Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Time Regained (Marcel Proust)

--The blurb--
""Time Regained" begins in the bleak and uncertain years of World War I. Years later, after the war's end, Proust's narrator returns to Paris and reflects on time, reality, jealousy, artistic creation, and the raw material of literature - his past life."

--The review--
I have often criticised throughout my reading of Proust's epic his frequently over-complicated and vague style which seems designed to tie our brains in knots. The final volume of the heptalogy, Time Regained, starts off much more clearly and lucidly, which makes us feel that the narrator has the benefit of hindsight at last - which, with it being set more towards the end of his life, seems fitting. At least initially, it is less furious and intense, and more thoughtful.

However, we are soon treated to a glut of the meaningless gossip that pervaded earlier volumes. While this gives us a clue as to the nature of the narrator's life and social circle, it is maddening at the same time - if you have no time for celebrity-type gossip in real life, you are unlikely to have much patience for it in literature. Some of it is perhaps intended to show characters up as being hypocritical, but the targets of their hypocrisy probably took place so long ago that the effect is lost. Proust's political commentary on the war is equally uninteresting and is clearly aimed at those who already have knowledge of or opinions on the subject at hand. 

There are even examples of bad style, such as the line "To return to Mr Charlus..." (it is surely an elementary rule of narrative writing that such transitioning phrases are not required), and the fact that the first-person narrator has access to conversations and information in this volume that simply would not be possible. Punctuation needs to be more varied (a person can only take so many commas, although thankfully a semi-colon does appear...on page 320), and the volume is also loosely or badly organised, to the degree that we risk missing key events. But then again, are all of our own thoughts beautifully organised? Probably not.

To go on: we do not end up caring much for the death of one of the recurring characters due to the estrangement between himself and the narrator. The narrator's self-deprecation and false modesty is extremely annoying (especially when in the same breath he then goes on to talk as if he were an expert), and yet we must admit that it is natural for even the hugely talented to have doubts from time to time.

Plenty of the novel, however, still rings true today. Narcissistic though they may be, it is the narrator's thoughts and relationships that are of interest, not the author's attempts at political comment (it should be noted that supreme effort is apparently required to divorce narrator and author in this work of autobiographical-fiction-meets-history-and-philosophy). There is great irony in the author's recognition that all we do, or are, is so insignificant against the world's might.

The passages of memory after the narrator's return from convalescence are truly beautiful and testify to the author's powers of description. Despite certain episodes seeming contrived, the author's ability to still be relevant and appreciated today is staggering: his comments on pop art (how far is it truly enjoyed by 'laymen' and how far is it still a middle-class hobby?) are as accurate now as when they were written. He is correct that things from our childhood reawaken in us a sense of hope and wonder, and he posits ideas that still give us plenty to consider (for instance: is something still real if only we experience it, or does it have to be shared or common in order to qualify? Does truth go beyond fact?).

While a new edition is perhaps needed in order to increase mass appeal (Lydia Davis' looks promising), this does not mean that Time Regained (or even the heptalogy as a whole) is not worth pursuing in its current form. Proust has the ability to make us laugh (with his caustic descriptions of characters) and to make us cry (with his moving descriptions of landscapes and feelings). By the end of the seven volumes, most people have probably spent a year or more with Proust, and by then he's like an annoying family member: he's eccentric, digressive, annoying, boring at some moments, confusing at others; but he's also incisive, witty, intelligent, thought-provoking, sensitive and deeply poetic. In short, in spite of his shortcomings, we love him anyway.

Other works by Marcel Proust
Swann's Way (volume 1)
Within a Budding Grove (volume 2)
The Guermantes Way (volume 3)
Sodom and Gomorrah (volume 4)
The Captive/The Fugitive (volume 5/6)

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