Richard French

July 5, 2017 Revisiting Marcel Proust Posted In: NOVEL

Though I’m retired and live in Toronto now, I worked for 18 years as a pastor in a mining city called Sudbury 250 miles due north of where I live now. I wasn’t overworked during the years i spent in mid-north Ontario and had time to write the fiction I love and also do quite a bit of reading.

Among the works I read in English translation was Marcel Proust’s masterpiece “The Remembrance of Things Past”. I appreciated that it’s a literary landmark but it really didn’t engage me to the point of excitement. After moving south, I decided to give the series of novels a second chance. I was able to buy audiobooks of the novels by the English actor Neville Jason, of whom I’d never heard. He’s an expert reader and has brought the work alive for me. I’ve almost finished listening to the last volume “Time Regained”. His performance of the work has been amazingly consistent. He makes every character real and distinct. I could never do what he’s done, so I get out of the way and listen.

I can make comments, however, as a result of my second acquaintance with this work, so here I go:

1. Proust took four attempts to bring the story to its high level: an early novel called “Jean Santeuil”, a critical work called “Contre Saint-Beuve”, a lost manuscript, and the seven novels we have.
2. He completed his work in spite of periods of draining illness.
3. It’s taken me a year and a half to get as far as I have with this work. Along the way, I read a two-volume biography of Proust by George D. Painter. I learned from it that the author based his society characters on actual people he came in contact with and in several cases he blended to or three acquaintances into one character.
4. Though his work is a fictionalized memoir, he says little about his father, who was a prominent physician, active in ending cholera in Europe. As far as I can recall, there’s no mention anywhere in the novel of Proust’s brother, with whom his biographer says he had decent relations.
5. For me, one of the best moments comes near the end, when Proust portrays the suffering of a distinguished classical actress he calls Berma.
6. Painter acknowledges that parts of Proust’s life were deplorable. I believe that he came to regret these episodes and rose way above them when he wrote his novels.
7.. Along with other features, he drew a picture of Parisian high society, yet he came to distance himself from the aristocracy that he was once ardent to hobnob with. Moreover, he doesn’t adopt a snobbish attitude to working people he encounters, such as a head waiter and a family servant Francoise.
8.. I liked the following anecdote I read in his biography — that he regretted not learning to speak English because he couldn’t talk with American soldiers he passed on the streets in Paris around the time of the armistice that ended World War 1.
9. He came from a highly privileged background but he wasn’t content to rest on what he received. He pushed himself despite poor health to create a verbal panorama of how a sensitive mind absorbs and interprets a complex culture. I especially like that a positive view of life came naturally to him and he seems never to have lost it for long. A late-in-life female friend said that he was a good man.
10. What faults can I find with this work? Proust could go on and on about the minutiae of relationships. Though he served in the military himself for a while and his narrator-counterpart had a friend who died in the war, he doesn’t say very much about the grim nature of some of the nastiest combat the world has ever seen.

These thoughts came to me at random while I made notes during a subway ride. I’m glad to have a chance to express my heightened appreciation of an outstanding piece of work.

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