Book of a lifetime: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust

From The Independent archive: Michael Arditti tackles Proust’s mammoth meditation on time, longing and regret

Friday 07 April 2023 11:41 BST
I felt a personal connection to Proust long before I knew the nature of his achievement
I felt a personal connection to Proust long before I knew the nature of his achievement (Getty)

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, with 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.

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