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LITERATURE - Marcel Proust with English subtitles  

Marcel Proust was an early 20th century French writer responsible for what's officially the longest novel in the world:

"A la recherche du temps perdu"/In search of Lost Time.

which has 1.2 million words in it, double those in "War and Peace" .

The book was published in French in 7 volumes over 14 years,

and was immediately recognized to be a masterpiece, ranked by many as the greatest novel of the century,

or, simply, of all time.

What makes it so special is that it isn’t just a novel in the straight narrative sense.

it's a work that intersperses genius level descriptions of people and places

with the whole philosophy of life. The clue is in the title:

"In search of lost time". The book tells the story of one man

a thinly disguised version of Proust himself, in his ongoing search for the meaning and purpose of life

it recounts his quest to stop wasting time

and to start to appreciate existence

Marcel Proust wanted his book to help us above all

His father, Adrien Proust, had been one of the great doctors of his age

responsible for wiping out cholera in France

towards the end of his life, his frail, indolent son Marcel, who had lived on his inheritance

and had disappointed his family by never taking up a regular job

told his housekeeper Celeste

if only I could to humanity as much good with my books

as my father did with his work

the good news is that he amply succeeded

Proust’s novel charts the narrator’s systematic exploration of three possible sources of the meaning of life.

the first is social success

Proust was born into a comparable bourgeois household,

but from his teens, he began to think that the meaning of life

might lie in joining high society, which in his day meant, the world of aristocrats, of dukes, duchesses and princes.

but if you convert this to the present day, that would mean celebrities.

For years, the narrator devotes his energies to working his way up the social hierarchy

and because he’s charming and erudite, he eventually becomes friends with lynchpins of Parisian high society

the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes

But a troubling realisation soon dawns on him

These people are not the extraordinary paragons he imagined they would be

The Duc’s conversation is boring and crass

The Duchesse, though well mannered, is cruel and vain

Marcel tires of them and their circle

He realises that virtues and vices are scattered throughout the population without regard to income or renown

He grows free to devote himself to a wider range of people

Though Proust spends many pages lampooning social snobbery

it’s in a spirit of understanding and underlying sympathy

it's a highly natural error, especially when one is young.

to suspect that there might be a class of superior people somewhere out there in the world

and that our lives might be dull principally

because we don't have the right contacts.

But Proust’s novel offers us definitive reassurance: life is not going on elsewhere

there is no party with the perfect people are

The second thing that Proust’s narrator investigates in his quest for the meaning of life

is love

In the second volume of the novel

the narrator goes off to the seaside with his grandmother

to the vogueish resort of Cabourg (the Barbados of the times)

There he develops an overwhelming crush on a beautiful teenage girl called Albertine

She has short hair, a boyish smile and a charming, casual way of speaking

For about 300 pages, all the narrator can think about is Albertine

The meaning of life surely must lie in loving her

But with time, here too, there’s disappointment

The moment comes when the narrator is finally allowed to kiss Albertine

Man, a creature clearly less rudimentary than the sea-urchin or even the whale

nevertheless lacks a certain number of essential organs

and particularly possesses none that will serve for kissing

For this absent organ, he substitutes his lips

and perhaps he thereby achieves a result slightly more satisfying

than caressing his beloved with a horny tusk

The ultimate promise of love, in Proust’s eyes

is that we can stop being alone and properly fuse our life with that of another person

who will understand every part of us

But the novel comes to darker conclusions

no one can fully understand anyone

Loneliness is endemic

We’re awkward, lonely pilgrims trying to give each tusk-kisses in the dark

This brings us to the third and only successful candidate for the meaning of life:


For Proust, the great artists deserve acclaim

because they show us the world in a way that is fresh, appreciative, and alive

The opposite of art for Proust is something he calls habit

For Proust, much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity

that descends between us and everything that matters

habit dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything

from the beauty of a sunset to our work and our friends

Children don’t suffer from habit

which is why they get excited by some very key but simple things

like puddles, jumping on the bed, sand and fresh bread

But we adults get spoilt about everthing

which is why we seek ever more powerful stimulants (like fame and love)

The trick, in Proust’s eyes

is to recover the powers of appreciation of a child in adulthood

to strip the veil of habit and therefore

to start to appreciate daily life with a new sensitivity

This for Proust is what one group in the population does all the time


Artists are people who know how to strip habit away

and return life to its true deserved glory

for example, when they show us water lilies or service stations or buildings in a new light

Proust’s goal isn’t that we should necessarily make art

or be someone who hangs out in museums all the time

the idea is to get us to look at the world, our world

with some of the same generosity as an artist

which would mean taking pleasure in simple things

like water, the sky or a shaft of light on a piece of paper

It’s no coincidence that Proust’s favourite painter was Vermeer

a painter who knew how to bring out the charm and the value of the everyday

the spirit of Vermeer hangs over his novel

it too is committed to the project of reconciling us to the ordinary circumstances of life

and some of Proust’s most compelling pieces of writing

describe the charm with the everyday like reading in a train

driving at night, smelling the flowers in spring time

and looking at the changing light of the sun on the sea

Proust is famous for having written about the dainty little cakes the French call ‘madeleines’

The reason has to do with his thesis about art and habit

Early on in the novel, the narrator tells us

that he'd been feeling depressed and sad for a long while

when one day he had a cup of herbal tea and a madeleine

and suddenly the taste carried him powerfully back

(in the way that flavours sometimes can)

to years in his childhood when as a small boy

he spent his summers in his aunt’s house in french countryside

A stream of memories comes back to him, and fills him with hope and gratitude

Thanks to the madeleine

Proust’s narrator has what has since become known as


a moment of sudden involuntary and intense remembering

when the past promptly emerges unbidden from a smell, a taste or a texture

Through its rich evocative power

what the Proustian moment teaches us is that life isn’t necessarily dull and without excitement

it's just one forgets to look at it in the right way

we forget what being alive

fully alive, actually feels like.

The moment with the tea is pivotal in the novel

because it demonstrates everything Proust wants to teach us

about appreciating life with greater intensity

it helps as narrator to realize that it isn’t his life which has been mediocre

so much as the image of it he possessed in normal, that is voluntary memory

Proust writes

The reason why life may be judged to be trivial

although at certain moments it seems to us so beautiful

is that we form our judgment ordinarily not on the evidence of life itself

but in its quite different images

which preserve nothing of life

and therefore we judge it disparagingly

that's why artists are so important

Their work is like one long Proustian moment

they remind us that life truly is beautiful, fascinating and complex

and thereby they dispel our boredom and our ingratitude.

Proust’s philosophy of art is delivered in a book

which is itself exemplary of what he’s saying

It's a work of art that brings the beauty and interest of the world back to life

Reading it, your senses are reawakened

a thousand things you normally forget to notice are brought to your attention

he makes you for a time, as clever and as sensitive as he was

and for this reason alone, we should be sure to read him

and 1.2 million words he assembled for us

thereby learn to appreciate existence before it's too late.

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