David's Bookclub: Time Regained
If Time Regained were a free-standing novel, it would on its own qualify as a great work of art. As the coda to Marcel Proust's vast multi-volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past, it takes an even higher place: a triumph of raw human endurance as well as a literary masterpiece.
Proust died while the wounds of the First World War remained raw, and the experience of war pervades this final volume. It's a very strange experience. The German Army twice reached nearly to the outskirts in Paris, once in 1914 and again in 1918. France suffered horrific casualties. Yet for those of Proust's characters behind the lines, the war remains remote, something to read about in the newspapers. Lights may dim to avert the Germans' ineffective air raids. Certain luxury goods may disappear from the shops. But otherwise, the war plays itself out as some vast off-stage catastrophe.
Proust is no critic of the war. His narrator insists without irony or reserve that it was the life of France itself that was at stake. The bitter reproaches of Wilfred Owen, Erich Maria Remarque, or John Dos Passos do not make their appearance in Time Regained. There is sometimes farce, as when the narrator's best friend loses his Croix de Guerre in a male brothel. The farce gives way to unironic heroism: the friend dies gallantly, sacrificing himself to cover his men's retreat.
Where Proust lays strictures, they fall upon the civilians at home. His favorite target Mme Verdurin exerts her growing political influence to obtain buttery croissants which have otherwise ceased to be baked. She enjoys the first of her new supply while murmuring "how dreadful" while reading at breakfast of the sinking of the Lusitania. He pastiches and parodies the society columns, which applaud new fashions that reflect wartime austerity. He lampoons the false omniscience of the columnists with their grand world-historical perspective on the struggle, and the society hostesses who delight in being the first to know the news from "GHQ," as they once competed to be first with new music, new painting, and new hats.
As the war kills the young, so the remorseless passage of time claims the old. One by one, his main characters fade from the scene. The brilliantly intellectual Baron de Charlus suffers a stroke. The Duchesse de Guermantes, once the dominant leader of society, ventures out less and less and is first eclipsed, then forgotten. The narrator himself finds himself being treated by younger people with the condescending deference paid to those who just begun to slip over the horizon.
As the shadows close upon him, he makes his great discovery of "time regained": of stepping outside time through unconscious memory. A backward step upon an uneven cobblestone suddenly returns him to a visit he made to Venice when his mother was still alive. The sound made by clattering plates restores him to a restaurant where dined with his friend killed in the war. In these moments of recovery, the narrator experiences a sensation of pure happiness, a perfect overcoming of the fear of death. In those moments of recovery, the narrator realizes that part of him had died - and that now it was resurrected, with the resurrection's monument being the work of art that you are leaving behind in your own personal past as you read the explanation of how it was conceived and created.