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...
(The entire section is 1057 words.)