"This is the best part of the trip, this is the trip, the best part" -- Jim Morrison, “The Soft Parade”
The final volume of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Time Regained, opens with a visit M. pays to newlyweds Gilberte and Robert de Saint-Loup at Tansonville, their estate in Combray. He takes long walks around the village with Gilberte, following the same paths that he took as a boy. Although Combray has remained unchanged, he is unable to recapture the pleasures of his childhood strolls. Then Gilberte astounds him by telling him that he can get to the Guermantes’ manor by taking the route that passes Méséglise – Swann’s way. M. has always believed the Guermantes way and Swann’s way to be irreconcilable; now he finds they are connected. His world is about to change, and many of his boyhood assumptions will be shattered.
M.’s interlude at Combray is brief. During his stay, Saint-Loup is away most of the time, ostensibly on business, but actually pursuing Morel; Gilberte makes herself up to look like Robert’s old mistress Rachel, in an attempt to win him back; and M. bemoans his lack of talent for literature. There is then a gap of several years, which M. spends in a sanatorium for his health. The story picks up again in Paris during World War I.
M. returns to Paris once in 1914, at the beginning of the war, and again in 1916. Wartime Paris is under siege, but the social whirl continues all the same. Mme Verdurin and Odette both maintain salons despite the bombardments. During his second visit, M. runs into the Baron de Charlus, who has become a German sympathizer, reflecting his Teutonic family origins. M. then wanders through the nighttime streets of Paris, which are darker now than the nocturnal streets of Combray, due to the blackouts. He thinks of Harun al-Rashid wandering the dark alleyways of Baghdad in the Thousand and One Nights as he searches for a hotel to stop and rest for awhile before finding his way home.
Most of the hotels are closed because of the bombings, the owners having fled to the countryside, but M. comes upon one that is open. He sees a military man leaving the hotel, and at first he suspects that the premises are being used as a meeting place for spies. He enters nonetheless. Inside are a group of men, chatting idly. M. asks for a room “just for a few hours”, with something to drink sent up. He has to wait for the manager, who finally comes in “carrying several yards of heavy iron chains.” M. is escorted to room 43, and a glass of cassis arrives shortly.
M.s room is unpleasantly stuffy, so after finishing his drink he decides to leave. He changes his mind, however, and instead climbs the stairs to the top floor of the building. From a room at the end of the hall, he hears groans. Drawing closer to investigate, he hears “I beseech you, mercy, have pity, untie me, don’t beat me so hard” coming from behind the door. Ever the voyeur, M. notices a small window opening into the room. He creeps stealthily to the window and peers in: “chained to a bed like Prometheus to his rock, receiving blows […] with a whip which was in fact studded with nails […] I saw before me M. de Charlus.”
The Baron has purchased this hotel and turned it into a male brothel. Jupien is charged with running it, as well as procuring rough men to satisfy Charlus’ homosexual and now masochistic desires. While M. watches, Jupien enters the room, and the Baron complains to him that the man who had been whipping him is not really a villain – that he is only acting: “But I don’t find him sufficiently brutal. He has a charming face, but when he calls me a filthy brute he might be just repeating a lesson.” Jupien assures the Baron that the man was “involved in the murder of a concierge in La Villette,” which seems to pacify the Baron and stimulate his lust.
Saint-Loup has rejoined his regiment, and the war interlude ends on the news of his death. He has died a hero, in battle, protecting his men. Morel, too, has joined the army, but he deserts and flees to Paris. He is arrested and sent back to the front, but not before informing on M. de Charlus and M. d’Argencourt for homosexual activities. The two are detained by the police, but released right away, and Morel finishes the war by conducting himself bravely and returns “with the cross which M. de Charlus had in the past so vainly solicited for him” – the Legion of Honor.
M. spends more time in a sanatorium, and when he returns again to Paris the war has been over for several years. He has been invited to a musical afternoon at the house of the Princess de Guermantes. As he makes his way toward the palace, he encounters M. de Charlus and Jupien. Charlus is now greatly aged, and he has suffered a stroke. M. talks with him for a while, and Charlus launches into a litany of his contemporaries and friends who are now dead: “he repeated, in a monotonous tone, stammering slightly and with a dull sepulchral resonance: ‘Hannibal de Bréauté, dead! Antoine de Mouchy, dead! Charles Swann, dead! Adalbert de Montmorency, dead! Boson de Talleyrand, dead!’ ” Despite the dirge-like way in which the Baron enumerates these deaths, there is a certain triumph in his voice, as he has outlived all these men. His sexual appetite has not diminished either, and when Jupien draws M. away to talk of the Baron’s health, he has to return quickly because the old reprobate is making advances on the gardener’s boy.
M. now leaves the Baron and continues on to the palace of the Princess de Guermantes. As he enters the courtyard, he begins to have a series of experiences quite like that of the madeleine years before. Stepping back from a passing cab, he treads on two uneven paving stones. Instantly his mind flashes back to Venice, triggered by the flagstones, which recalled those in the baptistery of Saint Mark’s. He reflects on the feeling this produces: “the happiness I just felt was unquestionably the same as that which I felt when I tasted the madeleine soaked in tea.”
He enters the Guermantes mansion, but a musical piece is being performed in the salon, so the butler installs him in the library. Here, he experiences more pleasant flashbacks. A servant knocks a spoon against a plate, and the sound evokes that of a hammer, and transports him to a train outside of Combray where he can see vividly a line of trees that earlier he could barely call up in his memory. Then another servant brings him some refreshment, and as he wipes his mouth with the napkin, the rough texture carries him back to the first day at Balbec, looking out over the beach from his window at the hotel. M. realizes that the past is buried within him and the only way to recapture this Lost Time is through art.
He randomly picks up a volume from a shelf in the library and looks at it. It is George Sand’s François le Champi. At first the sight of this rather ordinary book is jarring to his enchanted state of mind. Then he remembers that François le Champi was the book his mother read to him all those years ago in Combray, when he couldn’t sleep without her goodnight kiss. And he realizes that this book represents his childhood and his awakening to literature. This, in turn, unleashes another flood of memories.
M. now realizes his purpose. He must take the events of his life and use them to and create a work of literature that will live on, even as he himself passes into oblivion. All of his past life, his indolence, his painful love affairs, his idling away hours at the social gatherings of the Duchesse de Guermantes and other socialites: all these events have been his apprenticeship as a writer. Now he has but to delve into his memories of these events and produce a novel. Before, he had doubted his ability to produce anything of substance, but now he realizes, through the amazing flashbacks he has just experienced, that he has the ability to penetrate beneath the world of appearances and create a truly great work of art.
His mind primed through this series of illuminations, he is now summoned to join the party, as the musical interlude has concluded. He enters the room, and the whole scene takes on a hallucinatory quality, as if he had ingested hashish while waiting in the library, and it was just now taking effect. All of the guests seem to be wearing powdered wigs. The Prince de Guermantes has white hair and white mustaches, and he drags his feet along the ground like he was wearing lead shoes. The young Duc de Châtellerault appears as an elderly gentleman with silvery mustaches. And M. d’Argencourt appears as an old beggar. At first M. thinks that all the guests are in disguise, but he suddenly realizes that they have all grown old. He has been away from society for so long that all his friends and acquaintances have aged almost beyond his ability to recognize them.
There are more surprises to come. The Princesse de Guermantes is – Madame Verdurin! M. Verdurin has long been dead, as has the original Princesse de Guermantes. The Prince, who suffered financially as a result of war, has married M. Verdurin for her vast wealth, and the woman who once looked down on the nobility as “bores” is now at the pinnacle of aristocratic society. Odette is now the mistress of the Duc de Guermantes, and Bloch looks so old that M. at first mistakes him for his father. He then meets a stout woman, who turns out to be Gilberte – Mme Saint-Loup. She introduces M. to her daughter. This child, Mademoiselle de Saint-Loup, personifies for M. all the ways of his life – Swann’s way, the Guermantes way, the Champs Elysées, Balbec; all of the events and places leading up to this day are embodied in this young girl. And M. redoubles his resolve to write his book. He feels he still has the strength to do it, that he needs to get to work right away: “Yes, upon this task the idea of Time which I had formed to-day told me that it was time to set to work. It was high time.”
And so M. sets out to write his novel, which is, of course, the vast narrative that you have just finished reading.