on June 12, 2003
Proust's great novel is by far the greatest work of literature I have ever read, including Shakespeare, Goethe, Joyce, Woolf, Dostoyesvsky, Austen, Nabokov, Hemingway and Tolstoy. 'Lost Time' is a story spanning forty years in the life of a man named only once in the narrative, and follows his reminiscences of love, society, and becoming a writer. Proust has the deepest insight into human behaviour and the human mind: it is humanity itself that he essentially aims to dissect within the flesh of his novel. But 'Lost Time' is also a novel very much about art, sexuality, and of course, his famous themes of Memory and Habit. The plot itself is very, very slow (it took me five weeks of absolute solid non-stop reading to devour all six volumes, but by week two my wife had only got as far as page fifty, and then gave up), so if you want a pacey story, a quick and satisfying read, then this will not be for you - having said this, I actually found parts quite exciting, and, despite the banality of some of the events, Proust's writing makes the story so enjoyable that it is quite unputdownable; it can be hard work, but it can also be sublimely easy to read: it is as if, after a hundred pages or so, one becomes 'fluent' in Proust, and reading him becomes as natural as taking another breath.
Proust manages, in my opinion, to achieve perfection in every literary sense: vol. 1 is a poetic and moving reminiscence of childhood, and contains some breathtakingly beautiful passages (especially of Combray), and includes the delightful novella 'Swann in Love' (these Swann bits and childhood bits are important to the later volumes too); vol. 1 is perfectly acceptable to be read on its own, without the others, if you so desire (and don't have the time); vol. 2 is the 'Bildungsroman', as it were, and sets up all the important characters, including the wonderful Saint-Loup and the alluring Albertine; vol. 3 is very much a 'society' novel, although don't expect 'Vanity Fair' ... what struck me in this part, and more so in vol. 4 was how utterly hilarious a writer Proust is - his humour is at once cruel and delightful; then vol. 4 is very much the 'gay' novel, and probably the funniest too - I laughed aloud all the way through ... the characterisation of the Baron is formidable in this volume - probably one of the best drawn characters in all of literature; but vol. 5, the Captive, I found to be very slow, and very intense, but although it has the most frustratingly slow passages, it has the most sublimely beautiful ones too - ones that rival the entire poetical canon; and vol. 5, the Fugitive, is sort of a summing up, a tying up of loose ends before the finale; finally, vol. 6 is indeed the very finale, and it is quite spectacular, one can see clearly the terrifying influence of the Great War on Proust in this part.
Vols. 1 and 6 were written first as a small (700p) novel, which Proust then added, and added, and added to, as the years went by. I could really feel his development (to perfection), as a writer, through the volumes, but it still all holds in the same wonderful voice throughout. Incidentally, the new Penguin translations read quite poorly in comparison to this one, and lose a lot of the humour. Always stick with the D.J. Enright revised translation - it is the best English version.
This is a must read for everyone who has the time to do so. Reading this was not only the most phenomenal literary experience of my life, but also one of the most amazing experiences of my life full stop. This novel finds the perfect balance between the most poetic prose of all time, engrossing characters (and their stories), intellectual and investigative essayistic passages, artistic and pyschoanalytical investigation, both satirical and delightful humour, and the most perspicacious observations of humanity ever written.
Proust's great novel is sheer perfection. If you read it, be prepared to not enjoy any other novels afterward - because you probably won't: nothing better can be written. Genius.