I read In Search of Lost Time, whose title was then translated as Remembrance of Things Past, during a trip around Australia a long time ago, so details of the plot have disappeared into the dark corners of my memory. Perhaps to emerge again if I eat a madeleine cake? I can only hope.
What I do remember is that along with War and Peace (which I previously read on a trip to India) is that it is the best book I have ever read.
But perhaps not for the usual reasons. The academics concentrate on the philosophy of In Search of Lost Time, a principle element of which is, to put it in one phrase, memory, and how we are all no more than the sum of our memories. But like all philosophies, that sounds rather obvious when you write it down.
No, the true quality of In Search of Lost Time is the sheer quality of the phrasing, the depiction of the hypocrisy of French society, and of course the vivid characters.
On that trip to Australia where there was no television to distract me it took me a good 150 pages to get into the book but after that I was gripped, and could hardly put it down. Sometimes I read 50 pages in a session. The seven books came in three volumes, more than 3,000 pages in all, and the only criticism I would have was that it was not longer. In fact I was devastated when I finished, because I would never meet those people again. And they were people, not just characters.
Despite the baggage that comes with being such a great book, one that took the novel in a different direction, it is packed with philosophy, and one that you may think you have to study in order to appreciate, it was also very easy to read.
And that is what makes it great. If you are expounding new and complex thoughts, your language and thought processes need to be equally brilliant. The more complex the idea, the simpler the explanation needs to be. Ulysses is a great book but you need help reading it.
So while you may think you need a lot of dedication to get through it, and you certainly do in terms of time and facing up to the intimidatory element that comes with a book of this length and reputation, as ever, the more you put into something, the more you get out of it.
A word of the translation. I read the CK Scott Moncrieff version, the first one in English, and if the newer ones are better, all I can say is that they must be very good indeed. Moncrieff apparently allowed himself plenty of licence, as you can see from what they did to the title, but it certainly worked.
Unfortunately I doubt if I’ll ever have the time to compare them, and if I do, my memory will probably let me down.
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