In Search of Lost Time

From Academic Kids

In Search of Lost Time (a translation of the original la recherche du temps perdu) is a sequence of seven novels by French writer Marcel Proust, published between 1913 and 1927.

Missing image
A first galley proof of La Recherche Du Temps Perdu:Du ct de chez Swann with Proust's handwritten corrections. Auctioned at Christie's in 2000 for more than $1m.

In Search of Lost Time is considered to be one of the major works of literature of any period. Previous English translations used the Shakespearean phrase Remembrance of Things Past (taken from Sonnet 30) as the title, despite Proust's exhortations to the contrary.

The novels were famously sent up in a Monty Python sketch called "The All-England Summarise Proust Competition".



Early in the first volume, the narrator's memories of childhood are triggered by his tasting a petite madeleine (a type of small sponge cake) dipped in tea. This is probably the novel's best-known scene, explored at great length by critics, and petite madeleine or madeleine has since taken on a metaphorical usage in daily language.

The story is about how the story came to be written. That is to say, young Marcel dreams of being a writer — he is so sickly that he is not pushed to seek any kind of career, let alone strenuous work — but finds himself wallowing in distractions, such as social life, pursuing women, etc. His process of maturation takes him through highs and lows as he tries with various degrees of effort to complete something publishable, yearning of following in the footsteps of his idol, the novelist Bergotte.

Publishing history

The original work was published in several volumes between 1913 and 1927, the last few posthumously and without the final corrections and revisions that Proust left unfinished at the time of his death. Rather than recount a clear sequence of events, Proust focuses on the narrator's memories (which are semi-autobiographical) and the connections between them.

la recherche du temps perdu consists of seven volumes, although different editions split the work in different ways:

  • Du ct de chez Swann (Swann's Way) (1913)
  • l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (Within a Budding Grove) (1919, awarded the 1919 Prix Goncourt).
  • Le ct de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way) (1922)
  • Sodome et Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gomorrah) (1922)
  • La prisonnire (The Prisoner) (1923)
  • La fugitive (The Fugitive) (1925, published as Albertine disparue because another book with a similar title was published around the same time)
  • Le temps retrouv (Time Regained) (1927)

Un Amour de Swann, part two of Du ct de chez Swann, is often published as a volume by itself. As it forms the self-contained story of Charles Swann's love affair with Odette de Crcy and is relatively short, it is generally considered a good introduction to the work and is often a set text in French schools.


Proust loved the works of John Ruskin and translated them into French, which was a major influence on his style. He also claimed that Á la recherche du temps perdu was his attempt at writing a French incarnation of The Thousand and One Nights.

The novel shows how we alienate ourselves from ourselves through distractions, and also, in memorable passages involving a telephone or an airplane, reflects on the changes wrought by the advent of new technology.

Proust, who wrote contemporaneously with Sigmund Freud, propounds a theory of personality and psychology which privileges memory, and the formative experiences of childhood. Dr. Howard Hertz of Pasadena City College has compared this with the work of the Freudian theorist Melanie Klein. The role of memory is central, hence the famous episode with the madeleines in the first book. Proust seems to say that what we are is our memories. Part of the process of distracting ourselves is distancing ourselves from our memories, as a defence mechanism to evade pain and unhappiness. When the narrator's grandmother dies, her death agony is depicted as her seeming to fall apart, and particularly, her memories seem to flow out of her, she loses contact with her memory. In the last novel (Time Regained), a flashback similar to the madeleines episode is the beginning of the resolution of the story — Proust's trademark, a profound sensory experience of memory, triggered especially by smells, but also by sights or sounds, which transports the narrator back to an earlier time in his life.

A large part of the novel has to do with the nature of art. The greatest moment of the novel is the death of the author Bergotte, who collapses after visiting a museum exhibition of Vermeer. In the museum, the writer takes up a whole page describing a tiny patch of yellow in the middle of the painting, which is a daub of paint that represents a stone wall, a tiny detail in the middle of the beautiful painting View of Delft. Proust sets forth a democratic theory of art, where we all are capable of producing art: the key is to take the experiences of life and perform work upon them, to transform them artistically, in a way that shows understanding and maturity. Compare with Freud's theory of dreams, and "dream-work" — that some trauma in life is transformed by the mechanism of dream-work into the fantastical imagery which we see in sleep. Music is also discussed at great length. Morel, the violinist, is examined to give one example of a certain type of "artistic" character. The artistic value of Wagner's music is also debated.

Starting in The Guermantes Way, homosexuality is a major theme in the book. There are several homosexual characters, and Proust uses this to examine the issues of deviance within society and the exhaustive pursuit of sex as a distracting influence in life.

Main Characters

  • The narrator. In the last volume, the narrator addresses the reader, to say "If it is accepted that the author and the main character of this book are one and the same, then my name is Marcel, but this is not necessarily true."
  • Charlus: an aristocratic and decadent aesthete
  • Swann: a gentleman and friend of Marcel's family
  • Odette de Crcy: a Paris courtesan
  • Franoise: the narrator's maid
  • Duchesse de Guermantes (Oriane): the queen of the pinnacle of Paris high society, the neighbourhood of Faubourg St. Germain
  • Albertine: the love of Marcel's life
  • Gilberte: the girl Marcel has a crush on as a boy; the daughter of Swann and Odette
  • Mme Verdurin: a poseur who through inheritance, marriage, and single-mindedness rises to the top of society
  • Morel: a turbulent violinist who gets Charlus to be his patron
  • Robert de Saint-Loup: Marcel's best friend, scion of an excellently pedigreed aristocratic family, and army officer

English translations

Major translations include:

  • In Search of Lost Time, General Editor: Christopher Prendergast. Translated by Lydia Davis, Mark Treharne, James Grieve, John Sturrock, Carol Clark, Peter Collier, & Ian Patterson. London: Allen Lane, 2002 (6 vols). The first four volumes have been published in New York by Viking, 2003-2004.
    • (Volume titles: The Way by Swann's (in the U.S., Swann's Way) — In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower — The Guermantes Way — Sodom and Gomorrah — The Prisoner and The Fugitive — Finding Time Again.)
  • In Search of Lost Time, Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Revised by D.J. Enright. London: Chatto and Windus, New York: The Modern Library, 1992.
    • (Volume titles: Swann's Way — Within a Budding Grove — The Guermantes Way — Sodom and Gomorrah — The Captive — The Fugitive — Time Regained.)
  • Remembrance of Things Past, Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Random House, 1981 (3 vols).
    • (Volume titles: Swann's Way — Within a Budding Grove — The Guermantes Way — Cities of the Plain — The Captive — The Fugitive — Time Regained.)


External links

fr: la recherche du temps perdu ja:失われた時を求めて zh:追忆逝水年华


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