C.G. Fewston's Reviews > Time Regained

Time Regained by Marcel Proust
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it was amazing

Alas, for the Narrator, from his boyhood days in Combray, France his two “Ways” (being “Swann’s Way” in Vol. I & the “Guermantes Way” in Vol. III) reappear in his old age and merge together in the physical form of Mlle de Saint-Loup (sixteen-year-old daughter to Gilberte Swann and granddaughter to Charles Swann), who helps the Narrator regain a sense of his lost youth; by merely being present, the young girl also helps the Narrator to better understand the reasons behind his long train of memories from his past and to further inspire him to finally leave his idle ways so he can begin to write his great book for future generations to enjoy as a déjeuner sur l’herbe.

“Numerous for me were the roads which led to Mlle de Saint-Loup and which radiated around her. Firstly the two great “ways” themselves, where on my many walks I had dreamed so many dreams, both led to her: through her father Robert de Saint-Loup the Guermantes way; through Gilberte, her mother, the Méséglise way which was also ‘Swann’s way.’ One of them took me, by way of this girl’s mother and the Champs-Elysées, to Swann, to my evenings at Combray, to Méséglise itself; the other, by way of her father, to those afternoons at Balbec where even now I saw him again near the sun-bright sea…

“And indeed my whole social life, both in the drawing-rooms of the Swanns and the Guermantes in Paris and also that very different life which I had led with the Verdurins in the country, was in some sense a prolongation of the two ways of Combray, a prolongation which brought into line with one way or the other places as far apart as the Champs-Elysées and the beautiful terrace of La Raspelière…

“Certainly, if he was thinking purely of the human heart, the poet was right when he spoke of the ‘mysterious threads’ which are broken by life. But the truth, even more, is that life is perpetually weaving fresh threads which link one individual and one event to another, and that these threads are crossed and recrossed, doubled and redoubled to thicken the web, so that between any slightest point of our past and all the others a rich network of memories gives us an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from…

“And surely the awareness of all these different planes within which, since in this last hour, at this party, I had recaptured it, Time seemed to dispose the different elements of my life, had, by making me reflect that in a book which tried to tell the story of a life it would be necessary to use not the two-dimensional psychology which we normally use but a quite different sort of three-dimensional psychology, added a new beauty to those resurrections of the past which my memory had effected while I was following my thoughts alone in the library, since memory by itself, when it introduces the past, unmodified, into the present—the past just as it was at the moment when it was itself the present—suppresses the mighty dimension of Time which is the dimension in which life is lived.

“I saw Gilberte coming across the room towards me. For me the marriage of Saint-Loup and the thoughts which filled my mind at that date—and which were still there, unchanged, this very morning—might have belonged to yesterday, so that I was astonished to see at her side a girl of about sixteen, whose tall figure was a measure of that distance which I had been reluctant to see. Time, colourless and inapprehensible Time, so that I was almost able to see it and touch it, had materialised itself in this girl, moulding her into a masterpiece, while correspondingly, on me, alas! it had merely done its work. And now Mlle de Saint-Loup was standing in front of me…

“I thought her very beautiful: still rich in hopes, full of laughter, formed from those very years which I myself had lost, she was like my own youth…

“How much more worth living did it appear to me now, now that I seemed to see that this life that we live in half-darkness can be illumined, this life that at every moment we distort can be restored to its true pristine shape, that a life, in short, can be realised within the confines of a book! How happy would he be, I thought, the man who had the power to write such a book! What a task awaited him! To give some idea of this task one would have to borrow comparisons from the loftiest and the most varied arts; for this writer—who, moreover, must bring out the opposed facets of each of his characters in order to show its volume—would have to prepare his book with meticulous care, perpetually regrouping his forces like a general conducting an offensive, and he would also to endure his book like a form of fatigue, to accept it like a discipline, build it up like a church, follow it like a medical regime, vanquish it like an obstacle, win it like a friendship, cosset it like a little child, create it like a new world without neglecting those mysteries whose explanation is to be found probably only in worlds other than our own and the presentiment of which is the thing that moves us most deeply in life and in art” (pgs 502-508).

The Narrator has found his source of inspiration in the physical form of Mlle de Saint-Loup, and he starts to reshape his lived reality by using the new tools, of insight and technique, which he needs to fully form his new universe populated with new worlds of characters.

One method for writing such a book the Narrator concludes to be in the realm of Impressionism, which causes no surprise because in painting the Impressionist Movement began around 1860 and includes French notables such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso who spent much of his adulthood in France, and the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, while in all six volumes the Zen-like artist Elstir, from near Balbec, is one character which exemplifies this technique as well.

In a literary sense, “impressionism” can be defined as seeking “to capture a feeling or experience rather than to achieve accurate depiction.” By the 1920s—very likely thanks to Proust’s early successes with Swann’s Way, Vol. I, published in 1913, and Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II, published in 1919 and winning the Goncourt Prize—“impressionist literature” can be seen in multiple works, a few of which are greatly illustrated by the Irish novelist James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939); others include the German novelist Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain (published in 1924), the British novelist Joseph Rudyard Kipling in Kim (published in 1901), and the American novelist Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage (published in 1895).

The Narrator further explains his take on Impressionism by the end of Time Regained:

“And what I found myself enjoying was not merely these colours but a whole instant of my life on whose summit they rested, an instant which had been no doubt an inspiration towards them and which some feeling of fatigue or sadness had perhaps prevented me from enjoying at Balbec but which now, freed from what is necessarily imperfect in external perception, pure and disembodied caused me to swell with happiness…

“The thought that there is a vast difference between the real impression which we have had of a thing and the artificial impression of it which we form for ourselves when we attempt by an act of will to imagine it did not long detain me… and I understood that the reason why life may be judged to be trivial although at certain moments it seems to us so beautiful is that we form our judgment, ordinarily, on the evidence not of life itself but of those quite different images which preserve nothing of life—and therefore we judge it disparagingly. At most I noticed cursorily that the differences which exist between every one of our real impressions—differences which explain why a uniform depiction of life cannot bear much resemblance to the reality—derive probably from the following cause: the slightest word that we have said, the most insignificant action that we have performed at any one epoch of our life was surrounded by, and coloured by the reflexion of, things which logically had no connexion with it and which later have been separated from it by our intellect which could make nothing of them for its own rational purposes, things however, in the midst of which—here the pink reflexion of the evening upon the flower-covered wall of a country restaurant, a feeling of hunger, the desire for women, the pleasure of luxury; there the blue volutes of the morning sea and, enveloped in them, phrases of music half emerging like the shoulders of water-nymphs—the simplest act of gesture remains immured as within a thousand sealed vessels, each one of them filled with things of a colour, a scent, a temperature that are absolutely different one from another, vessels, moreover, which being disposed over the whole range of our years, during which we have never ceased to change if only in our dreams and our thoughts, are situated at the most various moral altitudes and give us the sensation of extraordinarily diverse atmospheres. It is true that we have accomplished these changes imperceptibly; but between the memory which brusquely returns to us and our present state, and no less between two memories of different years, places, hours, the distance is such that it alone, even without any specific originality, would make it impossible to compare one with the other. Yes: if, owing to the work of oblivion, the returning memory can throw no bridge, form no connecting link between itself and the present minute, if it remains in the context of its own place and date, if it keeps its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or upon the highest peak of a mountain summit, for this very reason it causes us suddenly to breathe a new air, an air which is new precisely because we have breathed it in the past, that purer air which the poets have vainly tried to situate in paradise and which could induce so profound a sensation of renewal only if it had been breathed before, since the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost” (pgs 259-261).

Regardless of these unanswerable, ever-moving questions of various styles depicting the past, the present, the future and how events within these spaces of Time and Place all shape and reshape reality, the reader has to ask: How much of Volume VI, Time Regained (1927), is real? Imagined? Legend? Dreamed?

And one more thing: Does the reality of life unfold and take shape in the memory, the soul, alone?

Proust, by this last volume, does help the reader attempt to answer some of these complex questions:

“Human nature still betrays its need for belief by its insistent demands for truth…

“In the people whom we love, there is, immanent, a certain dream which we cannot always clearly discern but which we pursue. It was my belief in Bergotte and in Swann which had made me love Gilberte, my belief in Gilbert the Bad which had made me love Mme de Guermantes. And what a vast expanse of sea had been hidden away in my love—the most full of suffering, the most jealous, seemingly the most individual of all my loves—for Albertine! In any case, just because we are furiously pursuing a dream in a succession of individuals, our loves for people cannot fail to be more or less of an aberration… Who can say to what long-lived and unconscious dream is linked the desire that never fails to re-awaken at the sight of a woman on horseback, an unconscious dream…

“And I thought that in the same way dreams would bring sometimes within my grasp truths or impressions which my efforts alone and even the contingencies of nature failed to present to me; that they would re-awaken in me something of the desire, the regret for certain non-existent things which is the necessary condition for working, for freeing oneself from the dominion of habit, for detaching oneself from the concrete. And therefore I would not disdain this second muse, this nocturnal muse who might sometimes do duty for the other” (pgs 215-217, 327).

Perhaps Marcel Proust dreamed it all. A long, beautiful dream mixed with illusions, legends, fantasies, and a little bit of reality to fool even the most conscious of dreamers.

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Reading Progress

December 25, 2017 – Started Reading
December 25, 2017 – Shelved
June 27, 2018 –
page 111
July 8, 2018 –
page 188
July 12, 2018 –
page 333
July 12, 2018 –
page 388
July 16, 2018 –
page 432
July 17, 2018 –
page 505
July 18, 2018 –
page 522
July 19, 2018 – Finished Reading

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