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Book review: “In Search of Lost Time”, fifth volume

· 8 min read

Is it me, or is this getting a bit better?

Still too damn long and still too damn detailed. And too damn overemotional (the amount of stress it can still cause grown-up Proust that one time that his mum didn't show up in his room to kiss him good-night that summer evening when he was a little kid!). And too damn posh and affected.

But on this fifth volume there were a dozen pages here and fifty pages there that were real engaging or real funny. And a few memorable quotes and brilliant reflections on life and love (of which I share a few at the end of this post).

Marcel Proust (Wikimedia Commons)

“Love, what is it but space and time rendered perceptible by the heart”

The Baron de Charlus alone is so entertaining. I'm having fun finding out who the actual people providing inspiration for Proust's characters were… even if I didn't know a thing about the actual people anyway. It seems the main model for Charlus is one Robert de Montesquiou, someone who “had the ambition to be the most photographed person in the world”. That definitely fits the mould.

Marcel (the narrator reveals his real name just once) is in many ways a miserable person. We know because he spends hundreds of pages telling us so (indirectly).

“I am not a novelist; it is possible that creative writers are tempted by certain forms of life of which they have no personal experience”

He has grand ambitions to become a writer (meta-spoiler alert: he did!), but he's a slacker living on daddy's money.

“I did as I had always done since my first resolution to become a writer, which I had made long ago, but which seemed to me to date from yesterday, because I had regarded each intervening day as non-existent. I treated this day in a similar fashion, allowing its showers of rain and bursts of sunshine to pass without doing anything, and vowing that I would begin to work on the morrow.”

“Dreams are not to be converted into reality, that we know; we would not form any, perhaps, were it not for desire, and it is useful to us to form them in order to see them fail and to be instructed by their failure”

He's gay as a maypole (that is also something that we do know now), but pretends to watch “homosexualism” from the outside, and spends a significant fraction of the series, and even one of the book titles, describing the gay (Sodom) and the lesbian (Gomorrah) and at times criticising them. (This accusation of mine may be unfair because of presentism: at the time, homosexuality was widely considered a deviation, a vice, an illness, or a sin. Perhaps it was almost impossible to write about it in different terms. Still, if you're one of “them”, at the very least don't put the effort of hundreds of pages into throwing your brothers and sisters under the bus for no good reason, right?)

“No banishment, indeed, to the South Pole, or to the summit of Mont Blanc, can separate us so entirely from our fellow creatures as a prolonged residence in the seclusion of a secret vice, that is to say of a state of mind that is different from theirs”

Finally, and even when Proust Marcel the narrator isn't gay, or pretends not to be, or is bisexual, or is deploying some clever-and-totally-legit-literary-device-to-pass-as-straight, he's a prude, jealous to the point of obsession, and a possessive bastard. Young Marcel can lament the sacrifices of monogamy and wax poetically about all those other women he's not courting and that much-desired trip to Venice he can't have, but poor Albertine can't leave the house or have any fun on her own. The narrator can fuck around, but her adored mistress is always suspect (of lesbianism, no less!), and jealousy kills him to the point of becoming the main theme here. This volume is entitled “La Prisonnière” (the [female] prisoner, the [female] captive): guess why.

“As one does on the eve of a premature death, I drew up a mental list of the pleasures of which I was deprived by Albertine's setting a full stop to my freedom. At Passy it was in the open street, so crowded were the footways, that a group of girls, their arms encircling one another's waist, left me marvelling at their smile. I had not time to see it clearly, but it is hardly probable that I exaggerated it; in any crowd after all, in any crowd of young people, it is not unusual to come upon the effigy of a noble profile. So that these assembled masses on public holidays are to the voluptuary as precious as is to the archaeologist the congested state of a piece of ground in which digging will bring to light ancient medals.”

“To tell the truth, I had reached that stage in my relations with Albertine when, if everything remains the same, if things go on normally, a woman ceases to serve us except as a starting point towards another woman. She still retains a corner in our heart, but a very small corner; we hasten out every evening in search of unknown women.”

Am I still committing presentism? I don't think so. I'm sure there were at least five or six men in early 20th-century France who weren't spoilt misogynistic hypocrites, so there's that.

And yet, this embarrassing honesty has to count as a merit of the novel.

More on love:

“Love, in the painful anxiety as in the blissful desire, is the insistence upon a whole. It is born, it survives only if some part remains for it to conquer. We love only what we do not wholly possess.”

“All that I had dreamed, as a boy, to be the sweetest thing in love, what had seemed to me to be the very essence of love, was to pour out freely, before the feet of her whom I loved, my affection, my gratitude for her kindness, my longing for a perpetual life together. But I had become only too well aware, from my own experience and from that of my friends, that the expression of such sentiments is far from being contagious.”


“Observation counts for little. It is only from the pleasure that we ourselves have felt that we can derive knowledge and grief.”

“Nature hardly seems capable of giving us any but quite short illnesses. But medicine has annexed to itself the art of prolonging them.”

“We quickly forget what we have not deeply considered, what has been dictated to us by the spirit of imitation, by the passions of our neighbours. These change, and with them our memory undergoes alteration.”

“The fact of a man's having proclaimed (as leader of a political party, or in any other capacity) that it is wicked to lie, obliges him as a rule to lie more than other people, without on that account abandoning the solemn mask, doffing the august tiara of sincerity”

“What can you expect, I'm no longer a girl. When I was young, people told me that one must put up with boredom, I made an effort, but now, oh no, it's too much for me, I am old enough to please myself, life is too short; bore myself, listen to idiots, smile, pretend to think them intelligent. No, I can't do it.”

A taste of Proust's linguistic pyrotechnics at their funniest:

“‘Moral Duty,’ he said, ‘is less clearly imperative than our Ethics teach us. Whatever the Theosophical cafés and the Kantian beer-houses may say, we are deplorably ignorant of the nature of Good. I myself who, without wishing to boast, have lectured to my pupils, in all innocence, upon the philosophy of the said Immanuel Kant, I can see no precise ruling for the case of social casuistry with which I am now confronted in that Critique of Practical Reason in which the great renegade of Protestantism platonised in the German manner for a Germany prehistorically sentimental and aulic, ringing all the changes of a Pomeranian mysticism.’”

“When I see in other people habits or traits of personality that I despise, sometimes it is because deep down I know I have that very same defect” (Vīta, § Life):

“As a general rule, we detest what resembles ourself, and our own faults when observed in another person infuriate us. […] It is because the similarity is too great that, in spite of family affection, and sometimes all the more the greater the affection is, families are divided.”

And, going meta:

“Thus it is that at times, if we read the latest masterpiece of a man of genius, we are delighted to find in it all those of our own reflexions which we have always despised, joys and sorrows which we have repressed, a whole world of feelings scorned by us, the value of which the book in which we discover them afresh at once teaches us”