Marcel Proust's Search for Lost Time: A Reader's Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past (Anglais) Broché – 22 septembre 2009
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At seven volumes, three thousand pages, and more than four hundred characters, as well as a towering reputation as a literary classic, Proust’s novel can seem daunting. But though begun a century ago, in 1909, it is in fact as engaging and relevant to our times as ever. Patrick Alexander is passionate about Proust’s genius and appeal—he calls the work “outrageously bawdy and extremely funny”—and in his guide he makes it more accessible to the general reader through detailed plot summaries, historical and cultural background, a guide to the fifty most important characters, maps, family trees, illustrations, and a brief biography of Proust. Essential for readers and book groups currently reading Proust and who want help keeping track of the huge cast and intricate plot, this Reader’s Guide is also a wonderful introduction for students and new readers and a memory-refresher for long-time fans.
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For years I have been looking for a "Cliffs Notes" guide to Proust, or something to help me negotiate it. The plot is convoluted, and there are hundreds of characters. But there are none. Cliffs Notes never printed one, Barron's either. Even Sparknotes comes up with nothing. To my astonishment, there are not even (at least as of this writing) any synopses available online, at least not in any detail. It's puzzling. Not even on Wikipedia! (UPDATE: a serviceable summary is available for purchase here: The 14-Minute Marcel Proust: A Very Short Guide to the Greatest Novel Ever Written)
You can tell Alexander's book is a quality product after flipping through it for about 10 seconds. Long lists of characters, abbreviated and extended plot summaries, discussions of themes. etc. It's not a flimsy book, either. At just shy of 400 pages, it's a solid production, in this sense analogous to Stuart Gilbert's guide to "Ulysses": James Joyce's Ulysses, although far more accessible.
It's a labor of love, too. Apparently this guy was a French professor who retired early so that he could work on it. This shows, and I would like to thank that professor if he's reading this.
There's lots of jokes in it, by the way. Not dry at all.
The closest book I know of to this is Proust's Way: A Field Guide to in Search of Lost Time which is okay if you're really getting into Proust. However, I would still recommend this one (Alexander's) over Shattuck's. Shattuck's, while it might seem interchangeable with Alexander's, really isn't. It's more of a collection of essays that explore various aspects of the novel (e.g., "How to Read a Roman-Fleuve," "The Loops of Art," etc.). No, Alexander's is a much more straightforward guide.
One thing I would like the ask the author (Alexander) is this: exactly when are people supposed to read this book? Since it blows the plot and all the surprises, you're probably not supposed to read it before reading Proust himself. After that, is that when you're supposed to read it? If so, the summaries provided are by then unnecessary. If not, then the insights provided will have to be double-checked for yourself on a second go-through. In other words, the way this book was written seems to assume you'll be reading Proust TWICE, with Alexander's volume sandwiched in the middle.
For starters, we are told many times that the narrator goes to the opera (lowercase "o") to see Berma as Racine's Phedre. Does the author not know the difference between an opera and a play? Mentioning it once is a mistake; stating it many times is ignorance. Also, the title of Huysmans most famous novel is twice given as "A Rebourse" (p. 217). The name of the fictional painter Elstir is given (p. 236) as both Elstir and Elistir (twice). The author uses "whom" when only "who" is correct (p. 80, 160, 282). "Possess" is spelled "posses" (p. 90).
What most irritiates me is the constant repetition of sentences. Some things are repeated 4-5-6 times. The important material gets repeated 10-11-12 times. It's as if the author never thought the reader would read the whole book in sequence and was expecting us to thumb through it randomly over a few months and be exposed to an idea only once, not remember that we just read the same thing a few pages previously. To give just one example, we are told many times how the narrator inherits Aunt Leonie's furniture and donates a sofa to a brothel and then sees the whores doing things on the sofa. I understood it the first time; I didn't need to be reminded five more times. An attempt at a relationship matrix (p. 201) was probably more fun to draw than it is to look at.
There is also the matter of tone. We go from scholarly to sarcastic: "This is Proust being Woody Allen at his most neurotically annoying... (p. 122). I actually laughed out loud at that and finally wished that the author had given us more wit and less repetition.
On the plus side, I did like the speculation about which real piece of music (if any) was the possible inspiration for the Vinteuil sonata (pp. 328-31). I liked the pictures. A map of Proust's Paris (p. 354) is interesting. I liked the news that Octave is based on Jean Cocteau. The explanation of aristocratic titles (pp. 205-06) was enlightening. I liked being told which characters are major and complex versus which ones are minor. I probably will reread this "Guide to Main Characters" (pp. 210-332) again. It was helpful to read the author's opinions of certain characters, such as Charlie Morel (he's the most "vile and odius" character), while Grandma Bathilde is the only "morally flawless" character).
The author waits much too long before revealing what any opera queen would know: that "Rachel quand du seigneur" comes from Halevy's opera "La Juive," in which Rachel is the title character. Earlier we had been told many times that the narrator refers to Rachel as "Rachel when from the lord," but why didn't he explain this important operatic reference the first 4-5-6 times he quoted it instead of waiting almost to the end?
Until something better (more concise, less repetitious) comes along, this is the companion book you're going to need. Thumb through it casually, however. Don't try to read it straight through. You'll be turned off by the constant repetition.
I can't recommend it enough. There are short and long summaries of each volume, character lists, historical information about Paris at the time of the writing, and a short bio of Proust's life.
This was what put the icing on the cake for me - this is what helped me put all the puzzle pieces together and actually get excited about reading Proust. This also makes you want to pick up volume one Swann's Way, and start all over again, which is quite a feat.
The only warning I have is with spoilers. If you are reading Proust for the first time, it is hard to avoid spoilers while reading this book. I accepted the spoilers so that I could gain more from my reading.