In his introduction to his reader’s guide to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Patrick Alexander observes that “Except for those fortunate enough to spend several years confined to a hospital bed, a federal prison, or to be stranded on a desert island with their preselected library, few modern readers have the time to tackle a novel with more than three thousand pages, a million and a half words, and more than four hundred individual characters.” Alexander goes on to point out that “Proust’s novel is increasingly read only by professional academics,” a trend he describes as a “great pity.” Alexander wants you to be able to access all the philosophical insight and rich humor of Proust, and his book Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time makes a great starting point for doing so.
The first of the three sections that comprise Alexander’s book, “What Happens in Proust,” summarizes the seven novels that form Proust’s great work In Search of Lost Time (sometimes translated as Remembrance of Things Past). This is easily the largest section of the book. Alexander summarizes the novels, and contextualizes their themes against their historical and social milieu. Alexander’s second section, “Who’s Who in Proust,” will likely be most useful for readers trying to keep track of the many (many, many) characters in this opus. The final section, “The World of Proust,” situates Proust’s place in Paris, French history, and modern literature. As Alexander points out himself, the book will appeal to three types of readers: those who want to read Proust but are daunted, those who are currently reading Proust and wish for a guide to keep track of all the places and names, and those who wish to return to Proust.
Alexander’s project is ambitious, and guidebooks are always an iffy business of course. I found Harry Blamires’s The New Bloomsday Book, probably the most famous guide for James Joyce’s Ulysses, to be an interminable bore, whereas Joseph Campbell’s lectures on the same subject are indispensable. There’s really a fine balance to be achieved I suppose. I’m currently making my way through another big book (okay, not as big as Proust’s), William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, and so far,Steven Moore’s A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions has proven to be a valuable resource when I need it. It manages to provide analytical insights and explications of all the many (many, many) allusions in Gaddis’s massive tome without ever being intrusive. Similarly, Alexander understands that a guide should never step on toes. His clean, lucid style is both humorous and realistic, and he’s never overly-reverential of Proust, but respectful at all times toward both his favorite author and his readers. Alexander’s real goal is not to paraphrase Proust, but, like all good critics, to try to get you to read the material. I never got past the first forty pages of Swann’s Way, the first book of Lost Time, but Alexander’s book makes me want to go back and give it another shot.
Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time by Patrick Alexander is available from Vintage books on September 22nd, 2009.