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IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, BY MARCEL PROUST Add to ...

Over the coming year, an international panel chosen by The Globe and Mail will select the 50 Greatest Books ever written. Each week, a single work will be discussed by an expert of a writer passionate about the work in question. This is the second in the series.

In Search of Lost Time is, I think, the greatest novel written in the 20th century. If it can't be called the greatest novel ever written, that is in part because the competition from Russia is pretty fierce and in part because In Search is unfinished. A quick account of what is actually there might go something like this: A man recalls, in extensive detail, his childhood, his youth and his adulthood in turn-of-the-century France. He writes of his life up to the moment when he makes the decision to write the work we have just read, that is, In Search of Lost Time itself.

That account makes the novel sound like autobiography, but the novel's narrator ("Marcel") is a mysterious figure. Some of the most significant and startling things in Marcel's life happen offstage - a duel, for instance. In fact, one of the truest things I've read about the novel is this caveat: In Search of Lost Time is not autobiography disguised as a novel, it is a novel disguised as autobiography. Proust is interested in his society, in the fundamental mysteriousness of other people, in the possibility of time being salvaged or redeemed through Art. He is not interested in the drama of self-revelation.

The novel is notoriously long (some 3,000 pages), and it doesn't have what you'd call a simple storyline. What it has is a wide range of characters (from all the social classes) and an astounding depth of characterization. The narrator unveils the intimate thoughts, hopes and aspirations of a number of his characters, and Proust is, to a remarkable extent, sympathetic to all of them. This is a real accomplishment when you consider that In Search of Lost Time is one of the most vivid literary galleries of human monstrosity, thoughtlessness and egotism. From the social-climbing horror (Madame Verdurin) to the upper-class sexual predator (Baron de Charlus), In Search is a catalogue of neurosis.

Still, the point is not mere pleasure in the grotesque. The characters all also possess generous and thoughtful aspects and most are capable of love. The point is, rather, that those we know and love have hidden sides, covert desires and strange beliefs that co-exist with their more placid social selves. In this sense, In Search is the archetypal novel of the struggle between social conventions and individual desires, and it is a surprising complement to the work of one of the few novelists who rival Proust in literary talent and sensitivity to "order": Jane Austen.

That's not to say that the novel is all beautiful writing, elegant description, brilliant observation, daring psychological insight, meditations on Art, Time and memory - though, of course, that's not shabby. In Search also has narrative drive. Rather than a linear story, though, in which "a" happens and then "b" happens, what we have is the same narrative (someone falls in love with someone and, in trying to discover the nature of the beloved, becomes hopelessly, horribly jealous) repeated from various and varying angles. At times we feel sympathy for the lover (for Swann in the first of the series, The Way By Swann's), at times sympathy for the beloved (if there is a character in fiction I would rather not be than the narrator's loved one, Albertine, I don't know who it is). But throughout, we, the readers, participate in versions of an excruciating, compelling detective story, a search to solve a complex mystery: Are we loved by those whom we love?

For all its perverseness, its depictions of human frailty, of social hypocrisy, of endless party-going among the members of the upper class, In Search of Lost Time is (among many, many wonderful things) one of the most prolonged and moving meditations on love and desire ever written.

André Alexis's new novel, Asylum, is to be published in April.

Next week: On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin.

QUOTABLE

For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: "I'm falling asleep." And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form

reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V ...

From In Search of Lost Time: The Way by Swann's, translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin (2002)

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