drawing rooms, he never--NEVER, in the course of thousands of pages--gives us one instance of his wit or charm when interacting with others. In fact, he impresses one as a rather repulsive little creep, neurotic and neurasthenic in the extreme, and rather cruel. This is not to say that he fails to be witty and charming as a narrator--far from it. First of all, there are the marvelous characters mentioned above. And if the reader can somehow weather the tedious, meticulous, seemingly endless analyses of his "love" for Gilberte and, even more remorselessly, for Albertine, one encounters passages of great lyric beauty, sentences that are entrancingly serpentine, metaphors stunningly original and transitions masterfully seamless.
on December 3, 2001
I first picked up the first volume way back in 1987, and now (2001, Oct), I finally finished the entire works.
In the last book ("Time Regained") Proust lucidly laid out his philosophy of Truth and Reality. In doing so, he contrasted the traditional Plato's sense of objective-reality as "things in themselves", Truth as a notion independent of any human observation, to what will be the precursor of Modern Analytic Philosophy (of latter Wittgenstein's and American Pragmatism) in which reality and truth are defined as "things that are experienced". For Proust, reality and truth are embedded in the way we remember the past. What makes the church in Combray real, is my rememberance of it, and all of my sensation, emotion, and feeling that comes with that memory. This is an extremely radical view of reality and truth for his time, since it amounts to say that truth and reality are subjective, not objective. Proust, however, wanted to go further that this. He made the connection between reality/truth and arts. For him, arts is a unique way of remembering and experiencing the past. Only by remembering and conjuring all of your past memory of the past, can arts be borned.
on August 30, 2001
The greatness of this book in my belief is not anything having to do with the title. The French title In Search of Lost Time refers to Marcel's endeavor to recapture a lost past. Strictly speaking all great fiction does this. Proust's memory does prove important but it is not his theory of perfectly recapturing the past which makes for a sumptuous read but his effort to do so which is quite a different thing. Proust reimagines things in a way they could not possibly have occurred. He imagines a thing in the way a child dreams a thing. The fact is that a child usually finds his imaginings are far better than anything the world suggests. Proust chose to believe differently and thats fine with me because what he imagines his past to have been like is something I believe no one has ever lived. To my ears his theory of recapturing time is just a necessary illusion for creating great fiction. And he does that. The first book of this multi volume set is the story of Swanns love affair with Odette told in such a way that we all know that this is a modern fiction writer who is writing a modern piece of fiction with as much self consciousness as Manet had when he painted Luncheon on the Grass. Later in this grand and intricately woven set of novellas we find Marcel at the Opera. And we find him enjoying this Opera in the way only a Flaubertian student of fiction enjoys fiction. Don't be fooled but don't miss the pleasures afforded in time spent here. This was the decadent era after all and authors were given free reign to invent. He writes like a Prince. Of that you need no proof of lineage. Buy this because nothing else like it exists. It is a document, though forged by a romanticist, of turn of the century France. Everything here is superbly written and entirely fake. Why do people write fiction? To make things right in the second draft.
on June 5, 2001
If you're here reading this review, then you're presumably thinking of reading Proust. Given that, you also probably know that it's supposed to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written, an opinion I happen to agree with. But what makes it so great? And should you give it a try?
To answer the first part, while different people will find different things, what I enjoy most is Proust's tremendous psychological insight, and his ability to move from the specific to the general. The work is full of small events which Proust uses as springboards to illustrate general characteristics, many of which you will read with the shock of recognition that true insight provides.
And Proust tackles the big questions: love, art, and memory are all major themes, just to pick the most notable examples. But it is not all heavy, serious drudgery. Proust is also a very funny writer, and there are large sections which show a wonderful comedy of manners or social satire.
So should you try it? I would definitely recommend it, with a few caveats. First, while I think his reputation is a bit overblown, Proust can be a difficult writer. The biggest hurdle is his style; he writes very long, involved sentences that pile clauses upon clauses. But given this length and intricacy, it is remarkable how clear Proust's prose actually is. Only very rarely will you have to stop and recatch the drift of a sentence. And when that happens, it's usually because your attention has wandered, not because of any inherent opaqueness. And after you become accustomed to it, Proust's writing style becomes one of the charms of the work, immersing you in a different world every time you pick up the books.
It is also unfortunate in a way that probably the most difficult section of the book is the very first, "Combray." However, even if you find that tough going, things pick up with the second section, "Swann in Love." (Although it is never a page turner in the usual sense.) And if you can read and enjoy the first 50 pages, then you can make it through the whole thing.
The length also puts many prospective readers off, but I wouldn't worry about that so much. The total cast of characters is relatively large, but not huge, and they are so well presented and disntinctive that I never had any trouble keeping them straight. And because the work is not driven by details of the plot, it can be set down and picked up a little later without losing much, if your motivation lags. (This is a last point to keep in mind: the work will not carry you along with the plot or keep you guessing about what will happen. Instead, it will captivate you with the detail and insight it brings to present the everyday occurences of life.)
Obviously, there's much more I could write, but hopefully this will give you some idea of the work and whether you would like it, which is what a review is all about...
on April 24, 2001
Before we are going to lose ourselves in superlatives, a few pointers might be in place: (1) ProustÕs novel had been published this side of the turning century and therefore it counts as FranceÕs contribution to the modernist movement of the 20th century. It is not. It still belongs to the Victorian three deckers of the 19th century, in a class with Tolstoy and Eliot, the English novelist, whom Proust admired most. (2) When going through Jean-Yves TadiŽÕs monumental biography of Marcel Proust I found little evidence that Proust actually cared very much for Montaigne. Given his time and curriculum it stands to reason that Montaigne had been a must read, too familiar to fuss about. But with both, I feel the same warm hospitality oozing from the pages, just to sit down for a good gossipy read. (3) This is a French novelist, with a French education, a French perspective on things, a French sensibility, and a French delight in surrounding absolutely everything in an iridescent halo of words. And by the way! Should you ever try to read the thing in one go, make sure you have plenty of leisure. Sell your telly and donÕt go to the movies; keep your sex life to a minimum. And should you not speak French, you have a problem. Against all appearances, ProustÕs Gallic, gently malicious wit, his belle esprit is really there, but in this translation it tramples along on heavy feet. My French too is not quite up to the task of reading Proust the way he should be read, so like many I depend on MoncrieffÕs translation -- there is only his, in several editorial revamps, none of which has much to speak for itself. For instance we read in ÒSwannÕs Way:Ó Ò... a reflection of the sunlight had contrived to slip in on its golden wings, remaining motionless, between glass and woodwork, in a corner like a butterfly poised upon a flower.Ó This is Victorian imitation kitsch. And what did Proust write? Ò... a reflection of the sunlight had made its yellow wings slip in and remained motionless, between glass and woodwork, in a corner, like a folded butterfly.Ó Less of cheap glitter, more sensuality. Am I nitpicking? Is this not a trifle of little consequence? Well, IÕm sorry, but if you really want to read Proust, this is the meat of the matter. Whatever else it might be, ProustÕs novel is a complete world in itself, projected and laid out in the most elaborate mosaic ever; and every little majolica shard counts. Every author creates his own pedigree, says Borges somewhere and Proust took great pains to establish a huge family tree that reaches down all the way to Rousseau and St.Augustine who provided the overall form for ProustÕs novel, the analytical confession. Most of us, especially in the translation, will miss out on all the little touches and mocking voice imitations of countless French authors, nobody outside of France has ever heard of. Ventriloquism is an act of comedy and this element is surely lost. Personally I think of Proust, as a great French essayist. Try to forget for a moment that the ÒRechercheÓ comes as a novel: we would still be left with a whole plethora of essayistic genres: character sketches, explorations into the world of plant and beast, meditations on sexuality and the nature of time, all of which could exist independently of its context. Another French, Emile Zola I believe, characterized art as Ònature seen through a temperament,Ó and Proust exactly fits the description. Sometimes we heard Proust insisting that his novel had the architecture of a Gothic cathedral -- which reminds me of a heated debate we students once had, whether it was possible to build a cathedral or the pyramids like bees construct their hives. I really donÕt know the answer, but I suspect ProustÕs cathedral might support the honey-comb theory. I mean once we get to the bottom of his multi-layered technique there is not much of a story left to go anywhere. James Joyce is one of the few authors in English who received an education very similar to Marcel ProustÕs, and even roughly at the same time. There was not much else the two had in common, ProustÕs family swam comfortably on the upper end of FranceÕs bourgeoisie, while JoyceÕs Irish parents were most of the time broke and struggling. But by and large he of all contemporaries certainly had the credentials to pass judgement; and he characterized ProustÕs sentences as Òpredictable.Ó Geniuses alone in their rarefied atmosphere -- lesser mortals like us, are not included. I for once, rather enjoy the surprises. And of course, Proust did create real characters, as real as anybody I know in the Òreal world,Ó but they seem not much to be doing, except for having pleasant conversations, frequent aristocratic dinner tables, fret over their latest crush and occasionally visit the museum. ThatÕs alright, most of us donÕt do much else, especially after retirement, but do we really need 3.000 pages to read about? Even Proust seems to agree that we donÕt, so he regales us to countless batches of his Gallic pastiches, and they are sure worth reading, though they lack the sinuous muscle of Voltaire. Proust can be flabby at times. But so did Montaigne and once you feel comfortable in your armchair, you donÕt really mind and just enjoy the hospitality. Ok, this might not be quite fair. Only the first two volumes had been published during ProustÕs own lifetime. These volumes in fact do show considerable unity and architecture. Proust was every publisherÕs nightmare and liked to edit copiously the galley proofs, who knows what this could have done to the other 4 volumes. As it is, we see a warehouse full of fluffy stuff, wrapped in plenty of scented cotton wool. But the chrysanthemums are really good.
on December 18, 2000
Four-fifths of this novel takes place inside a madman's head. I don't just mean that he is a first-person narrator looking back over his life; he stays in his room, literally agonising over his lover, the captive of the title, wondering where she is, who she's with, unable to sift any kind of truth from a welter of lies, misinterpretations, suspicions, half-clues. Above all, he's terrified she's a lesbian, and sees willing accomplices everywhere. So there's more than one captive in this novel.
this cramped, interior, labyrinthine novel doesn't just range on jealousy - the narrator muses on time, art, place. The governing motif is music, and there are some beautiful sections on the sounds of the street as an orchestra, the epiphanical premiere of a septet at a soiree, or Albertine playing on the pianola.
For relief there is a 100-page escape from the house (and the narrator's obsessiveness), at the soiree, where we meet all our old friends, the Verdurins, Brichot, Morel, and the incomparable Charlus, heading for a terrible fall. The move from interior psychologising to observational social comedy is literally fresh air - the whole sequence is beautifully modulated between comedy and melancholy.
And yet it all comes back to this madman and a woman he doesn't even really love, becuse the freedom that made him love her in the first place has been stifled by him.
on September 20, 2000
A star system doesn't work for Proust, any more than it would for Shakespeare. Both are too big, although in very different ways.
I started reading SWANN'S WAY when I was twenty and thought it boring. I got through the first two volumes and quit. When I turned thirty-eight I felt a strong need to read it in its entirety; I wasn't sure why. It took two years but I finished it before I was forty and felt refreshed in a way I never had on completing any other book. I saw that I was ready to enter the stage of my life when memory transforms all current reality. I pursuaded my husband to give it a try, and although he only read the first four volumes, he called it "everyone's autobiography", a perfect description. Nothing that has ever been written compares with this long, extended daydream on memory, love, loss, and the transforming power of art. As a painter, I learned new ways to look. (Proust is the only fiction writer I've ever read who understands and can express what a painting can say.)
Admittedly this very great book is not for everyone. Perhaps that's because it's so unlike other reading experiences. You have to read it with discipline and dedication, just as you approach meditation.
More than twenty years have passed since I finished it. Now I am re-reading it. Time lost in one's own life transforms this masterpiece so that it offers up new treasures, new insights, and becomes a different book. It's an organic, living, unique work of art that goes far beyond praise.