In Search of Lost Time – a study guide

characters, resources, video, translations

There’s no doubt about it: if you’re going to tackle In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past as it is also known) you need to be in good intellectual shape. The sentences are long, the paragraphs are huge, and at a million and a half words his great novel is one of the longest ever.

But it can be done – and the benefits are enormous. Proust delivers gems on every page. He is of course celebrated for his psychological insights. His characters live and breathe in a way which makes you feel they become your personal friends. Don’t expect plot, suspense, or even story in a conventional sense. This modern classic is one of characters circling around each other in a way which depicts an entire world of upper-class fin de circle France before and shortly after the First World War.

However, the greatest depths he offers are in the form of profound reflections on some of the most important issues any novelist can approach – love, desire, memory, time, and death. These are written in the form of extended aphorisms, embedded as part of his narrative in such a way that you will hardly be aware where one ends and the other begins.

Other people are, as a rule, so immaterial to us that, when we have entrusted to any one of them the power to cause so much suffering or happiness to ourselves, that person seems at once to belong to a different universe, is surrounded with poetry, makes of our lives a vast expanse, quick with sensation, on which that person and ourselves are ever more or less in contact.


Marcel Proust - portrait

Marcel Proust – portrait by Jaques Emil Blanche


Study resources

In Search of Lost Time In Search of Lost Time – 6 volume boxed set (Modern Library) – UK

In Search of Lost Time In Search of Lost Time – 6 volume boxed set (Modern Library) – US

In Search of Lost Time In Search of Lost Time – 4 volume boxed set (Everyman’s Library) – UK

In Search of Lost Time In Search of Lost Time – 4 volume boxed set (Everyman’s Library) – US

Red button Proust: an illustrated life – short biography with period photos

Red button Proust’s life and works – a detailed chronology

In Search of Lost Time A Reader’s Guide to Proust – Amazon UK

Red button Proust Website – general resources

In Search of Lost Time Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – web site with videos

In Search of Lost Time Reading Proust – various translations compared

Red button Swann’s Way – an essay on translations

Red button Swann in Love – 1984 DVD adaptation in English – Amazon UK

Red button Time Regained – 1999 DVD adaptation (English subtitles) – Amazon UK

Red button Monsieur Proust – the housekeeper’s memoirs – Amazon UK

Red button Marcel Proust at Wikipedia – biographical notes, web links

Red button Marcel Proust at Mantex – tutorials, web links, study materials


Proust in the original French

Marcel Proust - postage stamp

In Search of Lost Time A la recherche du temps perdu – 10 volumes, illustrated (Kindle) pp.2911 – £2.22 – Amazon UK

In Search of Lost Time Oeuvres complètes de Marcel Proust – Illustrated, with biography and criticisim (Kindle) pp.4100 – £1.32 – Amazon UK


Principal characters
Marcel the outer narrator of the novel
Bathilde Amedee the narrator’s grandmother
Francoise the narrator’s faithful maid
Baron de Charlus an aristocratic dandy and gay aesthete
Duchesse de Guermantes the toast of Parisian high society
Robert de Saint-Loup army officer and narrator’s best friend
Charles Swann a friend of the narrator’s family
Odette de Crecy a beautiful Parisian courtesan
Gilberte Swann the daughter of Swann and Odette
Elstir a famous painter
Bergotte a well-known writer
Vinteuil an obscure but talented musician
Berma a famous actress
Charles Morel a gifted violinist, patronised by Charlus
Albertine Simonet an orphan with whom the narrator has a romance
Madame Verdurin a rapacious social-climber

In Search of Lost Time – film adaptation

Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich


Further reading

Red button Aciman, André (2004) The Proust Project. New York Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Red button Albaret, Céleste (Barbara Bray, trans.) (2003) Monsieur Proust. The New York Review of Books

Red button Alexander, Patrick (2009) Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time. Vintage Books, New York.

Red button Bernard, Anne-Marie (2002) The World of Proust, as seen by Paul Nadar. Cambridge: MIT Press

Red button Bloom, Harold. (2003) Marcel Proust, Chelsea House.

Red button Carter, William C. (2000) Marcel Proust: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press

Red button Caws, Mary Ann. (2003) Marcel Proust: Illustrated Lives. Overlook Press.

Red button Curtiss, Mina. (2006) The Letters of Marcel Proust Turtle Point Press.

Red button Davenport-Hines, Richard (2006) Proust at the Majestic. Bloomsbury

Red button De Botton, Alain (1998) How Proust Can Change Your Life. New York: Vintage Books

Red button Deleuze, Gilles (2004) Proust and Signs: The Complete Text. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Red button Painter, George D (1959) Marcel Proust A Biography Vols. 1 & 2. London: Chatto & Windus

Red button Shattuck, Roger (1963) Proust’s Binoculars: A Study of Memory, Time, and Recognition in À la recherche du temps perdu. New York: Random House

Red button Shattuck, Roger (2000) Proust’s Way: A Field Guide To In Search of Lost Time, W. W. Norton

Red button Tadié, Jean-Yves: Marcel Proust: A Life. Viking, New York, 2000

Red button White, Edmund (1998) Marcel Proust: A Life. New York: Viking Books


Proust’s writing – I

Mont Blanc pen - Proust edition

Mont Blanc – Marcel Proust special edition

Don’t let this glamorous fountain pen deceive you. Marcel Proust’s writing instruments and his notebooks were quite humble. He used Sergent-Major nibs and pen holder which were the cheapest of their kind. For paper, he used the common French school children’s exercise notebooks which he purchased in bulk.


Parisian interior – La belle epoque

Belle Epoque - Paris interior


Proust’s writing – II

Marcel Proust - typescript and revisions

Revisions to a typescript

Proust’s method of composition was highly accretive. He wrote primarily in children’s exercise books, but his first drafts were supplemented by countless additions, revisions, and extensions of thought which he scribbled down on any paper which came to hand.

Envelopes, magazine covers, scraps of paper of different length and format were glued into the exercise books or joined together to form long scrolls sometimes two metres long.

This process also continued when proofs of his manuscript came back from the printer. This was a habit very similar to that of his illustrious predecessor Balzac. As Terrence Kilmartin observes:

The margins of proofs and typescripts were covered with scribbled corrections and insertions, often overflowing on to additional sheets which were glued to the galleys or to one another to form interminable strips – what Françoise in the novel calls the narrator’s paperoles. The unravelling and deciphering of these copious additions cannot have been an enviable task for editors and printers.


In Search of Lost Time – editions

Click the jacket covers for further details at Amazon UK

Marcel Proust - Scott-Moncrieff editionWhich translation should you read? In English there are three options currently in print. My favourite is the oldest by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. It was the first to appear as the original volumes were published, and it even had Proust’s own blessing. Although it is based on a version of the French original which was not complete, it has a charm all of its own. It is this version which gave the novel its alternative title Remembrance of Things Past when Scott Moncrieff chose a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX, rather than a literal translation of the original:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past

The jacket cover illustrated here is that of the old Chatto and Windus edition which was presented in twelve volumes. Snap these up if you see them, but in the meantime this translation is available from Penguin books.

Marcel Proust - six-packThe second option is an edition which is based on the Scott Moncrieff original translation, but which was revised and re-translated by Terrence Kilmartin in the 1990s. This version is also informed by updated versions of the original text in French, including new material which has come to light since the author’s death. Kilmartin’s work was then itself edited by D.J.Enright

So this version comes to us with a guarantee of completeness and accuracy, but with the traces of three different translators’ hands since the original work. Each volume contains its own notes, addenda, and a synopsis, so readers new to Proust can feel supported by this additional material. [It’s available as a boxed set which is also known slightly mischievously as the ‘Proust 6-pack’.]

Marcel Proust - box setThere’s also a more recent version produced by seven different translators. This has the advantage of being the most up to date. It is based on the latest version of a text with a very tangled provenance, and each translator writes a preface on the problems of translation. This version got a mixed reception when it first appeared. Some people argue that it removes a certain prissiness which had clung to the English version of Proust since Scott Moncrieff’s translation. Others have claimed that it introduces new problems and lacks a unifying voice. Perhaps the best reason for choosing it is that it’s now generally available at a cut-down price.


The Cambridge Companion to Proust The Cambridge Companion to Proust provides essays on the major features of Marcel Proust’s great work. These investigate such essential areas as the composition of the novel, its social dimension, the language in which it is couched, its intellectual parameters, its humour, its analytical profundity and its wide appeal and influence. This is suitable for those who want to study Proust in depth. The discussion is illustrated by textual quotation (in both French and English) and close analysis. This is the only volume of its kind on Proust currently available. It contains a detailed chronology and bibliography.

Marcel Proust: BiographyMarcel Proust is an excellent biography by George Painter. This study has become famous in its own right, because it combines deep insights with scholarly rigour – and it is also written in a very stylish manner. Painter sketches in the background to Parisian society, which provides a historical context for what follows. He then traces Proust’s singular life (the neurasthenia, the ‘job’ he kept for one day, the cork-lined bedroom) up to his death in 1922 – where he was still revising his masterpiece in bed, which is where he had written most of it. This is regarded as a classic of modern biography, and in 1965 it was awarded the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize.


AND … now for something completely different


Other works by Marcel Proust

Red button Jean Santeuil
This was Proust’s ‘dry run’ for his major work. It’s an unfinished (though quite long) fragment of a novel about the life of a young Parisian man which tells the story of boyhood summers of strawberries and cream cheese, of garlands of pink blossom under branches of white may, of love and its lies, of political scandal and of his deep feeling for his parents.

Red button The Pleasures and the Days
Set amid fin-de-siecle Parisian salon society, these sketches and short stories depict the lives, loves, manners and motivations of a host of characters, all viewed with a characteristically knowing eye. By turns cuttingly satirical and bitterly moving, Proust’s portrayals are layered with imagery and feeling, whether they be of the aspiring Bouvard and Pecuchet, the deluded Madame de Breyves, or Baldassare Silvande, saturated with regret, memory and final understanding at the end of his life.

Red button Contre Saint Beuve
This series of essays has as its centrepiece Proust’s literary manifesto. In it he argues for an essentially modernist position – that works of art should be considered autonomously, rather than objects which we use as a means of exploring the author’s biography.

Red button The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust

© Roy Johnson 2010


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2 Responses to “In Search of Lost Time – a study guide”

  1. Ken Sprott says:

    I am searching for an articulation of Proust’s writing style, not a summation of story nor a recommendation to read the novel. I realize it changes from almost page to page at times but style is ones most important component and he was an important author. thank-you

  2. Roy Johnson says:

    Try this as a starting point: James F. Austin, “Proust, Pastiche, and the Postmodern, or Why Style Matters”, Lewisberg: Bucknell University Press, 2013.

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