Book Of A Lifetime: A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, By Marcel Proust
Friday 04 February 2011
Marcel Proust's 'A La Recherche du Temps Perdu' holds the record for the book most likely to be found alongside the Bible and Shakespeare on Radio 4's celebrity-packed Desert Island. In part this reflects the book's sheer length, enforced isolation allowing the castaways to tackle its 3,000 densely packed pages. But it is also a tribute to its widely acknowledged status as the greatest novel of the 20th century, perhaps even of all time.
In his masterpiece, Proust, who was born in 1871 and died in 1922, married the predominant impulse of the 19th-century novel, to portray the workings of society, with the predominant impulse of the 20th, to chart an individual consciousness. So he offers both a panorama of Parisian life at a time of immense upheaval, with the aristocracy ceding power to the newly-rich middle class, and an intimate study of a man as he moves from a privileged childhood to a disillusioned middle age.
There are over a hundred major characters and every reader will have his or her own favourites. These may be the heart-warming portraits of his mother and grandmother or of the family maid, Françoise, full of peasant prejudice and dogged devotion. They may be the satiric portraits of the nouveau-riche patrons, the Verdurins, and their pretentious artistic salon, or of the great aristocrats, the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes. The former is so preoccupied with social niceties that he is unable to feel any emotion at the news that his old friend, Swann, is dying, while being moved to fury at his wife's wearing the wrong coloured shoes.
Love in its myriad forms is the central theme of the novel, although the narrator's passion for Albertine, the young girl whom he meets on holiday in Normandy, is arguably its weakest strand (Proust never satisfactorily transforms his homosexual inspiration into a heterosexual narrative). Literature contains no more powerful account of erotic obsession, however, than that of the cultivated Charles Swann for the demi-mondaine Odette de Crecy, or of sexual self-abasement than that of the Baron de Charlus's infatuation with the venal violinist, Morel.
I felt a personal connection to Proust long before I knew the nature of his achievement. My great-uncle lived near the town of Monfort l'Amaury in northern France to which Céleste Albaret, Proust's former housekeeper, moved in later life. While he would take selected house guests to meet her, he steadfastly refused the requests of his precocious great-nephew, rightly suspecting that I was seeking an adventure rather than a pilgrimage. Both Céleste and my uncle died before I opened a single page of 'A La Recherche', but my recollection of that missed opportunity has forever coloured my reading of a work which is itself so infused with regret for missed opportunities and which is, in every sense, the book of a lifetime.
Michael Arditti's new novel is 'Jubilate' (Arcadia)
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 If I were Prime Minister: I'd give tax cuts to the rich, keep Trident, and get my football team wrong
- 2 Italian police 'reveal' what Jesus looked like as a young boy
- 3 General Election 2015: 14-year-old boy asks Nick Clegg – 'can you kill Katie Hopkins?'
- 4 University student in court for allegedly covering housemates' food in window cleaner and spit
- 5 Ryan Gosling posts tribute to 'Ryan Gosling Won't Eat His Cereal' creator Ryan McHenry
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
Eurovision 2015: What date is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
Game of Thrones, season 5 episode 4, review: Sansa in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Jar Jar Binks is going to die unceremoniously in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
JK Rowling is 'really sorry' for killing off one of your favourite Harry Potter characters
In defence of liberal democracy
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally