Remembrance of Things Past is not a novel of traditional form. Symphonic in design, it unfolds without plot or crisis as the writer reveals in retrospect the motifs of his experience, holds them for thematic effect, and drops them, only to return to them once more in the processes of recurrence and change. This varied pattern of experience brings together a series of involved relationships through the imagination and observation of a narrator engaged in tracing with painstaking detail his perceptions of people and places as he himself grows from childhood to disillusioned middle age.
From the waking reverie in which he recalls the themes and characters of his novel to that closing paragraph with its slow, repeated echoes of the word “time,” Marcel Proust’s novel is great art distilled from memory itself, the structure determined entirely by moods and sensations evoked by the illusion of time passing, or seeming to pass, and time recurring, or seeming to recur.
In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust, together with Leo Tolstoy (Voyna i mir, 1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886), Fyodor Dostoevski (Bratya Karamazovy, 1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912), Thomas Mann (Die Geschichten Jaakobs, 1933; Joseph and His Brothers, 1934), and James Joyce (Ulysses, 1922), transformed the novel from a linear account of events into a multidimensional art. The breakthrough was not into Freudian psychology, or existentialism, or scientific determinism, but into a realization that all things are, or may be, interwoven, bound by time, yet freed from time, open to every associational context.
What is reality? Certainly there is the reality of the sensory experience; yet any moment of sensory experience may have numerous successive or even simultaneous realities as it is relived in memory in different contexts, and perhaps the most significant reality—or realities—of a given act or moment may come long after the moment when the event first took place in time. Percy Shelley, in A Defence of Poetry (1840), said, “All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient.” Things that may have seemed inconsequential at the moment of their occurrence may take on richly multifaceted meanings in relation to other events, other memories, other moments. The initial act is not as significant, not as real, as the perceptions of it which may come in new contexts. Reality, thus, is a context, made up of moods, of recollections joined by chance or design, sets of associations that have grown over the years. This concept of the notion of reality, one that had been taking shape with increased momentum since the Romantic movement, said Proust, opened the way to “those mysteries . . . the presentiment of which is the quality in life and art which moves us most deeply.”
The elusive yet pervasively important nature of reality applies not only to events, such as the taste of the madeleine, but also to the absence of events, for the failure of Marcel’s mother to give him his accustomed good-night kiss proved to be an occasion that memory would recall again and again in a variety of relationships. Thus reality can and inevitably for all people does sometimes include, if not indeed center on, the nonbeing of an event. That nonexistence can be placed in time and in successive times as surely as events that did happen; moreover “it”—that nothing where something might or should have been—may become a significant part of the contexts that, both in time and freed from time, constitute reality.
Such thematic variations and turns of thought have led some...
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to identify Proust as a dilettante. Perhaps, in its literal sense, the term is justified, for his mind must have delighted in what, to the reader, may be unexpected turns of thought. In this he is most closely to be associated with Mann, whose consideration of time in the first volume ofJoseph and His Brothers leads the reader into labyrinthine but essential paths; or whose speculations about the God-man relationship in volume 2, in the section headed “Abraham Discovers God,” lead the reader down a dizzying path of whimsical yet serious thought. The fact remains, however, that Mann and Proust have opened doors of contemplation that modern readers cannot afford to ignore if they would increase their understanding of themselves, the world in which they live, and the tenuous nature of reality and of time.
What Proust does with time and reality he also does with character. Although he is a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, and although Freudian interpretation could be applied to some of his characters in part, Proust’s concept of character is much too complex for reduction to the superego, the ego, the id, and the subconscious. Character, like reality, is a changing total context, not static and not a thing in itself to be held off and examined at arm’s length. Baron de Charlus is at once a study of character in disintegration and a caricature, reduced in the end to a pitiable specimen, scarcely human. It is Marcel, however, the persona of the story, who is seen in most depth and frequently in tortured self-analysis. His character is seen in direct statements, in his comments about others and about situations, in what others say to him or the way they say it, even in descriptive passages that would at first glance not seem to relate to character at all. Mann said in the preface to his The Magic Mountain (1924), “Only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.” Proust surely agreed. His detail is not of the catalog variety, however; it works cumulatively, developmentally, with the thematic progression of symphonic music.
Finally, the totality of the work is “the remembrance of things past,” or as the title of the seventh and final volume has it, the past recaptured. To understand the work in its full richness, one must become and remain conscious of the author, isolated in his study, drawing upon his recollections and associating and reassociating moments, events, personalities (his own always central), both to recapture the past as it happened and to discover in it the transcendent reality that supersedes the time-bound moment of the initial occurrence. The total work is a story, a succession of stories, and a study of the life process, which, as one comes to understand it, must greatly enrich one’s own sense of self and of the life one lives.