It often seems that In Search of Lost Time is less a novel than it is a multi-volume personal essay about memory and the failure of our intellect to grasp reality in the present. Leaping from Volume VI back to Volume I, I see that Proust has been making the same points about memory and experiential knowledge the entire time, but I didn't grasp what he meant in his exposition; it was only much later that I was able to share his understanding of how life can truly only be known in retrospect, through the working of memory outside of the stream of experience. The novel demonstrates the author's proposition through it's very structure. In Search of Lost Time is then, among other things, a 4,300-page expansion of Kierkegaard's well-known comment that "Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards." But everyone knows that already.
Possibly Proust's theme of memory hides an even greater theme in Lost Time, a quite moral theme having to do with human relationships. The Narrator claims more than once that friendship is for him essentially an empty thing: at best a utilitarian mechanism for getting something he wants (sex, generally) through social connections, and at worst a complete waste of time. The Narrator of course has many character flaws and isn't ashamed to claim them as virtues (this is the primary source of Proust's comic irony throughout the many books of the novel). We are shown repeatedly how one person will (often willfully) misunderstand the motives and actions of another and will treat that other person thoughtlessly or with deliberately harmful intent, often just for the pleasure of spite and the wicked amusement of others. We are shown repeatedly (and, in the case of the Albertine-as-prisoner story, at great length) how a person can be blind to everything except a mistaken idea he clings to in his ignorance, refusing to abandon that idea even as he destroys another person. This ethical theme of Proust's is the same as that of Chekhov: we are all living badly, and we should stop it. We are half-blind monsters, mauling each other in a fog while shouting about love, unable (or unwilling) to accept the reality of each other*. This monstrousness is presented by Proust as a tragedy, as he can see no remedy for it. The best we can do is recognize our mistreatment of our loved ones in retrospect. In Search of Lost Time is a melancholy novel.
The plot doesn't matter. None of the events matter. One person's life is much like another's, and even a great hero of the Great War has spent most of his life off the battlefield, wasting time and looking past his friends at nothing, at his own prejudices, at his unfulfilled desires. The truth of our lives can be found just as much by gazing through a shop window at a new pair of kid gloves as it can be found in the struggle for existence. After all, one mourns the loss of a favorite pair of gloves much more than one mourns the loss of a sister, cousin, husband or wife. One was, it must be admitted, better acquainted with the gloves.
Again, this is a sad book. Marcel dissects and dismisses everyone, from poor fishermen to princesses and all comers in between, including himself. We are distant and unkind because we never see each other, not really, and one cannot be expected to love a person one has never met. Each of us is transitory, unnecessary, interchangeable and there is an endless supply of new humanity swarming to take up our places, our causes, our thoughts and mannerisms. Witness the section in Volume VI about "the Princess de Guermantes", a royal title that endures in the world for century upon century as the title is held by a succession of women, the most recent being a selfish and small-minded narcissist who has managed to marry and inherit her way upward from the shops to the nobility, but even she will die and there will be a new Princess de Guermantes, an empty tiara atop an expendable head. Witness also the changing of social places between Madame Verdurin (who has become that most recent Princess de Guermantes) and Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes (who is originally introduced to us as a magical creature, the apex of elegance and style); Oriane in Volume VI finally comes to possess the mocking laughter and appalling humor exhibited by Mme Verdurin in volumes I-V.
This is a long book. We all know that, right? Every reader seems to find something he must drag himself through, some resistant narration to overcome, some seemingly-endless swamp to cross. I don't understand the readers who find the party scenes dull; they all struck me as vibrant, living scenes full of action and humor and irony. In fact, any time three or more people gather together, there are bound to be hijinks. But what was it that made me pray for either death or sudden speed-reading abilities? Oh, yes: The Captive and Marcel's endless suspicions that Albertine might be having lesbian affairs, and his examination of every detail of Albertine's life in search of evidence by which to condemn her. I can't tell you how happy I was when Francoise announced to Marcel that Albertine had packed her bags and fled the house. The scenes which follow--the opening of The Fugitive, that is--are fairly packed with comedy as Marcel reaches increasingly great heights of nervous fluttering about as he plots to get Albertine back or, if he can't have her, he plans to kill himself on the front steps of Albertine's mother's house. That'll show her.
Yes, yes, Albertine, the love of Marcel's life until he forgets all about her, is barely sketched in; we learn nothing about her mind or personality except those impressions had by Marcel, who knows less about the interior world of Albertine than I know about the interior world of my cat. Some readers see this as a weakness in Proust's writing. I recognize it as a central pillar of Proust's characterization of the Narrator. Marcel the narrator is not Marcel Proust the author of the book. Imagine if Anthony Burgess had only written A Clockwork Orange, and readers assumed Burgess was essentially the same person as young Alex. Proust sees the moral and intellectual weaknesses of Marcel.
Still, Proust himself seems to have been something of a weirdo. But really, get to know anyone well enough, and you see their eccentricities. Write enough prose and your own eccentricities will rise to the surface of the work. I claim to know something about this. But what was I saying? Oh, the dull parts. I'm in the camp of readers who grew exhausted reading many sections in which a single idea was examined and rephrased again and again and again as Proust (or Marcel; hard to say here) sought the perfect analogy and failed to find it. Sometimes there is less deep and probing meditation than there is waffling about in the hope that inspiration will eventually strike. In Search of Lost Time employs techniques of comparison, showing us for example different sets of people engaged in essentially the same activities but believing themselves inhabitants of foreign worlds, and these comparisons continue across the length of the novel and successfully expose the Verdurin set and the Guermantes set to be the same people in different hats. The technique of comparision lends itself less well to abstract ideas, and this is I think a weakness of In Search of Lost Time. Some of Proust's pet ideas are unhappily static and despite the author's best efforts, these ideas do not get up and dance no matter how insistent the tune Proust plays. Happily, for me at least, these static sections always end and there's another party, or Charlus comes prancing up the sidewalk. The inserted essays about art and writing, on the other hand, are worth their weight in gold. Really good stuff in every volume.
Some Other Things:
The ending, so I have read many times, is where we learn that In Search of Lost Time is a Künstlerroman, the story of a writer named Marcel becoming a writer, as if his discovery that he has a work of art in him is the primary point toward which the novel has built, the thematic and dramatic climax of the work. I think people who say this are mistaking structure for content. Volume VI is the author instructing the reader on how to read In Search of Lost Time. Marcel becoming a writer, as a sick old man, is plot, not subject matter. The novel is not an adventure unfolding over time. The Odyssey is more than the story of an old king who tries to go home and then finally goes home. Just because Odysseus sits in his great hall with Penelope at the end of the story does not mean that the story is about him getting to that point. See above about the moral theme of the novel. My complaints, I begin to realize, are mostly concerned with things I've read about Proust, not so much with Mr Proust's work itself. Huh. I am a cranky old reader trying to go home, maybe. This post is the story of me getting to the end of this post, realizing that I could write a post about this post. This is not that post I realized I could write. In Search of Lost Time is not the novel Marcel realized he could write. That novel is on the shelf of Borges' imaginary library.
Speaking of Marcel as a sick old man, Proust died before he finished revising the final volume, and I think that's evident; in many places there is a rough work-in-progress quality, of unstitched hems and sleeves tacked into place awaiting a final fitting. You can tell that the last paragraph of the book, with it's lovely image (of a man walking on ever-lengthening legs which raise him daily farther above his birth so as to lengthen his physical body as his existence in time grows progressively longer until one day his legs are so long that they can no longer support him and he topples over, falling to his death), has been polished and worked at by Proust, so perfect is it in tone and rhythm. But the fifty pages before this gem are quite uneven and I am sure that Proust would've done a lot of work on them had he lived longer. Even the final long party scene (how pleased I was when Proust gave me another party in the Faubourg Saint Germain), where Proust drags nearly every character who's appeared in the book back onto the stage for a final bow, has events out of order and odd repetitions and contradictions. I can't say what Proust would've done with Volume VI had he lived except that surely he'd have resolved the narrative contradictions, smoothed out the sketchy ideas of the last fifty pages, and gosh we can all predict that it would've been a hundred or two hundred pages longer. Which would've been fine. I'd have read another two hundred pages, especially of party scenes.
I claim the unfinished state of the novel for my uncertainty as to what Proust was getting at in some places in Volume VI. The idea of characters taking on the habits and ideas of other characters, of each of us being not one person but many people who are born and die in succession without realizing it (the new identities visible only to outside observers who have been out of contact with us long enough for our internal changes to have come to the surface), is a good one and Proust makes good use of it. I assume that's what he's doing when he has Marcel state that he plans to withdraw from society in order to concentrate on his writing, the only contact he'll desire being that of young girls whom he might shower with gifts and someday maybe be kissed on the cheek, and Gilberte introducing Marcel to her own sixteen year-old daughter for this very purpose. That is an odd episode, and the best I can make of it is that Marcel is taking the place of the late M. Bergotte, whose behavior in this vein is described early in The Captive:
For years past Bergotte had ceased to go out of doors. [...] He was generous above all towards women — girls, one ought rather to say — who were ashamed to receive so much in return for so little. He excused himself in his own eyes because he knew that he could never produce such good work as in an atmosphere of amorous feelings. Love is too strong a word, pleasure that is at all deeply rooted in the flesh is helpful to literary work because it cancels all other pleasures, for instance the pleasures of society, those which are the same for everyone. And even if this love leads to disillusionment, it does at least stir, even by so doing, the surface of the soul which otherwise would be in danger of becoming stagnant. Desire is therefore not without its value to the writer in detaching him first of all from his fellow men and from conforming to their standards, and afterwards in restoring some degree of movement to a spiritual machine which, after a certain age, tends to become paralysed. We do not succeed in being happy but we make observation of the reasons which prevent us from being happy and which would have remained invisible to us but for these loopholes opened by disappointment. Dreams are not to be converted into reality, that we know; we would not form any, perhaps, were it not for desire, and it is useful to us to form them in order to see them fail and to be instructed by their failure. And so Bergotte said to himself: "I am spending more than a multimillionaire would spend upon girls, but the pleasures or disappointments that they give me make me write a book which brings me money." Economically, this argument was absurd, but no doubt he found some charm in thus transmuting gold into caresses and caresses into gold.I was pleased with the way, about four pages from the end, Marcel loops back around to the night when Swann visited his parents at Combray and Marcel's mother did not come upstairs to kiss Marcel goodnight, choosing instead to remain in the parlor until Swann had left. Swann's coming between Marcel and his mother that evening was the beginning of the end of Marcel's childhood and innocence, Swann's life casting a shadow all through Marcel's days, from one end of time to the other.
* Witness the "air raid" scene early in Volume VI, in which Parisians rush to the Metro--its tunnels in complete darkness--where they hope to find a willing partner for anonymous sex, to engage with others at a purely physical level, simultaneously intimate and absent, simultaneously vulnerable and invulnerable, simultaneously naked and fully-armored, as all the while the City of Lights above their heads is being bombed into rubble.