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Proust’s death, 100 years ago, was an ending but not the end

In a world hellbent on decimating our attention spans, immersion in Proust offers significant spiritual benefits

(antorti and Washington Post illustration/Pushkin Press/iStock)

One hundred years ago, on Nov. 18, 1922, Marcel Proust breathed his last in Paris at age 51. His death, from pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess, was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the belle epoque, an age of gentility, civility and artistic achievement that had mostly ended with the outbreak of World War I. At the time, several volumes of Proust’s gargantuan, seven-part novel, “À la recherche du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”), had yet to be published. Jean Cocteau, arriving to pay tribute to the late author, spotted the manuscript resting on the mantelpiece — a pile of papers “still alive, like watches ticking on the wrists of dead soldiers.”

Proust’s death was an ending but not the end. It would be five more years before “In Search” was published in full and decades before an authoritative text was established from the morass of his marginalia. His work has since been widely acclaimed, and a Proust-industrial complex of criticism and biography has developed around him. “No one is less dead than he is,” a friend remarked, some years after his demise.

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Though Proust is unignorable, he’s often neglected; his reputation for being difficult can put off even ambitious readers. In a world hellbent on decimating our attention spans, however, immersion in Proust offers significant spiritual benefits. Indeed, the polite demands he makes on concentration and commitment are handsomely repaid in revelation and insight. And to read him is to join an eclectic, brilliant band of fellow travelers. Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett were early admirers. Edith Wharton said that Proust gave Henry James “his last, and one of his strongest, artistic emotions.” Marilyn Monroe had five volumes of “In Search” on her shelves; it’s said Sean Connery, too, was a fan. And though Evelyn Waugh thought Proust a “mental defective,” it just goes to show you can’t please everyone.

Where to begin? Casual readers may wish to ease in with “Swann in Love,” the mostly self-contained novella that makes up half of Book I — Lucy Raitz’s new translation for Pushkin Press is elegantly produced and a good amuse-bouche for those not ready for the full banquet. If you do go all in, Lydia Davis’s full “Swann’s Way” is the gold standard in English — closer to the original than C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s (long the only Anglophone option) and an exquisite work of limpid prose.

What can you expect? As Monty Python will tell you, summarizing “In Search of Lost Time” is a tall order. It’s high social comedy, bildungsroman, philosophy and much more. Proust exerts his forensic powers on subjects as diverse as memory, class, homosexuality, antisemitism, psychology, botany, the transcendental potential of art and the tectonic sociopolitical shifts that took place in France during the Dreyfus affair and the Great War.

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More simply, it’s the story of a man who might be called Marcel. Prone to obsessive love, this snobby, neurotic mama’s boy is a social climber caught in the whirlpool of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, a district of Paris synonymous with nobility and high society, and the prism through which Proust refracts his own interests and monomanias. His gradual realization that his atomized experience might be redeemed by translation into art is the subject of a book that unfolds at the pace of life itself.

Involuntary memory — the unbidden remembrance of things past — is the book’s most celebrated contribution to narrative form. The madeleine incident, in which the hero’s childhood is reconjured by the taste of a small cake dipped in lime-blossom tea, is known even to readers who haven’t cracked the spine on “Swann’s Way.” The potential of sensory memory to facilitate this kind of time travel is central to Proust’s art.

Another Proustian axiom concerns social mobility. “Like a kaleidoscope which is every now and then given a turn,” he writes, “society arranges successively in different orders elements which one would have supposed to be immovable, and composes a fresh pattern.” The chessboard movements of Proust’s actors are just one element of his grand design, however. Intermittence, he observes, is a law not just of society but also of the soul. Characters fall in and out of love, marry up, disgrace themselves, disappear for hundreds of pages, die. While the cast is larger than can be taken in at a single reading, its principal players are indelible: Charles Swann and Odette de Crécy, whose wretched affair is described in “Swann’s Way”; the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes, whose circle the narrator works so hard to penetrate; the Baron de Charlus, a refined but poisonous gargoyle whose sexual proclivities fascinate our hero; the pretentious Verdurins; the perplexing Albertine, an object of sinister fixation for several volumes.

A summary does none of them justice. Proust reveals their natures only gradually: They change, and thus the full effect of “In Search” can only be felt cumulatively. The author himself warned against attempting to understand it from its constituent parts, saying that “the ring of keys is not in the same part of the building as the locked doors.” Nor can the wisdom one derives from reading Proust be easily distilled, although there are occasional lines so short and devastating, especially when compared with his longest sentences, that his meaning is delivered with the force and clarity of a sucker punch. As Walter Benjamin asked, “Is it not the quintessence of experience to find out how very difficult it is to learn many things which apparently could be told in very few words?”

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Some readers may be initially discouraged by the longer sentences. (The critic Christopher Prendergast clocks the longest at “a cool 958 words.”) But this is far from style for style’s sake; Proust’s sometimes tantric syntax is the best, perhaps the only way to express the full thought behind the perfect perceptions one finds on almost every page. To read Proust is to think things through; his sentences stretch out like cognitive yoga poses. But be not intimidated: Your concentration soon adapts, bending like a sunflower toward Proust’s illumination. This is of course necessary when faced with those complex sentences, wherein often, as E.M. Forster observed, “three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb.”

This centennial year has brought forth some bright new secondary literature. “The World According to Proust,” by Joshua Landy, is a friendly introduction to “In Search,” even if Landy’s efforts to make him approachable occasionally come off as condescending. Prendergast’s “Living and Dying With Marcel Proust” is an excellent close reading aimed more squarely at the initiated. Yale’s annotated edition of “The Captive and the Fugitive” (Book V), by preeminent Proustian William C. Carter, arrives in 2023, while, for completists, Harvard has got its paws on the “75 Folios,” early scribblings that compose a kind of ur-“Search” (coming in April).

A century has passed but Proust lives on, out of time, in his eternal work. His subject is a world that has completely disappeared, his achievement its wholesale resurrection. To read Proust is to glimpse how one might recover from one’s own life — with all its pain and boredom and frustration — something of immeasurable value: nothing less than meaning.

Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.

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