Remembrance of Things Past (A la recherche du temps perdu)

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by Pericles Lewis

Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927), also known by a more literal translation of its French title, In Search of Lost Time, is the only modernist novel that has a fair claim to being as important in the history of the genre as James Joyce's Ulysses. Joyce claimed not to have read Proust’s work before writing Ulysses, but he had met him, was aware of his methods, and even attended his funeral in 1922, the year Ulysses was published. The two novels, though sharing a conception of time, use radically different methods for representing it. Unlike Ulysses, which takes place on a single day, and in which each episode is assigned a time of day, Proust’s novel spans about fifty years in the life of its protagonist, who bears a striking resemblance to Proust himself (as Stephen Dedalus does to Joyce).


Where Joyce reveled in short sentence fragments juxtaposed without grammatical subordination (parataxis), Proust wrote long, supple, perfectly grammatical sentences, full of dependent clauses (hypotaxis). Although much of Remembrance of Things Past proceeds chronologically, the novel is framed by moments of radical temporal instability. In its opening pages, the first-person narrator recalls a time when he “used to go to bed early.” At that time, he writes, he would often wake up unsure where he was, what year it was, and even who he was. Proust then presents a kaleidoscopic vision of the many bedrooms where his narrator will sleep during the course of the novel, thus plunging the reader into the novel’s fictional world and demonstrating the instability of time and space. Proust’s narrator begins his story entirely abstracted from spatial and temporal co-ordinates (compare Joyce, who used a 1904 street directory in order to locate each event in a geographically accurate place in Dublin). He explains that only the power of memory can help him to reconstruct his personality, and goes on to develop a theory of two types of memory, the voluntary memory that we use in everyday life and a more powerful, involuntary memory that functions unexpectedly, triggered by a sound, smell, or taste.


The first volume of Remembrance of Things Past purports to relate the narrator’s memories of his childhood as they were brought to life for him by the taste of a madeleine (a tiny sponge cake) dipped in tea. The madeleine reminds him of the ones he used to eat at his aunt’s house in Combray, the country town where he once spent his summers. It causes a rush of involuntary memory and resurrects the past that the narrator had thought was “permanently dead.” The resurrection of the dead is another theme shared by Proust and Joyce, which typifies the interplay between the narrative present and the always resurgent past of their characters. Both authors were fascinated with the passage in book eleven of Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus visits the Underworld. The episode, which had been imitated by Virgil, inspired Dante’s Inferno. In the modernist period, Ezra Pound began his Cantos with a translation of the opening lines of Homer’s book eleven, and Virginia Woolf alluded to Odysseus’s encounter with the shade of his mother in portraying the death of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. Homer has Odysseus reach out three times to embrace the shade, but, says Odysseus, “she went sifting through my hands, impalpable / as shadows are, and wavering like a dream.” Woolf echoes Odysseus’s gesture when she announces Mrs. Ramsay’s death in a parenthesis: “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]”


Proust’s narrator too makes use of the image of the empty outstretched arms, first when describing a dream of his dead grandmother and then again in the final episode, the second moment of radical indeterminacy in the novel, when he discusses his failure to recognize his old friends. A friend whom time has completely transformed looks familiar to the narrator only when he laughs, but once he stops laughing, his features change, and the narrator, “like Ulysses in the Odyssey when he rushes forward to embrace his dead mother,” is “obliged to give up the attempt” to recognize him. Joyce, too (in "Telemachus") uses the vision of the dead mother as an opportunity to show how the past inhabits the present. In the midst of their everyday lives, the characters in Proust and Joyce are confronted by ghosts who appear unbidden but whom they cannot quite grasp.[1]


  1. This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis's Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 161-163.
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