Marcel Proust was born into a wealthy French-Jewish family, and lived for some years as a young man-about-town, moving among the most fashionable echelons of Parisian society. Ill-health, the death of his beloved mother, and perhaps boredom, drove him in later years to retire to the seclusion of his cork-lined bedroom, to work on his masterpiece, A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (1913–27), best translated as In Search of Lost Time, also sometimes known by its older title of Remembrance of Things Past. It is one of the best and one of the longest novels of the century, extending to over 3,000 pages. In the first part, ‘Combray’, we are introduced to the world of the narrator, well-heeled bourgeois provincial France—not too far from Paris—during the belle époque: the years leading up to the First World War. Early on in ‘Combray’ there is that celebrated moment when he dips his ‘petite madeleine’ into his tea, and the aroma instantly recalls whole vistas of his forgotten past. From here on the narrator makes it his task to redeem his own, limited time, by remembering and recapturing it in exact and beautiful detail. ‘Swann in Love’ turns its attention to a neighbour in Combray, Charles Swann, a fashionable dandy very much at home in Parisian society, and a kind of ‘superfluous man’, deeply infected with irony. ‘Sometimes he would go so far as to express an opinion, but he would cloak his words in a tone of irony, as though he did not altogether associate himself with what he was saying.’ The subsequent course of Swann's love-affair with the vulgar but sensual Odette is one of the finest, most truthful depictions of romantic infatuation, its onset, and its inevitable demise, in all literature.
I recommend Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), a quirky, original, and devoted study, half biographical sketch, half literary criticism. One of the most reassuring pieces of advice that de Botton offers is that you should say to yourself, not ‘I am going to read all of Proust this year’, but ‘I am going to read all of Proust some time over the rest of my life’. Reading Proust should not be rushed, or you will certainly miss something important, or perceptive, or just very, very funny. For, as with that other great and supposedly ‘difficult’ modernist, James Joyce, it is a delight to discover how amusing Proust can be. He can be sly, satirical, gently mocking human beings and their often ludicrous opinions and behaviour. He can be charmingly dry, as when he refers to that ‘most intoxicating romance in the lover's library, the railway timetable’. Above all, it is his characterization that makes one laugh with recognition, whether it is the ‘little clique’ of the Verdurins, or the preposterous M. Legrandin. Translating Proust has always posed difficulties, but the edition by Scott Moncreiff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright, does justice to the original
Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Alain-Fournier, Robert Musil CH