So I’m finished! At last! I can’t believe I did it. I just finished Time Regained, the last volume of the six (as differentiated by the Modern Library edition) that comprise In Search of Lost Time. Having said that, though, I am a bit embarrassed by how long it’s taken me. I began this project in March 2015, fully intending to complete it in one year. But then a familiar pattern developed: I’d read a volume, move on to other fiction for several months or more, and then the weighing obligation to return to Proust’s world would hit me again. When 2017 neared I realized I had gone far beyond my initial time frame.
But before launching into a recap of Time Regained, I first need to address my own negligence in omitting discussion of The Fugative, the second half of Volume V, which I had fully intended to write about but quickly got swamped with work before the freshness of my reading experience passed and the opportunity to write anything halfway decent was lost. As a result, without having had that time to reflect and write about what I’d read, I found myself in the terribly ironic (and Proustian) position of having forgotten parts of The Fugative (particularly the ending) by the time I started Time Regained, which was a little disorienting to say the least. But of course, as Proust says, those memories were inside me all along; I just had to dig deep to find them—which I did by consulting Google. And so, without going into too much detail about The Fugitive, it is necessary to first highlight some of the important events in that book before proceeding with Volume VI, the most significant of which is Albertine’s death from a fall off a horse. As one can imagine, much of the rest of The Fugitive deals with Marcel’s coming to grips with that fact and his slow and eventual emergence from grief. But because things are never what they seem in Proust, I was certain this was a ruse, and indeed I thought I was proven correct, at least momentarily, when Marcel receives a telegram, while he and his mother are travelling in Venice, that reads, “My dear friend, you think me dead, forgive me, I am quite alive, I long to see you, talk about marriage, when do you return? Affectionately. Albertine” (V 869). As it turns out, however, the telegram is badly transcribed, and the sender was not Albertine, but Gilberte, the girl he had a crush on way back in Volumes I and II. Through some subsequent letters, he finds out that Gilberte has married his best friend, the aristocratic Robert St-Loup. This is monumental stuff because Gilberte is the daughter of Odette (a woman with a scandalous past, so to speak) and Swann, a Jew. St-Loup, on the other hand, is a Guermantes, the crème-de-la-crème of fashionable Faubourg St-Germain society. And although Swann was a good friend of the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, his social position suffered dramatically and irreparably as a result of the Dreyfus Affair. What made this marriage between Gilberte and Robert possible, however, was that shortly after Swann’s death Mme Swann (Odette) married a certain M. de Forcheville, who, when he died a few years later, left a tremendous fortune to Gilberte, making her a very attractive marriage choice (notwithstanding her part-Jewish background). A further twist to the plot is that we learn that Robert is also an “invert,” a very surprising change in character given his obsessive love affair with Rachel, the prostitute and actress. In addition, the person he’s madly in love with now is Charlie Morel, the bisexual con artist, musician, and soldier—the Baron de Charlus’ formerly "kept" man, the love of Charlus’ life. The discovery of Robert’s true sexuality saddens Marcel. He says, “I sensed all too clearly from the cold and evasive manner which he now adopted, he no longer felt for me, since men, now that they were capable of arousing his desires, could no longer inspire his friendship” (V 934).
Time Regained, like all the preceding books, begins where we left off, and in this case, it’s with Marcel visiting Gilberte (now Mme. de St-Loup) in Tansonville, near his childhood home of Combray. Given her husband’s infidelity, Gilberte is unhappily married of course, though it’s unclear whether she knows whom he’s being unfaithful with. During this time Marcel and Gilberte go for walks, and Marcel makes a number of realizations and discoveries: that Gilberte, for instance, had “changed so much that I no longer thought her beautiful, that she was no longer beautiful at all” (2), implying it would seem that his former obsession with her when he was a child had been an immense waste of time; that these old places of his childhood held nothing special for him and even the Vivonne River now appears narrow and ugly to him; and that the two “ways”—Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way—are in fact linked and “not as irreconcilable as I had supposed” (4). Indeed, these old towpaths, which had once inspired him to pursue a literary path in life, no longer speak to him and only contribute to his growing belief that he is incapable of writing. Gilberte also confesses that the first time she cast eyes on him through the hawthorn bushes—all so long ago, way back in Volume I when they were both children—it was not with a look of hate, as he had supposed all these years, but with desire. All of these discoveries and realizations reiterate one of the prevalent themes in Search: that nothing is what it appears to be, that nothing is ever immutable, and that all things are manifold and subject to change, especially over time.
There is a break in the story, and now it is 1916—World War I. During the preceding years Marcel spent time away from Paris in a sanatorium for his health. But now that he’s back in town, and “wanting to hear people talk about the only thing that interested [him] at the time, the war, [he] went out after dinner to call on Mme. Verdurin, who was, with Mme. Bontemps, one of the queens of this wartime Paris” (47)—a huge shift in their social status, firmly ensconcing these former bourgeois nobodies into fashionable Faubourg St-Germain society. We learn that Robert is off to war, all the museums in Paris are closed, and it’s lights-out at 9:30. Little “brown dots” (63) can be seen in the nighttime sky—airplanes keeping guard over Paris—and sometimes the German Gothas drop their bombs on the city. On one of his walks, Marcel runs into the Baron de Charlus, who discloses his not-so-secret pro-German stance (the Baron is related to various German nobles), which has only further contributed to his fall from the pinnacle of society (the humiliation he suffered at the Verdurins’ party in Volume V precipitated his disgrace). At one point the two men discuss the German bombing of the cathedral at Rheims, and in his usual campy style, the Baron makes the following hilarious but no less affecting speech:
“We hear talk of vandalism, of the destruction of statues. But the destruction of so many marvellous young men, who while they lived were incomparable polychrome statues, is that not also vandalism? Will not a town which has lost all its beautiful men be like a town of which all the sculpture has been smashed to pieces? What pleasure can I get from dining in a restaurant where I am served by moth-eaten old buffoons who look like Father Didon, if not by hags in mob-caps who make me think I have strayed into one of Duval’s soup-kitchens? Yes, it’s as bad as that, my boy, and I think I have the right to say these things, because beauty is still beauty when it exists in a living material. How delightful to be served by rachitic creatures with spectacles on their noses and the reason for their exemption from military service written all over their faces! In these changed times, if you wish to rest your eyes on someone nice-looking in a restaurant, you must look not among the waiters who are serving you but among the customers who are eating and drinking. And then in the old days one could always see a waiter a second time, although they frequently changed, but with some English lieutenant who has perhaps never been to the restaurant before and may well be killed tomorrow, what hope is there of finding out who he is and when he will return? […] To think that all those huge footmen six foot tall and more, who used to adorn the monumental staircases of the lovely hostesses whose houses we visited, have one and all been killed, and that most of them joined up because it was dinned into them that the war would last two months! […] As for monuments, it is not so much the quality as the quantity of the destruction that appals me, I am less horrified at the disappearance of a unique monument like Rheims than at that of all the living entities which once made the smallest village in France instructive and charming.” (151-152)
The Baron takes leave of Marcel, and the latter resumes his walk, ending up in a poor, dark neighbourhood that’s been especially hard hit by the economic realities of the war. At some point Marcel realizes he’s tired and thirsty, but all the lights have been turned off everywhere, and all the bars, restaurants and hotels are closed; some are even permanently shuttered due to these straitened circumstances. Because of the shortage of petrol, taxis are also few, and those that do go by don’t stop for Marcel. At last he spots a glimmer of lights and activity behind closed shutters—a hotel!—and as he approaches he sees a familiar-looking shadowy figure walk away (we later piece together it was St-Loup). After overhearing a strange conversation among some of the hotel’s patrons (part of which is about the manager having gone out to acquire some heavy chains), Marcel is shown to his room, and through the wall he hears this:
“I beseech you, mercy, have pity, untie me, don’t beat me so hard,” said a voice. “I kiss your feet, I abase myself, I promise not to offend again. Have pity on me.” “No, you filthy brute,” replied another voice, “and if you yell and drag yourself about on your knees like that, you’ll be tied to the bed, no mercy for you,” and I heard the noise of the crack of a whip, which I guess was reinforced with nails, for it was followed by cries of pain. At this moment I noticed that there was a small window opening from the room on to the corridor and that the curtain had not been drawn across it; stealthily in the darkness I crept as far as this window and there in the room, chained to a bed like Prometheus to his rock, receiving the blows that Maurice rained upon him with a whip which was in fact studded with nails, I saw, with blood already flowing from him and covered with bruises which proved that the chastisement was not taking place for the first time—I saw before me M. de Charlus. (181-182)
Marcel realizes that he’s entered a gay male S&M brothel and, as he’ll later learn, it's an establishment that was purchased by the Baron but managed by his personal factotum, Jupien. Like the Verdurin’s musical evening in The Captive or the Prince de Guermantes’ party in The Guermantes Way, this portion of the novel is another one of Search’s memorable (and hilarious) set pieces. At one point, after Maurice leaves and Jupien comes in, the Baron says, “I did not want to speak in front of that boy, who is very nice and does his best. But I don’t find him sufficiently brutal. He has a charming face, but when he calls me a filthy brute he might be just repeating a lesson” (184).
In keeping with the theme that nothing is ever what it seems, we learn that the Baron is most attracted to brutal men, thugs and murderers—men, it dawns on Marcel, who share a resemblance with Charlie Morel but who are in fact poor substitutes for him. Unfortunately, Jupien is unable to procure such men; they need to act the part, none of them convincingly, and the Baron is disappointed with all these poor actors. This part of the novel also illustrates not only the huge shift in the Baron’s social standing, but his complete abasement: Formerly, one of the most distinguished men of the Faubourg St-Germain (and one of its greatest snobs), “the Baron now lived only among his ‘inferiors’” (203). We also learn that the hotel attracts men of all levels of society: soldiers on leave from the war, nobility, government ministers, Russian aristocracy, even an abbot. But the unexpected appearance of this gay male S&M brothel is not as out of place in the novel as it might at first seem, for as we have witnessed throughout Search, it would appear that all love a masochistic ordeal, as evidenced by Marcel’s love for Albertine, the Baron for Morel, Swann for Odette, and Robert St-Loup for Rachel.
Shortly after Marcel leaves the hotel a bomb is dropped somewhere nearby and buildings go up in flames. Sirens ring out, there is the barrage of anti-aircraft fire, and Marcel is reminded of the unknown inhabitant of Pompeii who had permanently scratched the word “Sodoma” (208) on a wall when Vesuvius erupted. Not many days later Marcel receives word that his closest friend, Robert St-Loup, was killed shortly after returning to the front.
Again there is a break of many years, during which Marcel was in another sanatorium and far away from society and his friends. Now that the war is long over, he decides to return to Paris, but while the train is temporarily halted for repairs, he observes a row of trees and feels completely indifferent to this sight that ought to rouse his inspiration as it once had at the sight of those three mysterious trees way back in Balbec in Volume II, thus adding to his growing conviction that he has no literary talent. Upon his arrival home he finds two invitations: one to a tea party given by the famous singer Berma, another to an afternoon party at the home of the Prince de Guermantes. Sad and gloomy, Marcel heads off for Guermantes’, but everything reminds him of various “pasts”—the streets where he once played with Gilberte as a child, the house where Albertine and Andrée had reputedly absconded off to. Again he runs into Charlus, only this time he is barely recognizable. Old and decrepit, convalescent “after an attack of apoplexy” (245), he now resembles an “old fallen prince [and that] this latest illness had conferred the Shakespearian majesty of a King Lear” (245). What a complete transformation from the man we first encountered in Volume II who had once leaned against a telegraph pole in Balbec trying to pick up an unsuspecting Marcel! During the course of their discussion the Baron lists off the many people he’d known who are now all dead:
It was with an almost triumphal sternness that he repeated, in a monotonous tone, stammering slightly and with a dull sepulchral resonance: “Hannibal de Bréauté, dead! Antoine de Mouchy, dead! Charles Swann, dead! Adalbert de Montmorency, dead! Boson de Talleyrand, dead! Sosthène de Doudeauville, dead!” And every time he uttered it, the word “dead” seemed to fall upon his departed friends like a spadeful of earth each heavier than the last thrown by a grave-digger grimly determined to immure them yet more closely within the tomb. (249)
Saddened by his encounter with the Baron, Marcel arrives at the Prince de Guermantes’ mansion. But just as he dodges a speeding car and nearly trips on the uneven paving stones, his melancholy suddenly turns to joy and Marcel experiences the first of several consecutive epiphanies about time and memory. This inexplicable sense of bliss, he realizes, is the same feeling he experienced at the sight the three trees in Balbec and again at the sight of the twin steeples in Martinville, the same joy he felt when he tasted the madeleine cake dipped in tea. In this case, however, this new joy, brought on by stepping on the uneven paving stones, linked him in time to when he had travelled to Venice with his mother (in Volume V, The Fugitive) and stood on similarly uneven paving stones in the baptistery of St. Mark’s cathedral. In the same way that the madeleine cake episode from the beginning of Volume I had brought back his childhood in Combray, this chance happening had brought back—with sudden and vivid clarity—a series of forgotten days that “ordinary memory” could not possibly restore in its full effulgence.
This unexpected and involuntary return of memory happens again a few minutes later. Because Marcel has entered the house in the middle of a musical performance, he is shown to the library and asked to wait there until the performance is over. Meanwhile, “a servant, trying unsuccessfully not to make a noise, chanced to knock a spoon against a plate and again that same species of happiness which had come to me from the uneven paving-stones poured into me” (257). The sound, he realizes, is exactly the same sound he heard on the trip to Paris when the train was stalled in front of that row of trees and the railwaymen struck a hammer against the wheel. It's as if he has briefly returned to his carriage just at the moment he was opening a bottle of beer and he first heard the clanking sound. Whenever something particularly momentous happens, Proust loves to indulge in those long, winding sentences he’s known for, and I can’t resist quoting the following. Though not the longest sentence in the novel (I'm sure it ranks up there), it notes the third in a succession of such unexpected examples of involuntary memory and the inexplicable sense of happiness that accompanies them:
And then it seemed as though the signs which were to bring me, on this day of all days, out of my disheartened state and restore to me my faith in literature, were thronging eagerly about me, for, a butler who had long been in the service of the Prince de Guermantes having recognized me and brought to me in the library where I was waiting, so that I might not have to go to the buffet, a selection of petits fours and a glass of orangeade, I wiped my mouth with the napkin which he had given me; and instantly, as though I had been the character in the Arabian Nights who unwittingly accomplishes the very rite which can cause to appear, visible to him alone, a docile genie ready to convey him to a great distance, a new vision of azure passed before my eyes, but an azure that this time was pure and saline and swelled into blue and bosomy undulations and so strong was this impression that the moment to which I was transported seemed to me to be the present moment: more bemused than on the day when I had wondered whether I was really going to be received by the Princesse de Guermantes or whether everything round me would not collapse, I thought that the servant had just opened the window on to the beach and that all things invited me to go down and stroll along the promenade while the tide was high, for the napkin which I had used to wipe my mouth had precisely the same degree of stiffness and starchedness as the towel with which I had found it so awkward to dry my face as I stood in front of the window on the first day of my arrival at Balbec, and this napkin now, in the library of the Prince de Guermantes’s house, unfolded for me—concealed within its smooth surfaces and its folds—the plumage of an ocean green and blue like the tail of a peacock. (258-259)
Marcel goes on to say that when these original “happenings” were occurring, he could not enjoy the moment in its fullest because of some external worry, sadness, or fatigue (as indeed was the case in the example of the train), but now that he is freed of such distractions, the memory has caused him caused him to “swell with happiness” (259). Each moment of our lives, Proust says, is so full of so many perceptions and impressions, so many random things that have no connection to the thing we wish to recall and which the rational sides of our brains disregard as unimportant that to logically recall something can never satisfactorily bring back a memory in its original fullest form. And yet all the scents and sounds, all the sunshine of that day are still there, buried deep, and can only be brought out again through sound, taste, and smell. Further adding to the problem is the idea that we too change over time; we also become different people as time marches on, further distancing our present selves from the memory and the original event. But why happiness? Proust says that these moments of involuntary memory had “something that was common to a day long past and to the present, because in some way they were extra-temporal […] that is to say: outside time” (262), thus forming a bridge between the present and “Time that was Lost” (263). And now, having some kind of unexpected, intimate connection with a fully formed past, Marcel says, his “appetite for life was immense” (263). Proust writes:
But let a noise or a scent, once heard or once smelt, be heard or smelt again in the present and at the same time in the past, real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, and immediately the permanent and habitually concealed essence of things is liberated and our true self, which seemed—had perhaps for long years seemed—to be dead but was not altogether dead, is awakened and reanimated as it receives the celestial nourishment that is brought to it. A minute freed from the order of time has re-created in us, to feel it, the man freed from the order of time. And one can understand that this man should have confidence in his joy, even if the simple taste of a madeleine does not seem logically to contain within it the reasons for this joy, one can understand that the word “death” should have no meaning for him; situated outside time, why should he fear the future? (265)
A fourth resurrection of Lost Time happens when Marcel, still in the Prince de Guermantes’ library, happens upon the book François le Champi, a book he’d read as a child, and here too he experiences another epiphany:
[…] a thing which we have looked at in the past brings back to us, if we see it again, not only the eyes with which we looked at it but all the images with which at the time those eyes were filled. For things—and among them a book in a red binding—as soon as we have perceived them are transformed within us into something immaterial, something of the same nature as all our preoccupations and sensations of that particular time, with which, indissolubly, they blend. A name read long ago in a book contains within its syllables the strong wind and brilliant sunshine that prevailed while we were reading it. (285)
This ability to regain Lost Time, Marcel realizes, is perhaps not only the purpose of art but also the purpose of his life. After harbouring doubts about his own ability to write, he is now inspired, his faith in his talents restored, and he now feels compelled to write the write the book that is within him, the book that is within all of us--the book, of course, that we are presently reading:
And then a new light, less dazzling, no doubt, than that other illumination which had made me perceive that the work of art was the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time, shone suddenly within me. And I understood that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life; I understood that they had come to me, in frivolous pleasures, in indolence, in tenderness, in unhappiness, and that I had stored them up without divining the purpose for which they were destined or even their continued existence any more than a seed does when it forms within itself a reserve of all the nutritious substances from which it will feed a plant. Like a seed, I should be able to die once the plant had developed and I began to perceive that I had lived for the sake of the plant without knowing it, without ever realising that my life needed to come into contact with those books which I had wanted to write and for which, when in the past I had sat down at my table to begin, I had been unable to find a subject. And thus my whole life up to the present day might and yet might not have been summed up under the title: A Vocation. (304)
And so, happy, confident, Marcel at last enters the party, but almost immediately he is disoriented and confused. At first he thinks he’s entered a masked ball, for everyone it seems has donned powered wigs. Only slowly does he understand that this isn’t some costume party but that everyone has aged tremendously, even himself, he slowly realizes. There are two things that are especially notable about this party. First, that nearly all the major characters who are still alive (with the exception of Charlus) are present here, even those who would never have been deemed socially significant enough to be invited to a Guermantes’ party in the past. The second is that nearly everyone’s position in society has reversed: those who were formerly at its zenith have been knocked down a notch or two, while the socially insignificant have risen to the upper echelons—again in keeping with the notion that nothing in Proust is immutable. Marcel’s bumbling, awkward, pretentious friend Bloch, for example, is here, and so too is Charlie Morel. Both are famous writers now, but what’s most striking about Morel in particular is that he is now singularly faithful to a woman for whom no amount of temptation, not even the offer of 50,000 francs, could lure him to sleep with a man again.
Another surprise is the presence of St-Loup’s old mistress, Rachel. No longer a struggling actress and high-class prostitute, she is now a famous woman of the stage and of higher stature (though not necessarily as talented) than Berma, whose own illustrious career has entered its twilight. Also transformed is the Duchesse de Guermantes. The former cynosure of fashionable Parisian society is no longer the sun around which the universe once revolved, partly because she has lost her interest in society (she finds many of them great bores), partly because she now mostly seeks out the company of artists and actors, and Rachel in particular, marking a monumental shift from her old snobbish self. (Back in Volume III, The Guermantes Way, when Robert St-Loup tried introducing Rachel to his family and she performed a soliloquy in front of the Duc and Duchesse, she was laughed out of the house.) Now, many years later, the Duchesse confesses to Marcel that she had in fact secretly admired that original performance. The Duchesse has also lost her famous wit. When she confides in Marcel her disapproval of Gilberte for not showing an ounce of grief at her husband’s death, all she can say is this: “‘No, in my opinion […], she is a bitch’” (500). In a novel of such extraordinarily elegance, the unexpected epithet—the only profanity, as far as I remember, in the entire novel—actually left me in stitches. But for Marcel, the use of this kind of language is just one more reason why the Duchesse has become “a Guermantes déclassé” (466).
Odette—the former Mme. Swann, now Mme. Forcheville—is also here, which, at first, seems somewhat odd given her reputation as a woman of ill repute, until one remembers of course that as Robert St-Loup’s mother-in-law she is related to the Guermantes through marriage. We also learn that she in involved in an affair with the Duc de Guermantes, the Prince's brother.
But the biggest surprise of all is Mme. Verdurin’s presence at the party. Always an outsider, always desperate to climb socially, she had once formed her own exclusive Bohemian salon in response to those great many bores who wouldn’t have her in the first place. So what is she doing here? As Marcel finds out from Bloch, after M. Verdurin died, she ended up marrying the Prince de Guermantes after his own wife died. As a result, not only has she become a Guermantes through marriage, but she is also crowned with the title Princesse de Guermantes!
Gone too are all the old snobberies and animosities. Along with old age, everyone has become kinder, gentler; the old rivalries and grudges have all been forgotten. Proust writes: “They had forgotten even their resentments, their hatreds, and in order to be certain that the person before them was the one with whom ten years earlier they had not been on speaking terms they would have had to consult some mnemonic register” (417). As Marcel runs into his old friends and acquaintances, he realizes two things. One of which is the invisible thread that links all these people. If it weren’t for Swann, who had encouraged him to go to Balbec with his grandmother, the latter wouldn’t have run into her old friend Mme. Villeparisis, and Marcel, therefore, wouldn’t have been introduced to her nephew, Robert St-Loup, through whom he met the Baron de Charlus and the Duchesse de Guermantes. He also wouldn’t have met the “little band of girls,” Albertine among them, and, ultimately, he wouldn’t have been invited to this very party. He also realizes that not only has Time made old quarrels recede into the distance, it has also turned the people in this room into entirely different people. Proust writes: “Time in this room had done more than decompose the living creatures of a former age, it had […]created new associations” (379), which again reiterates the idea that, in Search, nothing is ever what it seems to be. Knowing now that people “do not possess the unvariability of a figure in a painting” (419), Marcel cannot now understand the importance he had once attached to certain relationships, his obsession with the Guermantes' name and with the Duchesse in particular, and with infiltrating the world of high society--why, in short, he had wasted his time.
Again, Marcel runs into Gilberte and, like every other time he encounters her after a long absence, he doesn’t immediately recognize her. (The first time he saw her in Volume V after many years he at first mistook her for some woman “cruising” him on the street.) Sensing his confusion when she starts speaking to him, Gilberte says, “You took me for Mamma” (428).
But the highlight of this party comes when Gilberte introduces Marcel to her 16-year-old daughter, Mlle. St-Loup. Prior to meeting her, Marcel describes Time as having done its work on these people, but when he meets Mlle. St-Loup, he sees Time as manifested into something tangible, material, and real. Proust writes:
Was she not—are not, indeed, the majority of human beings?—like one of those star-shaped crossroads in a forest where roads converge that have come, in the forest as in our lives, from the most diverse quarters? Numerous for me were the roads which led to Mlle de Saint-Loup and which radiated around her. Firstly the two great “ways” themselves, where on my many walks I had dreamed so many dreams, both led to her: through her father Robert de Saint-Loup the Guermantes way; through Gilberte, her mother, the Méséglise way which was also “Swann’s way.” One of them took, by way of this girl’s mother and the Champs-Elysées, to Swann, to my evenings at Combray, to Méséglise itself; the other, by way of her father, to those afternoons at Balbec where even now I saw him again near the sun-bright sea. And then between these two high roads a network of transversals was set up. Balbec, for example, the real Balbec where I had met Saint-Loup, was a place that I had longed to go to very largely because of what Swann had told me about the church in the Persian style, and yet Robert de Saint-Loup was the nephew of the Duchesse de Guermantes, and through him I arrived at Combray again, at the Guermantes way. And Mlle. de Saint-Loup led to many other points of my life, to the lady in pink, for instance, who was her grandmother and whom I had seen in the house of my great-uncle. And here there was a new transversal, for this great-uncle’s manservant, who had opened the door to me that day and who later, by the gift of a photograph, had enabled me to identify the lady in pink, was the father of the young man with whom not only M. de Charlus but also Mlle. de Saint-Loup’s father had been in love, the young man on whose account he had made her mother unhappy. And was it not Swann, the grandfather of Mlle. de Saint-Loup, who had first spoken to me of the music of Vinteuil, just as it was Gilberte who had first spoken to me of Albertine? Yet it was in speaking of this same music of Vinteuil to Albertine that I had discovered the identity of her great friend and it was with this discovery that that part of our lives had commenced which had led her to her death and caused me such terrible sufferings. (502-502)
In short, just like the thread of interconnectedness Proust speaks of and which is wrapped around each of us, so too there is a thread that connects all of the characters in the novel, the music of Vinteuil the material of this thread. And so, when Marcel ties all the characters in a singular net so broad in scope, spanning the entire novel, the effect--for the lack of a better word--is spectacular.
Marcel’s encounter with Mlle. St-Loup forces him to realize it’s time—high time—to begin work on that novel he has long dreamed of writing but has felt, until this afternoon with its many epiphanic moments, he lacked the talent and confidence to undertake. But Marcel is also careful to avoid narcissism in discussing his future literary goals, for this novel is not necessarily his novel, the readers of this proposed book not his readers. “For it seemed to me that they would not be ‘my’ readers but the readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers” (508). But just like the biographical Proust, whose own health was delicate and slowly deteriorating in his final years, Marcel wonders if he is up to the task, if there is still time to accomplish this immense task he’s set for himself.
But there is one last surprise (and if you plan on reading Time Regained you may wish to pass over this paragraph and jump straight to the conclusion). Given that the novel essentially begins with the madeleine cake episode, it seems fairly predictable, as we’ve already seen, that the final volume should return to it—a coming full circle, as it were. What is much more unexpected, however, is the return of the following memory:
And at this very moment, in the house of the Prince de Guermantes, as though to strengthen me in my resolve, the noise of my parents’ footsteps as they accompanied M. Swann to the door and the peal—resilient, ferruginous, interminable, fresh and shrill—of the bell on the garden gate which informed me that at last he had gone and that Mamma would presently come upstairs, these sounds rang again in my ears, yes, unmistakably I heard these very sounds, situated though they were in a remote past. And as I cast my mind over all the events which were ranged in an unbroken series between the moment of my childhood when I had first heard its sound and the Guermantes party, I was terrified to think that it was indeed this same bell which rang within me and that nothing that I could do would alter its jangling notes. On the contrary, having forgotten the exact manner in which they faded away and wanting to re-learn this, to hear them properly again, I was obliged to block my ears to the conversations which were proceeding between the masked figures all round me, for in order to get nearer to the sound of the bell and to hear it better it was into my own depths that I had to re-descend. And this could only be because its peal had always been there, inside me, and not this sound only but also, between that distant moment and the present one, unrolled in all its vast length, the whole of that past which I was not aware that I carried about within me. When the bell of the garden gate had pealed, I already existed and from that moment onwards, for me still to be able to hear that peal, there must have been no break in continuity, no single second at which I had ceased or rested from existing, from thinking, from being conscious of myself, since that moment from long ago still adhered to me and I could still find it again, could retrace my steps to it, merely be descending to a greater depth within myself. (529-530)
That I too, as a reader, remember the pealing of the bell—an image replete with innocence and simplicity, taken from a point at which the novel still seemed so embryonic—something I hadn’t even thought of since I first read about Swann’s nighttime visits nearly two years ago, struck me as completely overwhelming. Like Marcel, I too realized that the peal of the bell had always been there, inside me. What a marvel for both Marcel as well as the reader—this reader, in particular—to share in the rediscovery of that moment, to also experience one's own madeleine cake moment within the context of the novel and to do so by descending to a greater depth within oneself.
The novel closes with an image of the Duc de Guermantes, rising from his chair, and Marcel understanding why he seemed so little changed over the decades in spite of his 83 years. When he rises to his feet, tottering a little forwards and back, he realizes it’s as though…
men spend their lives perched upon living stilts which never cease to grow until sometimes they become taller than church steeples, making it in the end both difficult and perilous for them to walk and raising them to an eminence from which suddenly they fall. And I was terrified by the thought that the stilts beneath my own feet might already have reached that height; it seemed to me that quite soon now I might be too weak to maintain my hold upon a past which already went down so far. So, if I were given long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the effect were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men as occupying so considerable a place, compared with the restricted place which is reserved for them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure, for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch the distant epochs through which they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themselves—in Time. (532)
And so ends In Search of Lost Time.
But of course it’s not really over. After having read approximately 4300 pages and encountered literally hundreds of characters (some 50 of which are considered major) within a time span of nearly two years, one can’t help but have only a superficial understanding of the novel at best. And once you've been lured into Proust's world, it's difficult to pull away. Given what one learns by the end, the changed perspectives and revelations one didn’t suspect when first plunging into Proust’s world, it makes it incumbent on the reader to return to the beginning, to return to Combray where it all began in Swann’s Way. Not only that, but there’s the whole matter of forgetting. Oblivion is always at work in us, Proust tells us, and, for me personally, Volume I is especially hazy in my memory at present, particularly because it is most difficult of the six volumes in certain ways. It's the one in which we first encounter those mammoth, snake-like sentences with their innumerable subjunctive clauses, the volume in which we have yet to learn how to read Search, the one in which we make the inevitable mistake of disregarding seemingly unimportant people or events (no name or event in Proust is unimportant; everything comes back, again and again). Even the overall structure of the novel doesn't become apparent until after we have finished Volume III, The Guermantes Way. We need to reread Search to make it “stick,” so we can remember it as wholly and fully as we can, before Time will do its work and turn our experience into oblivion, so that we will not have wasted our time. That is why I’ve made such extensively long notes on Time Regained, so that I don’t make the same mistake I made with The Fugitive, so that, to the best of my ability, I don’t forget.