Remembrance of Things Past

by Marcel Proust

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Remembrance of Things Past

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Proust’s narrator, Marcel, recounts the events in his life and the characters he has come to know up to the moment when he discovers that his long-awaited career as a writer is upon him. The subject he is to take up in fiction is more or less the novel we have just finished reading, which ends with Marcel’s resolve to tell his own story and the stories of the characters whom we have come to know in the preceding seven volumes.

Too intricate to recount in full, the plot turns around several major episodes: Marcel’s extortion of a good night kiss from his mother; Marcel’s walks in the country around his parents’ residence at Combray; the love affair between Marcel’s family friend Charles Swann and the cocotte Odette de Crecy; Marcel’s lengthy amorous involvement with a young lesbian, Albertine; Marcel’s entry into the social circle of the Duchess de Guermantes; Marcel’s stormy but ultimately friendly relations with the homosexual Baron de Charlus; and finally, Marcel’s removal from and return after many years to Parisian society.

Told with the chronology of events disrupted, shifting abruptly back and forth in time, Proust’s novel is less a story than an extended meditation on the themes of literature and art, love and jealousy, snobbery and social ambition. Its rich verbal textures, captured successfully in the generally excellent English translation, make this novel a splendid reading experience for those with leisure to devote many hours to it at a stretch. Its lack of action may, however, not be to everyone’s taste.

Bibliography:

Deleuze, Gilles. Proust and Signs. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: George Braziller, 1972. Deleuze’s landmark reading of Proust depicts the work as a search in which the disillusioned narrator learns to decode and discard the signs of worldliness and the signs of love, concluding that only the signs of art offer a kind of fulfillment that can withstand the corrosive force of time.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Uses Proust to manifest the uncertainty of meaning by documenting the disjunction between grammar and rhetoric in the work.

Genette, Gérard. “Proust Palimpsest” and “Proust and Indirect Language.” In Figures in Literary Discourse, translated by Alan Sheridan. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1982. A classic analysis of Proust’s use of figurative devices in general and of metaphor in particular.

Hill, Leslie. “Proust and the Art of Reading.” Comparative Criticism 2 (1980): 167-185. Uses Proust’s text to test the reader response theories of Roland Barthes, who posits a new kind of reader in the aftermath of the death of the author. Hill’s work is the definitive article on reader response theory and Proust.

Kristeva, Julia. Proust and the Sense of Time. Translated by Stephen Bann. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Kristeva’s insightful reading is grounded in an investigation of the genesis of meaning. She traces the successive stages of subjectivity through which Proust’s narrator passes.

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Critical Evaluation