Interlude: The Proustian Obsession

Classics French Lit-Crit Reading

We’re into the home stretch now in our pondering of Proust -- four volumes down and three to go. We have been introduced to a fascinating and vast cast of characters, from the cook Françoise to the Prince de Guermantes. We have found out that Charlus is gay, and that the Duc de Guermantes is a Dreyfusard. Let’s take a break, then, before we tackle the last three tomes, and reflect on a new addition to the Proustian literature: Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time, by Patrick Alexander.

Outside of Alexander’s offering, there are two books that stand as must-reads to gain insight into Proust’s massive work. The first is Marcel Proust: A Life by William C. Carter, an excellent biography of the author of A la Recherche. The second is How Proust Can Change your Life by Alain de Botton, a witty look at how this author's writings can be applied to everyday living. Certainly there are numerous other books on Proust, but you can safely read these two and remain a serious but sane aficionado. Go beyond these and of course you risk entering into the dark realm of Proustian obsession. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing.

Now, however, we have a new addition to our standard supplementary reading, the book by Patrick Alexander. Alexander, among other things, has produced a YouTube video that summarizes all of In Search of Lost Time in less than five minutes. In this he takes a cue from Monty Python’s hilarious sketch, “The All England Summarize Proust Competition”. Alexander’s summary is quite good, and markedly less silly than the Python affair. He also is conducting a re-write of Proust on Twitter, thus updating the master for the information age.

What Alexander has provided in Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time is an invaluable tool for both the experienced Proustian and the novice as well. In the first part of the book, he provides a 600 word summary of the seven volumes. He then offers a detailed synopsis of each volume. Following this is a list of the main characters with capsule descriptions, and then an in-depth guide containing insights into the part each character plays in the novel. Alexander also provides a brief biography of Marcel Proust, insights into Proust’s Paris with a map showing key locations, and the historical background of the Belle Époque (the era when the novel takes place) and the Dreyfus affair (the political scandal that divided France at the time, and which is referred to throughout the work). The work contains numerous illustrations, as well as a genealogical chart of the Guermantes family and the family tree of the novel’s protagonist.

All of this is presented in a style that flows easily and treats the subject in a highly readable fashion, far from the tedious academic volumes that one usually equates with literary criticism. If you have never read Proust, reading this book first could be good preparation, since you would be introduced to the characters and plot line in a summary fashion, without spoiling any of your reading pleasure. For the person who has already read A la Recherche, this wraps things up nicely, and may even send you back for a second read. I plan to keep a copy on my bookshelf, right next to the Carter biography.

If you’re a slacker you could just read this book and pretend that you have read all of Proust, much like the Marquis de Cambremer, who likes to give the impression that he has read all of the fables of La Fontaine, but in fact has only read two.

This article is part of the series Proust Beyond The Madeleines. The next post in the series is Pondering Proust V: The Prisoner. The previous post in the series is Pondering Proust IV: Sodome et Gommorhe, or Cities of the Plain.
3 Responses to "Interlude: The Proustian Obsession"

by Dan on

Thanks, Michael. I would add a third book to your canon - to be read after the two you mention: Proust in Love, also by William Carter. His analyses are intriguing, original, and lots of fun. I learned a lot, about a lot of things. Not to be missed.

When are you returning to Paris. We were going to visit again, then we looked up the air fares - I see what you mean!

I'll check out Proust in Love! I hope to get back to Paris this year. The ticket prices are high, but I think I have enough air miles to make the trip.

by steve on

"there are two books that stand as must-reads to gain insight into Proust’s massive work"

Unless you use obsession very casually, I'd say for a Proust obsessive, others are far, far ahead! Tadie's biography is definitive, and for secondary texts: Deleuze's Proust & Signs and Malcolm Bowie's Proust Among the Stars are excellent. But for me Blanchot's essay "The Experience of Proust" is one of most profound about modern literature let alone Proust's novel.

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