Proustian Uncertainties: On Reading and Rereading In Search of Lost Time
The monumental saga In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, translated also as Remembrance of Things Past, is unequivocally a front-runner for the title of best French novel. Yet to add another question to the enigmatic seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages, why has Saul Friedlander, a celebrated historian of the Holocaust, become so captivated?
His essay, akin to an academic dissertation of manageable length, meets personal reasons dating back to World War 2, As a child born in Prague then displaced by the War, he was raised in hiding in France and feels himself to be French. Moreover, the novel awakens intensely sad memories of the last time he saw his parents before they were murdered in Auschwitz. Proustian Uncertainties cynically underscores the perplexity that prevails throughout: an autobiography that isn’t quite, a Narrator whose version is similar, but not precise, and Friedlander who isn’t exactly telling his own story. One after another, as Friedlander follows the interpretations of Proust’s biographers, nobody knows just what Proust was about or how he has kept his readers enthralled over several generations.
Is it a modern novel? The first volumes, launched in French from 1913, are often viewed as a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel, and although transplanted to a different setting, comparable with present-day behaviors.
In Search… has no definable plot; much of the action takes place in the surroundings of French high society dinner parties. Two themes do persist intermittently—the Jewishness, which is close to Friedlander’s keenest interests, and homosexuality, which is not. Psychological trappings are interwoven; Proust and the Narrator’s obsessive need for his mother’s goodnight kiss, his father’s conflicting personality traits, and a fascination for the host of friendships and romances made and broken.
Friedlander’s career has crossed Continents in an international ride between universities, think tanks, and authorship, He has read In Search… not once but repeatedly, so one is tempted to see as an enigma in itself. Readers who have enjoyed his charming memoirs will not be disappointed but may not be tempted to delve into Proust.
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