Tuesday, 5 October 1999

Marcel Proust: Time Regained (1927)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, 1981
Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 349

The final volume of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past has as its themes ageing, illness and death; an appropriate (if gloomy) way to bring to an end his narrator's exploration of his life. Like other volumes published after Proust's death, Time Regained shows signs of a missing final revision, chiefly in minor inconsistencies; but it is an amazing achievement for all that, containing some immensely powerful writing.

The events of Time Regained - and events is perhaps rather too strong a word - take place some time following those of Albertine Disparu. After the First World War, the narrator's health, delicate since he was a child, fails, and he spends years a recluse in a sanatorium. (The precise nature of his illness is not specified.) Following a recovery, he returns to Paris, and attends a fashionable society party. This party - after a lengthy piece of introspective philosophy - is described in one of the most powerful pieces of prose in the entire series of novels. It at first seems to the narrator that he has stumbled in a bizarre fancy dress event in which everyone is to come as an old man or woman; but gradually he realises that their appearance is due to their real ageing, compared with his memory of them from twenty years previously.

In fact, the untrustworthiness and impermanence of memory is one of the ways in which the themes of this last novel are linked to Proust's central concerns of perception and memory. As well as containing people he once knew well but now hardly recognised by the narrator, their relationships have changed and new people have arrived on the scene. Important but now dead people are hardly remembered; on the assumption that things have always been as they are now, the past is adapted to fit the present.

All this means that Remembrance of Things Past ends on a sombre note; but it has chronicled the whole life of the narrator, and life ends with death.

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