This discussion guide will assist readers in exploring In Search of Lost Time
. Hopefully, it will help create a bond not only between the book and the reader, but also between the members of the group. In your support of this book, please feel free to copy and distribute this guide to best facilitate the program. Thank you.
The Modern Library’s fifth volume of Proust’s masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu
, contains both The Captive
(1923) and The Fugitive
(1925). In The Captive
, Proust’s narrator describes living with his lover, Albertine, in his mother’s Paris apartment. He finds himself, by turns, falling out of love with Albertine and obsessing about whom she may or may not love. In The Fugitive
, the narrator loses Albertine forever. It is during his sojourn in Venice that he receives a fateful telegram from Gilberte, Swann’s red-haired daughter. Rich with irony, the story inspires meditations on desire, sexual love, music, and the art of introspection. Graham Greene wrote, "For those who began to write at the end of the twenties or the beginning of the thirties, there were two great inescapable influences: Proust and Freud, who are mutually complementary."
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Time is a central concern for Proust, appearing first in the title and last as the final word of the novel. What is his vision of the past? Does he have a vision of the present? The future? Can the Narrator be said to be living in the past? Is he like the White Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, with "jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today"?
2. The renowned translator of Proust, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, originally grouped the opening section of In Search of Lost Time under the title "The Overture," which includes two famous passages, the good night kiss and the evocative taste of the madeleine. Does this seem apt? If so, how might this fifty-odd page beginning prefigure what will transpire later? What would you expect to follow, given that an overture usually introduces the main themes of a musical work? What does it suggest about Proust’s conception of literature and music?
3. The episode of the good night kiss strikes some readers as odd or contradictory: the Narrator’s need for a kiss seems almost infantile, while his power of observation seems extraordinarily precocious. Considering that he is sent to bed at eight o’clock, how old do you think the Narrator is? Is it significant that his father suggests the Narrator be given the kiss he craves, whereas his mother is reluctant, saying "We mustn’t let the child get into the habit . . ."? Is the fact that the Narrator succeeds in getting the kiss he wants a good thing or a bad thing? Why?
4. "The whole of Proust’s world comes out of a teacup," observed Samuel Beckett. Indeed the episode of the madeleine dipped in tea is the first (and most famous) of numerous instances of "involuntary memory" in the novel. A recognized psychological phenomenon triggered by smells, tastes, or sounds, involuntary memory vividly reproduces emotions, sensations, or images from the past. Why do you think readers and critics universally consider this scene to be pivotal? What does the Narrator think about the experience of involuntary memory? What might its function be in the scheme of In Search of Lost Time?
5. Another emblematic theme involves the recurring "little phrase" of music by Vinteuil that catches the ear of Swann at the Verdurin’s salon and steals into his life. How do Vinteuil’s compositions stir both Swann and the Narrator? In Proust’s scheme of things, is music a higher art than painting or writing because it can produce involuntary memories? How does involuntary memory affect writing and painting? Is it unrelated to art except as a necessary catalyst?
6. In "Combray" we are introduced to the Narrator’s family, their household, and their country home. Since Paris is the true heart of upper-class France, why do you think Proust chose to begin In Search of Lost Time elsewhere? What do we learn from the Narrator’s description of his family’s life and habits? Is the household dominated by men or by women? Does the Narrator’s account seem accurate, or is it colored by his own ideas and preoccupations?
7. A madeleine dipped into a cup of tea first impelled Proust into the "remembrance of things past." Though Proust was a gourmet in his youth, in the final years of his life he subsisted mainly on fillets of sole, chicken, fried potatoes, ice cream, cakes, fruit, and iced beer. Consider how food and culinary happenings – from meals at the restaurant in the Grand Hotel in Balbec to dinners at La Raspelière and the Guermantes’s in Paris – form an integral part of the work.
8. Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way are presented as mutually exclusive choices for promenades, with Swann’s Way given primacy of place at the novel’s outset. Where, metaphorically speaking, does Swann’s Way seem to lead? What are the aesthetic signposts and milestones the Narrator points out? What does the landscape around Combray represent?
9. "I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature," Proust once said. In his description of the area around Combray – and in many other places in the novel – the Narrator describes churches, and particularly steeples. Indeed, Howard Moss cites the steeple as one of Proust’s most important symbols. In religious architecture, the steeple represents man’s aspiration toward God, and by inference toward Art, the Proustian religion. What else might it suggest? Does it have a counterpart in nature?
10. Proust and the Narrator share an appreciation of gardens and flowers – Proust himself was eager to visit Monet’s celebrated garden – and in a sense, all Combray can be seen as a garden. What associations does this evoke? How does the Narrator respond to natural beauty? What do flowers mean to him? How do we know?
11. Proust’s work is filled with "doubling" – the most obvious being the identification of the author with a fictional self of the same name but with somewhat different characteristics. Is Swann a double of the Narrator? What qualities do they share? In what ways do they seem different? What is the importance of the fact that Swann is a Jew?
12. Louis Auchincloss questions the use of a fictional first person named "Marcel," who is but isn’t Proust. Marcel claims that he is neither a snob nor a homosexual, yet he is obsessed with both. Would Proust have strengthened Marcel’s viewpoint by making it that of the young social climber that he himself so clearly was? Did he enhance or detract from Marcel’s credibility by casting him as one of the few heterosexuals in the book? Does it matter that Marcel regards "inversion" as a dangerous vice? Did Proust?
13. "Swann in Love" might be thought of as a dress rehearsal for the Narrator’s own performance, and Swann’s passion for Odette establishes a model for various other love relationships that appear later in the book. Proust believed that all emotions and behavior obey certain psychological laws. E. M. Forster maintained that "Proust’s general theory of human intercourse is that the fonder we are of people the less we understand them – the theory of the complete pessimist." Do you agree? How does Swann’s love affair reflect this? What conclusions does the Narrator draw from his perception of Swann’s experience? In what way does this differ from Swann’s own view?
14. The Balbec sequence of Within a Budding Grove gathers a group of the novel’s principal characters, many for the first time: Robert de Saint-Loup, the Baron de Charlus, and Albertine, to name three of the most important. Others begin to emerge in their true significance, like Elstir the painter. Why do you think Proust chose to bring them together in Balbec? In what ways does Balbec echo or amplify Combray? Is the little "society" of Balbec a preview in microcosm of Paris?
15. While writing In Search of Lost Time Proust often rummaged through his vast photographic collection of Belle Époque luminaries as a means of stimulating his memory. "You could see that his thoughts were following a kind of underground track, as if he were organizing everything into images before putting them into words," recalled his maid Céleste Albaret. Indeed, the Baron de Charlus, in Within a Budding Grove, speaks of the special importance of photographs in preserving an unsullied moment of time past, before it has been altered by the present. Discuss how Proust used photographs in the story – just as he exploited the technology of trains, cars, and airplanes – as symbols of passing time.
16. In his landmark essay on Proust, Edmund Wilson praises the broad Dickensian humor and extravagant satire that animate vast sections of In Search of Lost Time, yet he goes on to call it "one of the gloomiest books ever written." Can you reconcile Wilson’s remarks?
17. Critic Barbara Bucknall maintains that "no Proustian lover really cares at all for his beloved’s feelings." Is this true? Would the Narrator agree? Would the author? Are there any happy or satisfied couples in In Search of Lost Time? Or is love in Proust inevitably a prelude to misunderstanding?
18. "Proust’s stage [is] vaster than any since Balzac’s, and packed with a human comedy as multifarious," said Edith Wharton. Discuss Proust’s depiction of the elaborate hierarchy of French society – from the old nobility of the Faubourg to la haute bourgeoisie, from rich and cultivated Jews to celebrated artists – that forms the great backdrop to In Search of Lost Time. What cracks appear in the aristocratic world of the Guermantes that make us realize it is slowly crumbling? What forces stand ready to propel Mme. Verdurin and her bourgeois salon upward on the social ladder? In recording this change is Proust, in fact, chronicling the birth of modern society?
19. The title Sodom and Gomorrah functions on many levels. What does it suggest about the nature of society? What new areas does it open up? How does the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah relate to Proust’s characters? Since the very nature of In Search of Lost Time involves looking backward, should we expect a parallel between the Narrator and Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt?
20. Critics agree that Sodom and Gomorrah opens a new phase of In Search of Lost Time. If the first three volumes represented the Overture and the first movement of Proust’s great composition, with Balbec as an interlude, then the second movement begins here. What seems different? In what ways have the Narrator’s preoccupations changed? Are these changes reflected in Proust’s style or tone?
21. The Narrator’s explicit initiation into the nature of homosexuality occurs while he is waiting in the courtyard of the Duchesse de Guermantes to observe the pollination of her orchid, from which he is distracted by Charlus and Jupien. What is the effect of this particular juxtaposition? Since flowers and insects have already been established as symbols of eros in nature, is this a veiled comment on the "unnatural"? Is the Narrator observing the two men in the same way as he observes the flower? Is his unconcern with being a voyeur connected to the writer’s role as an observer of the world in all its aspects? Edith Wharton found the scene offensive and deemed it a lapse in Proust’s "moral sensibility." Why?
22. Many crucial sexual scenes in Proust, including the one just mentioned, are witnessed through the "lenses" of windows, which become a commanding metaphor in the novel. Consider how Proust first introduces the window device by way of the magic lantern slides in Marcel’s bedroom at Combray. How are windows analogous to Proust’s notion of viewing life through a telescope, an instrument that propels images through dimensions of both space and time?
23. The Captive and The Fugitive show the Narrator acting out his own version of the grand passions he has observed so keenly and dispassionately in others. But when it comes to his own affairs, Howard Moss says that the Narrator’s greatest lie is that he is objective with respect to Albertine. To whom is the Narrator lying, the reader or himself? Is he aware of his lack of perspective? If he is mistaken about one of the most important relationships in his life, can readers trust his observations about other subjects and people?
About this Author
Born in 1871 in the Parisian suburb of Auteil, Marcel Proust led an active social life in his youth, penetrating the highest circles of wealth and aristocracy. He suffered from severe asthma, which worsened as he grew older, and his illness prompted him to withdraw from society and devote himself to writing. Swann’s Way
was published in 1913, and only three more volumes of the six-volume novel were published in his lifetime. The second, Within a Budding Grove
, won the Goncourt Prize and brought Proust instant fame in 1919. Proust died in 1922; the subsequent volumes were published posthumously.