Sunday, January 16, 2011

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Seven: Time Regained, by Marcel Proust

It took me eight months, but I have read all of it.

Time Regained is a volume very different from Proust's others. First, the narrators steps, for a moment, outside of his interior world of intimate desire and suffering to acknowledge France's participation in World War I. This is an abrupt change of scale for Proust. True, he had described politics earlier, dedicating much space to the Dreyfus Affair, for example, but politics in previous volumes was only a social plaything, a ball to bat back and forth across the table at dinner parties, a means by which to include or exclude a person from your list of invitations. Now, bombs drop on the city. Soldiers occupy Gilberte's country estate. Saint-Loup dies at war.

Another surprising intensification is Proust's description of homosexual activities. Previously, Marcel had satisfied himself with peering through the proverbial keyhole. While he still does not come forth and admit any personal homosexual desires, he does enter, uninvited, a kind of brothel-cum-dungeon hidden in an apartment house. More the thing you would expect to find in Berlin than Paris, this is a boarding house run by Jupien where Charlus pays to be chained to an iron bed frame in an upstairs room, and beaten by soldiers (who seem generally disinterested in the work, except that it pays well enough). Marcel sees Saint-Loup going into this same place (before his death, of course), and is, somewhat surprisingly, quite hurt by it.

The third, and perhaps most abrupt shift in this volume is that of time. Rather than being "regained" as the title implies, it at last passes, is acknowledged as lost. From volumes one through six, Marcel remains a child. Certainly, he is old enough to keep a woman at home, but he lives always with his parents, he indulges constantly in his own puerile frustrations, and he belabors every passing day with hundreds of sentences, sometimes spending one hundred pages to describe a three-hour dinner party. But in Time Regained, which seems to start with a Marcel of twenty-something (which he has been for the past four volumes, I think), one page turn brings our narrator to a party which he thinks at first is a costume ball, for everyone is dressed as if they were a geriatric. They are, at first, unrecognizable. True, Marcel had given up society throughout The Captive, for he spent his time locked in his bedroom, worrying over Albertine's fidelity, and he didn't pay any visits in Paris throughout The Fugitive, spending the greater part of the volume in Venice with his mother. And he admits, in the early page of Time Regained,that he had to spend some time in the sanitarium, and not just once. If we do the math, subtracting the Dreyfus Affair (1894) from World War I (1914), we see in fact that twenty years have elapsed between The Guermantes Way and Time Regained, but we don't sense that passage until now, when Marcel realizes rather suddenly that he is no longer young.

With that realization comes the bookend to the famous madeleine incident in Swann's Way (the initial volume), which I'm not ashamed to admit I found somewhat dull. Perhaps I am still too young to appreciate these sentimental musings on time and memory, but I would rather say that Proust's strength is as an imagist. Take, for example, the one sentence that I noted from this final volume: "For in this world of ours where everything withers, everything perishes, there is a thing that decays, that crumbles into dust even more completely, leaving behind still fewer traces of itself, than beauty: namely grief." I don't believe the man for a moment, for I've never encountered an author who grieves with such excessive labor as this one. But what is most appealing about the sentence is not the distilled essence of his argument (which is completely flawed), but the vision he presents: dusk on a day in early winter, scraps of brown leaves, ashes swept into a corner by the wind.

After investing eight months in reading this man's oeuvre, my time too is lost rather than regained. I take away ten or fifteen fine specimens of sentences, and some surprise that in over 4,000 pages of very personal writing, the author keeps from us his homosexuality, instead painting a cruel caricature of the homosexuals he encounters in society. Most importantly, I take away the right to say I have read it all, and deem in unworthy of such a reading. I think a strong and poignant novel of 300-500 pages lurks somewhere here, in the midst of many red lines, but somehow Proust has been canonized, protected from a much-needed abridging.

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