Marcel, the precious narrator, is at a loss: then one afternoon, by dipping his sponge cake into a cup of tea, the past smacks him over the head.
He realises that the seminal moment of his life was when, as a child, his mother forgot to give him a goodnight kiss. Marcel created a screaming fuss; Mummy gave in to his tantrum. From that moment, our hero becomes a passive tyrant: forever seeking both love and approval, he is also relentlessly demanding.
Marcel's life is divided between craven social climbing and his pursuit of friendship and love. The comedy derives from his crawling to witless Duchesses and pointless Princesses, most of whom are devoid of moral worth. The pathos emanates from Marcel's failure to find affection or love with Gilberte (childhood sweetheart), or Saint-Loup (friend) or Albertine (doomed mistress).
The novel closes with a big party when Marcel realises that his life has been a wasteland, and society a chimera. Simultaneously he recognises that through memory, time can be transfigured: memory, Marcel knows, will help him to write the book that the reader is now holding. The callow narrator is transformed into the greatest French novelist of the century and time is regained.
Themes: (1) Time makes life worse: it withers love into desire; it helps stupid people triumph; it ensures that the good are consumed (all very Balzac). (2) Time is conquered by a combination of Art and Memory: pictures, tastes, smells, tunes, sounds can knock down the wall between past and present. Immortality (of sorts) is achieved and life is compressed into one timeless moment (all very Ruskin and English Romantic).
Style: Poetic and precise. The serpentine sentences can be at once expansively lyrical and sharply aphoristic.
What they thought of it then: Andre Gide refused to publish the first volumes. Others were surprised that such a notorious asthmatic as Proust should prove so long-winded. Huxley likened Proust to a sickly toad basting himself in his own tepid jelly.
What we think of it now: A masterpiece, naturellement.
Chief strengths: Proust's world is enveloping. You forget about having to nip down to Sainsbury's and are caught up in a net of words where the life of the mind, where art and beauty, count for something. It also exposes snobbery as the most cruel and brutal of vices.
Chief weaknesses: Well, it is quite long (c. 3,500 pages): you need convalescence or an academic's holiday to get through it. Used to self- effacing first person narrators, English readers may find Marcel's concentrated self-absorption hard to digest.
Responsible for: Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, where you get the self-effacing narrator but at the expense of a very sentimental approach to snobbery.