Alright, so I'm a cheat. I never thought I'd get beyond admiring the bright spanking six volumes of A la recherche (3700 pages! Phew!) on my bookshelves, but when it was announced that Raul Ruiz had made a film of the last book, I seized my chance. Thanks to this brilliant edition you can, because at the end is an exhaustive guide to Proust, listing every character, historical person, place and theme of the whole work, so that just by referring regularly to this you quickly catch up with what's going on. Of course this isn't the same as living with characters and events through literature, but this volume is so amazing you can't fail to want to begin the whole thing and experience them from the start.
This is, as I expected, one of the most beautiful and exciting books I have ever read, as well as one of the most frustrating and irritating. What is most surprising, for a book claimed as one of the two greatest of the century, is how old-fashioned it is (compared to the still startlingly modern and socially relevant ULYSSES).
It has two types of narrative. One, about a young middle class boy who penetrates society, is a mixture of social comedy and tortured romance familiar to anyone who has read a great Victorian novel - there is the same social analysis of an outmoded caste, wide range of characters, poetic evocation of place.
The language, once you get used to the involved, elaborate sentences, is very accessible in a Jamesian kind of way, intricately psychological and analytical, yet supremely elegant and radiant, with a verve and lightness remarkable for such a heavy book.
The translation is, for once, remarkable - it can never be the original, I guess, but you rarely feel that you are getting only half the work like you usually do.
The second half is less satisfactory. As is appropriate to a book concerned with time, the book's forward progress is constantly impeded, by degressions, flashbacks, fastforwards, explanations. The book, like those of Anthony Powell (if you loved THE DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME, you'll adore this) is less straight plotting, than a series of monumental set-pieces.
This novel is 450 pages long, but has only about three events - the narrator going back to the country to stay with friends; the first world war; a huge party. These are mini-novels in themselves and are extraordinary as social observation, character comedy and amusing incident, as well as profoundly moving meditations on the inexorable power of history and old age.
Imagine the narrator has a remote control as he is walking through the film of his life. He freezes the screen every three seconds and discusses in detail the tableaux vivants before him, bending time and experience back and forwards with ease as he does so.
In between these are ruminations on the art of writing. This is a remarkably self-reflexive book, the narrator suddenly starts talking about how he came to write it, what he intended to achieve and what tools he was going to use. The volume becomes less the conclusion of a vast work than the record of its inception; you have to go back then and read it again (believe me, 3700 pages won't seem enough).
This section, a book-length manifesto, is fascinating and thrilling, but also repetitive, difficult, frustrating, and sometimes obscure - it gets in the way of the brilliant descriptive passages - the meeting with Baron de Charlus is possibly the most extraordinary thing I have read, until the remarkable coup of the closing party, where people the narrator hasn't seen for years have grown horribly old and form a grotesque, funereal fancy dress party - you want him to shut up talking about Time and impressionism and get back to the fun.
Two other things: Evelyn Waugh was wrong - Proust is hilarious, both with subtle ironies and more obvious satiric abuse; with risible character traits and wider social events.
Secondly, the narrator is not some unbearable omnisicient know-all as those of Victorian novels - he is deeply unreliable - a prig, hypocrite, voyeur, homophobic, intolerant, puritan, snob, deeply contradictory and cripplingly ill; in earlier volumes he is apparently obsessional, jealous and brutal to the point of insanity. No wonder Nabokov adored him - he is, in his ravishingly aesthetic unreliability, the first Humbert.