The Modern Library Classics box set of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time

In Search of Lost Time  (Á la recherché du temps perdu)

  • Author:  Marcel Proust  (1871  –  1922)
  • Rank:  #42
  • Published:  1913, 1919, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1925, 1927
  • Publisher:  Grasset and Gallimard
  • Pages:  4651  (Modern Library Classics)
  • First Line:  “For a long time I would go to bed early.”
  • Last Line:  “So, if I were given long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the effect were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men as occupying so considerable a place, compared with the restricted place which is reserved for them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure, for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch the distant epochs through which they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themselves – in Time.”
  • ML Edition:  see longer note below
  • Film:  1984 – Swann in Love  (***), 1999 – Time Regained, 2000 – The Captive
  • Read:  Fall, 2003 – Winter, 2004

The Novel:  I say novel, because it is one novel.  That it is over 4000 pages long and was published in seven volumes does nothing to change that.  It is one of those novels that is held up by passionate readers as perhaps the greatest novel ever written.  There are people who seem to spend their whole lives only reading and re-reading Proust (though, to be fair, it is also often mentioned as one of the most boring classics and is often, like Ulysses and Moby Dick, one of those books that people never finish).

But it is easy to see why people love Proust so much.  Just look at the first volume, Swann’s Way.  We begin with the “Combray” section.  It introduced us to the narrator before he actually dives into the story itself.  We get the entire drive of the novel just from this section: “It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile.  The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling.”  This line, of course, comes just before the eating of the madeleines, the very act of which propels the entire novel.  The “Combray” section seems like a small aside before the main story.  Yet, it is over 200 pages before we actually get to the “Swann in Love” section of the novel.  That is what Proust does.  He takes us so deep into these experiences that we have already read a shorter novel before we have even begun to touch the story and we don’t even know it.  But then again, the whole first volume is really just an aside before we get into the main story of the narrator itself.  Those final words of Swann’s Way (“They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”) just open up the whole world of the story to us.

And this language continues, on and on, beautiful to sink into, for over 4000 pages.  Here’s just a brief glimpse of what Proust has to offer:

Swann’s Way:  “Her eyes were beautiful, but so large they seemed to droop beneath their own weight, strained the rest of her face and always made her appear unwell or in a bad mood.”

Within a Budding Grove:  “In their inability to form an image of the object of their grief they are almost led to accuse themselves of feeling no grief.”

The Guermantes Way:  “It sometimes even happens in such a case, when a man has been led by a mixture of naivety of judgment and cowardice in the face of suffering to commit the crowning folly of making an inaccessible idol of a whore, that he never obtains these ultimate favours, or even the first kiss, and no longer even ventures to ask for them in order not to belie his assurances of Platonic love.”

Sodom and Gomorrah:  “Beneath that azure a faint but cold breeze set the blushing bouquets gently trembling.  Blue-tits came and perched upon the branches and fluttered among the indulgent flowers, as though it had been an amateur of exotic art and colours who had artificially created this living beauty.”

The Captive:  “We were resigned to suffering, thinking that we loved outside ourselves, and we perceive that our love is a function of our sorrow, that our love perhaps is our sorrow, and that its object is only to a very small extent the girl with the raven hair.  But, when all is said, it is such people more than any others who inspire love.”

The Fugitive:  “But our intelligence, however lucid, cannot perceive the elements that compose it and remain unsuspected so long as, from the volatile state in which they generally exist, a phenomenon capable of isolating them has not subjected them to the first stages of solidification.  I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart.”

Time Regained:  “So systematic was his frivolity that for him birth, combined with beauty and with other sources of prestige, was the durable thing and the war, like the Dreyfus case, merely a vulgar and fugitive fashion.”

There really isn’t much more to say than this.  I could keep going on, adding quotes and quotes from all the volumes.  But it comes down to this.  Those who know it, who have read it, understand it, and will probably criticize me for having it so low.  The rest of you, well, you have some reading to do, even if it’s just the first volume.

Modern Library Editions:

  • Swann’s Way:
    • #59  (1928, 1930, 1934)
  • Within a Budding Grove:
    • #172  (1931, 1934, 1950)
  • The Guermantes Way:
    • #213  (1934)

These were the early editions of the books with varying dust jackets.  Then, in 1949 Cities of the Plain was added as #220, apparently with the dust jacket that would later be matched by all the other books.  Around the mid-60’s, we had the complete series of Remembrances of Things Past, all in matching dust jackets being published by the Modern Library:

  • #59  (Swann’s Way)
  • #172  (Within a Budding Grove)
  • #213  (The Guermantes Way)
  • #220  (Cities of the Plain)
  • #120  (The Captive)
  • #260  (The Sweet Cheat Gone)
  • #278  (The Past Recaptured)

Why they would add new numbers for all the volumes except The Captive I can’t explain.  Except for Swann’s Way (which replaced a book called The Woman Question), only The Captive got a re-used number (ironically, replacing Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies – the irony is that Waugh was rather disparaging of Proust’s work).

Then, in 1992, a new translation was done of all the volumes.  It appeared simultaneously in the new gold hardcover Modern Library books and in paperback in the Modern Library Classics series, both in sets of six volumes.  They were based on newly released French versions.  For these volumes, Cities of the Plan was given a straight translation of the French title Sodom and Gomorrah, The Sweet Cheat Gone was retitled The Fugitive and The Past Recaptured was retitled Time Regained.  In addition, rather than calling the set Remembrances of Things Past, it used what had become a more accepted translation of the title, In Search of Lost Time.  These sets put The Captive and The Fugitive together in one volume and after Time Regained in the final volume had A Guide to Proust.

note:  All quotes are from the C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, later revised by Terence Kilmartin and later revised still by D.J. Enright, except Time Regained, which originally was translated by Andreas Mayor rather than Moncrieff.