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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1 (1927) by Marcel Proust

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust is pretty much the end of the psychological- realist novel of the 19th century(although published in the 1920's.)
Book Review
Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1 (1927)
 by Marcel Proust

   The three most challenging reads in the 1001 Books project I've encountered so far, close to 700 books into the project are, in order:
1.  Finnegans Wake (1939) by James Joyce
2.  A Thousand Nights and a Night (1001 Arabian Nights) by Anon
3.  Remembrance of Things Past

   I have been so far unable to complete the first two books on the list.  I stalled out on Finnegans Wake about 10 pages in, realizing that I lacked the time to really understand what I was reading.  Arabian Nights is incredibly long- more than 10 volumes, depending on the edition, with none of the familiar narrative conventions a reader associates with the novel.   I found a free public audio book version, but it is simply so long and boring that I stalled out mid way through volume six.

   Remembrance of Things Past is incredibly long (over 3000 pages in the current three volume English translation)  AND incredibly difficult to read, but it is not primitive (like a Thousand Nights and a Night) or obtuse (Finnegans Wake).  It is incredibly detailed.  Remembrance of Things Past is simply the last word in the story of the 19th century realist novel, with it's emphasis on pre-scientific psychology and intricately observed social relationships.   Despite the fact that Remembrance of Things Past being a kind of catch phrase for "amazingly difficult literature," you'd be hard pressed to find someone who can accurately describe it beyond the "Proust smells a madeline and is transported" elevator pitch edition.

 The three volume set I bought for twenty bucks (!) at the Last Bookstore in DTLA contains a helpful synopsis, which is like, the best succinct description of "what happens" in the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.  It is worth re-typing, at length, the first hundred pages of this synopsis:

Swann's Way
CombrayAwakenings (5) Bedrooms of the past, at Combray (6), at Tansonville (7), at Balbec (8; cf 717), Habit (9).
Bedtime at Combray (cf. 46). The magic lantern; Genevieve de Brabant (10). Family evenings (11). The little close smelling of orris-root (13, cf. 172). The good-night kiss (13; cf 24, 29-46).  Visits from Swann (14):  his father (15); his unsuspected social life (16). "Our social personality is the creation of other people's thoughts" (20),  M,me, de Villeparisis's house in Paris; "the tailor and his daughter" (21). Aunts Celine and Flora (25). Francoise's Code (30). Swan and I (32, cf.322).  My upringings: "principles" of my father (38). My grandmother's presents; her ideas about books (42).  A reading of George Sand (44).
Resurrection of Combrary through involuntary memory.  The madeline dipped in a cup of tea (48).
Combray.  Aunt Leonie's two rooms (53); her lime-tea (55).  Francoise (56).  The church (63). M. Legrandidn (72).  Eulalie (74).  Sunday lunches (76). Uncle Adolphe's sanctum (77). Love of the theatre: titles on posters (79).  Meeting with "the lady in pink" (81).  My family quarrel with Uncle Adolphe (86).  Reading in the gartden (90).  The gardener's daughter and the passing cavalary (95) Bloch and Bergotte (97).  Block and my family (98).  Reading Bergotte (101).

   So that is the synopsis of the first hundred pages of a three thousand page book, essentially one book, published originally in seven different volumes and today as a standard three volume revised set, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrief and Terence Kilmartin.  Some of those listed subjects consist of a single paragraph, or two or three paragraphs, over the course of a half dozen pages.   As befits a man who can devote a dozen pages to "The good-night kiss," Proust makes incredibly detailed observations about the motivations of himself and others.

  Nothing even remotely resembling the plot of even that first portion of the first volume occurs in the first hundred pages.  Remembrance of Things Past is almost protean in terms of Proust's development of different themes, but a loose description  would focus on the lives of middling French aristocrats during the Third French Republic (1870-1940) particularly during the time of the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906).    It's hard to even imagine a comparison where a book does a similar job of so thoroughly conveying the spirit of a time and place as Proust does for his set.    He quite effortlessly surpasses any possible 19th century English comparison in the first twenty pages, by the end of Volume 1  he seemed almost contemporary in his grasp of social interactions between the wealthy. 

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