In the second half of 2006, I began reading Remembrance of Things Past, or what today commonly is titled In Search of Lost Time. Today I finished it. This is not to say that the title changed while I was reading it. But I didn't really recapture time, either.
I thought I had been reading for two years. Actually, I spent three and a half years reading this monumental novel. I did not spend every moment, nor even every day, with it. In truth, I cheated on it with many other books during that time. Not because it didn't satisfy me, but because I always am in the process of reading several books at any one time. Proust was especially good for Sunday mornings. But often, too, I picked up this novel and read myself to sleep, night after night. With a paperback edition of The Da Vinci Code, I might get through ten pages before my eyes fell shut. With Proust, it was more like two pages.
What I did not experience while reading, rather curiously, was the passage of time within the novel. Perhaps that is because so much actual time passed while I read. Perhaps I failed as a reader. This probably adversely affected my full appreciation of the end.
Some time ago, someone mentioned that the social gatherings recorded in the novel were usually boring, though accurately depicted. I found this to be true as well, and much of the novel is given to those occasions. I confess to gaining more insight, and taking more away from the novel, by reading commentary and criticism on these passages, rather than the novel itself.
Near the end, Proust notes that a reader will get out of a novel only what is within himself. This was certainly true for me, when I read the passage concerning Vermeer. I am a fan of the film All the Vermeers in New York, but I did not understand its connection to Proust's novel until I read the novel. At the end of the film is a voice-over that is wonderfully haunting. And the text of this I discovered to have come straight from Proust's pen. I read it, felt a chill of recognition, and then read it again, for the sheer enjoyment at it's beauty. It is one of the best passages in the novel.
Three sections I felt stood out from the rest and deserved special recognition. The least of these comes near the end, as Proust discourses on literature. Not only is this a general theory of literature, it is also the narrator's discoveries of his own powers and his own hopes for what he may achieve. It is an explanation and description of Proust's novel, as well as a gauge by which a reader may judge all novels.
The second of my favorite sections was diffused in earlier parts of the novel, and echoed in the end, concerning the actress Berma, and the narrator's impressions of her. Though the same theme is repeated in many instances throughout the novel, for me the message of disillusionment was conveyed best through this character.
My favorite section of the novel was the entire part titled "Swann's Way". The depiction of love, from its wonderful beginnings to its bitter endings, was brilliant. This, with all its attendant jealousy, was a major theme throughout the novel. The love between the narrator and Albertine, especially, echoed some of the same sentiments, but failed to rise to the same level. This early section shot me into the rest of the book, and really provided most of the foundation for the remainder of the novel.
I would definitely recommend reading the entire novel. If it wasn't so long, I would read it again, hoping for a more thorough appreciation of all the elements, having now also read the commentary. Was I to reread something, though, I would turn first to Thomas Hardy, who for me is much more accessible, and probably even more heart-wrenching. But given a limited amount of time, and a desire to sample Proust, one could not go wrong to read "Swann's Way" alone.