By James Cullingham
I began reading Proust as I launched into writing my dissertation in about 2006. I was on a beach in Cuba when I first opened Du côté de chez Swann the first of a seven-volume novel totaling some 3,000 pages. I finished the novel en français earlier this year. That’s correct, it took me 15 years to read À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).
Proust has been my companion on airplanes, in the bath, on canoe trips and in libraries and cafés from Oaxaca, Mexico to Paris and points in between. As I taught journalism, history, and Indigenous Studies, completed my dissertation, made a number of documentary films and laboured over a book manuscript, I was under the spell of Marcel Proust.
Proust (1871 – 1922) finished his masterwork on his deathbed. The last three volumes of the novel were published posthumously. A sensation during his lifetime, Proust won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1919 for À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower), the second volume, the novel that has been obsessed over by other authors of fiction, historians, filmmakers, philosophers and various savants for a century.
I am an educator, filmmaker, historian and journalist. I am not a literary critic. Novels, particularly those of Victorian England and works from Canada, France, Latin America, Russia and the United States that have stood the test of let’s say at least 25 years time, have been a fascination and solace since I was a teenager. I don’t read much fiction published in recent years. Novelists named Bronte, Camus, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, García Márquez, Gaskell, Hemingway, Kerouac, Kesey, Laurence, Roy, Sartre, Stendahl, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Woolf stoke my engines.
Marcel Proust is the greatest novelist I have encountered.
Virginia Woolf wrote, “My great adventure is really Proust. What is left to be written after that?” American writer Shelby Foote said that “once you have read Proust, you’re in another world, a Proustian world that’s in your being and is part of your equipment for the rest of your life.”
À la recherche du temps perdu is about childhood, adolescence, middle age and the beginnings of old age all seen through the lens of an ironic, acutely observant, very funny and often ill narrator. Its themes include anti-Semitism, the contemplation of music, food, paintings, jealousy, Parisian life during World War I, literature, politics, romance, the salon life of the idle rich, and sexuality all delivered with astonishing frankness and poeticism.
Proust was half Jewish and a homosexual. Yet his depiction of attraction between a man and a woman is highly erotic. Homosexuality and bisexuality are also frequently depicted in the work. Proust never came out of the closet and once fought an inconsequential duel with a journalist who attempted to out him. His dealing with homosexuality might reveal his own conflicted soul in a manner that historicizes what was, even in libertine Paris, a shadowy way of being.
In real life Proust rallied to the cause of falsely persecuted Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was accused of being a German spy. The ‘Dreyfus Affair’ blew up when novelist Emile Zola wrote his famous « J’accuse! » editorial claiming Dreyfus had been framed. In À la recherche du temps perdu, the narrator references the affair again and again while training a mordant eye on the casual anti-Semitism of France’s wealthiest families.
Above all À la recherche du temps perdu is about the physical, sensory and psychological experience of being alive. In form and in substance, Proust’s masterpiece replicates life. The celebrated passage of the narrator dipping a madeleine cookie into his tea and releasing a flood of memory is immortal. That’s understandable in a work that constantly reflects the mental experience of living – the simultaneous filtering of present reality with memory and sentiment of the past. Reading Proust is a transfixing, hallucinatory journey. The narrative is often seamlessly evocative of two or more time periods.
À la recherche du temps perdu juxtaposes a great array of life as experienced by an emergent liberal bourgeoisie, fading aristocracy and artists of pre-World War I France. It moves from Normandy seaside resorts and villages, to the salons and bedrooms of Belle-Époque Paris and features informed discussion of history, literature, music, politics and painting. It also brilliantly describes the life of World War I Paris amid blackouts, warning sirens of zeppelin attacks, and soldiers and the wealthy seeking respite in male brothels.
Music is essential to Proust’s project. Specific works by Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy and others are frequently either commented on by the narrator or described as played by musicians in social settings. Proust planted a delicious mystery with frequent allusions to a fictional Sonata written by a composer the narrator calls Vinteuil. The description of the impact of the piece for one of Proust’s central characters Charles Swann, as well as the narrator, gives Proust an opportunity to delve deeply into an epiphanous appreciation of music.
Proust set off a minor musicological industry as critics and musicians alike attempted to identify the real composer and work. Consensus has more or less settled that Proust’s fictional piece was the Sonata No. 1 in D Minor by Camille Saint-Saëns, but works by Claude Debussy, César Franck, Gabriel Pierné and Proust’s close friend and sometimes lover Reynaldo Hahn are also contenders. In 2016, Russian musicians and sisters Maria and Nathalia Milstein recorded a very fine album of piano and violin duets of the various contenders.
The final volume Le temps retrouvé was adapted for the screen by Chilean Ráoul Ruiz in a sumptuous film. Ruiz is among directors such as Chantal Akerman of Belgium, Volker Schlöndorff of Germany and the American documentarist Sarah Mondale in tackling Proust. I believe Ruiz best captures the hallucinatory, time shifting, memory driven possibilities.
Like many truly great works of art La Recherche transcends its own time period. One of its most ‘modernist’ and self-reflective themes fully emerges in Le temps retrouvé (Time Regained) as the narrator begins commenting on the novel he is striving to complete before his own death. Under the shadow of his impending demise, the narrator comments on the process of creation of his novel and the relationship between art and death.
À la recherche du temps perdu is more than worth the effort. It’s a delight for the patient reader in French or in its numerous translations. It contains invaluable lessons for any storyteller.
James Cullingham is an adjunct graduate faculty member of Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University, a professor at Seneca College and president of Tamarack Productions. He is currently directing and producing a documentary The Cost of Freedom – Refugee Journalists in Canada, and completing Two Dead White Men – Duncan Campbell Scott, Jacques Soustelle and the Failure of Indigenous Policy, to be published fall 2021.