Book Of A Lifetime: A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, By Marcel Proust

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)

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before