Translations of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time have something of a doomsday problem. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, the first to attempt this novelistic Mount Everest, died in 1930 before reaching the final volume. The recent Penguin Random House version addressed that problem by using seven different translators for the seven parts in which the novel was first published. Those translations came out in 2002 in the UK, but their publication in the US was stymied by Mickey Mouse—that is, by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, sponsored by California congressman Sonny Bono and promoted by Disney since the famous mouse was, unthinkably, about to enter the public domain. (He has now done so.) As a result of that legislation, the new translations of the final three volumes of the Search could not be sold in the US, though you could order them easily enough from the UK. The fifth volume, The Prisoner, became available here in 2019 and the sixth, The Fugitive, in 2021. Now the last one, Finding Time Again, is finally available as well.

Such belatedness is very Proustian: the structure of the novel is built on the late arrival of knowledge. “I didn’t know then/I would learn only later” is its epistemic principle. And the final volume brings the revelations that have only been hinted at, in signs the protagonist couldn’t quite decipher, during his long apprenticeship as a writer. He will learn that in order to understand the meaning of his experience, he must write a novel that will have “the form of Time.” And so the Search ends at the famous Guermantes party that looks to the protagonist, who has returned to Paris from a stay in a sanatorium, like a masquerade, since all the people he knows have donned the disguise of old age: they are, as he says of the Duc de Guermantes, standing on stilts in time. That is what he needs to represent in his novel to come.

The Penguin Random House website says that this is the final volume in the “In Search of Lost Time Series,” as if it were something like A Song of Ice and Fire. It is of course not a series, but a single novel that Proust wanted published in one volume, something the French publisher Gallimard achieved in 1999 with a weighty paperback of 2,400 pages. It was only the exigencies of publishing that parceled out the first edition into seven parts, which have often come to appear separate novels. The first, Du côté de chez Swann, was published in 1913. Proust believed at that point that the novel was complete—the final revelatory scenes of Le Temps retrouvé were written. But then came World War I, which delayed publication of part 2, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, until 1919. And during the war Proust kept adding: the midsections of the novel swelled stoutly. Two more parts were published during his lifetime, then the final three after he died: Le Temps retrouvé appeared only in 1927. Such a protracted composition and publication, and Proust’s unending revisions until his death, meant that a definitive version of the later parts of the text has never existed—any version is in some measure the result of subsequent editorial choices.

If the famous and disorienting opening of the Search—“For a long time, I went to bed early”—and its closing are definitive bookends, where the internal divisions lie is often arbitrary. Some versions of Le Temps retrouvé begin with Marcel’s visit to Gilberte de Saint-Loup—Charles Swann’s daughter and the wife of Marcel’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup, the military officer who belongs to the Guermantes clan—at Tansonville, near Combray.* There he discovers that the two “ways” of his childhood—Méséglise, or the way by Swann’s, and the Guermantes’ way—which seemed to him two noncommunicating worlds, in fact join, so that a walk down one can lead him to another: a discovery that heralds many of the coming revelations. More commonly, as in the Penguin translation, the visit to Tansonville is arbitrarily split in two, and the volume starts only after that discovery.

Shortly thereafter, we return to Paris—the Paris of World War I, suffering blackouts as German zeppelins and airplanes make nighttime raids while searchlights sweep the sky, in some grim realization of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”—pages obviously added during Proust’s wartime revisions that break with much of the mood of the Search yet bring a new dimension in the revelation of character and psyche. (Combray, originally in the Beauce, near Chartres, has moved to the Champagne region so it can be overrun by German soldiers.) It’s a digression, to be sure, but Proust’s work uses digression over and over in order to circle back to its main concerns.


Here that concern is sadism. Marcel by chance stumbles into the tailor Jupien’s male brothel, where he surreptitiously watches the Baron de Charlus chained—“like Prometheus to his rock”—and whipped by hired hands. This becomes the occasion for reflections on sadism (Proust considers masochism merely a subset of sadism), which had engaged his attention early on, in the scene in which Mlle Vinteuil and her lover, in order to arouse themselves, spit on a photograph of her father, the composer Vinteuil. He will at the last be revealed as the greatest of the artist figures in the Search, but only because his daughter and her lover painstakingly reconstruct his great septet from the posthumous manuscripts he leaves. Sadism is a kind of melodramatic form of desire, the narrator tells us. In the case of Charlus, his desire is perpetually frustrated because those who beat and humiliate him never can achieve the absolute “thirst for evil” that alone would satisfy him. As in Freud’s essays inspired by World War I, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, sadism emerges as a kind of stand-alone component of the human psyche that never can be satisfied. It glories in war and destruction.

The destructiveness of the war is an excessive enactment of the decline and fall of the old aristocratic society—a world of seemingly unattainable glamour—that the young protagonist has so much wished to enter. The Faubourg Saint-Germain (as it was known) has sunk into decadence, lost its exclusivity and whatever raison d’être it earlier retained. When, returning from his sanatorium, Marcel accepts an invitation from the Prince de Guermantes to an afternoon reception, he tells us, “The real reason I decided to go was the Guermantes name,” which evokes all his childhood fascination with the seigneurs of Combray. But the prince has given up his ancestral residence for a house in the newly fashionable Avenue du Bois, where Marcel finds this scion of European royalty, the most “feudal” of the Guermantes, now married to the pretentious bourgeois upstart Madame Verdurin. And his cousin the Duc de Guermantes now spends all his time with his mistress, the former Odette de Crécy, the indestructible cocotte who became Swann’s obsession, then wife, and who is the mother of Gilberte, whom Marcel loved and whose husband deserted her for male lovers. Even the Duchesse de Guermantes, who has supremely reigned over Marcel’s imaginings of the nobility, no longer can keep genealogies and marital alliances straight. “Society” has gone to seed.

It is only halfway through Le Temps retrouvé that we reach its titular claim, at this matinée Guermantes. On his way into the prince’s house Marcel stumbles on uneven paving stones, and he is flooded with a sense of the happiness he felt at certain earlier moments of his life, including the famous moment of the madeleine dipped in herbal tea. Now he decides he must get to the bottom of this experience: “Seize hold of me as I pass, if you are strong-minded enough, and try to solve the riddle of happiness I am offering you.” Then it comes: a recall of Venice, by way of uneven paving stones in the baptistery of St. Mark’s.

Yet why should this sensation returned from the past bring him “a joy akin to certainty and sufficient, without any other proofs, to make death a matter of indifference to me”? Then come repetitions of the sensation in quick order, as he waits in the prince’s library so as not to enter during a musical performance: the clink of a spoon against a plate, giving the illusion of a workman’s hammer against the wheel of a train, as he studies the trees outside the window that make a mysterious appeal to his understanding; the feel of a napkin on his lips that evokes “the plumage of an ocean green and blue as a peacock’s tail”: that is, the dining room of the Grand Hotel in Balbec. “It seemed…as if the signs which were, on this day, to bring me out of my despondency and renew my faith in literature were intent upon multiplying themselves.”

Those “signs” have been with him since childhood, demanding but resisting interpretation. Now he can finally understand: they represent something shared between a past moment and the present, “something extra-temporal.” In such moments of identity between past and present, one can step “outside of time.” By means of analogy he can escape from the present, experience “a little bit of time in its pure state.” That is, “one minute freed from the order of time has re-created in us, in order to feel it, the man freed from the order of time.”


So it is that Marcel enters a new cognitive world in which life sensations become “like those hieroglyphics that people used to believe represented only material objects” but are instead signs that must be read. They constitute

the inner book of unknown signs…reading them becomes one of those acts of creation in which nobody can take our place…. The only things that come from ourselves are those we draw out of the obscurity within us, which can never be known by other people.

These discoveries entail the work to come:

I slowly became aware that the essential book, the only true book, was not something the writer needs to invent, in the usual sense of the word, so much as to translate, because it already exists within each of us. The writer’s task and duty are those of a translator.

And so he realizes that “all my life up to that day could, and at the same time could not, have been summed up under the title: A Vocation.” He has turned away from that vocation, wasted time in worldly sociabilities, risked becoming a mere dilettante like Swann. With the discovery of his vocation, he is faced with the imperative to set to work. Sorrows, he tells us, including the sorrows of love,

lead us by devious ways to truth and to death. Fortunate are those who met the former before the latter, and for whom, however close together the two may be, the hour of truth has struck before the hour of death.

He must commit himself to “an urgent, a crucially important meeting with himself.” This may be the essence of Proust’s commitment to writing: it is the necessary act of making the contingencies of one’s life into truth. Highly idealist and aesthetic it surely is, yet not without its somber recognitions. These triumphant pages of Le Temps retrouvé also tell of the price paid for the novelistic representation of life. The discovery of his vocation means, for Marcel, the renunciation of those he has loved, who are destined to become figures in the fiction. Persons are annihilated by the novelist: “A book is a great cemetery where the names have been effaced from most of the tombs and are no longer legible.” The narrator later quotes a famous line from Victor Hugo’s elegy for his daughter: “Il faut que l’herbe pousse, et que les enfants meurent”—“grass must grow and children must die”—to conclude that it is the “cruel law of art” that beings die in order that the fiction live, like grass on which future generations can come have their déjeuner sur l’herbe. The death of the novelist, too, is part of the life of the fiction: “The idea of death kept me company as ceaselessly as the idea of my self.” Self and death both preside over the making of the novel. He finally compares himself to Scheherazade, telling stories for a thousand and one nights, under the threat of extinction.

The most inspiring model for his novel that must have “the form of Time” finally comes from the composer Vinteuil: it is the rigorous architecture of musical composition, which exists only in temporal form, as a structuring of passing time, that becomes his goal. The incipit of the novel, back in the opening pages of Swann’s Way, stages a moment between sleep and awakening and evokes the power of the sleeper who holds in his fingers the “strands of time.” Sleep brings dreams, which, he tells us, play “a formidable game with time.” And that’s maybe the best description of the Search as a whole.

So at the last he is able to hear once again from deep in his childhood the sound of the bell of the garden gate as Swann departs, leaving his mother free to come to comfort him: the bell “resilient, ferruginous, inexhaustible, shrill and fresh” that still sounds from the past. His novel must record human beings in the dimension of time. Will this be the novel we just have read, as many critics have claimed? Not quite, I think, since what we have just read is the book of error, of search, even of research (another possible translation of recherche), and the book to come will be that of truth at last revealed.

Readers who have made it through Swann’s Way know already that names are of crucial importance to the young Marcel. His reveries over place names—such as Balbec, which when visited will yield the petite bande of flowering young girls, among them Albertine, who will become the object of an obsessive passion; and Guermantes, evoking a family lineage glorious even before Charlemagne, a name that conjures up an entire duchy, including “the shaded and gilded freshness of the Guermantes woods”—precede experience. Names are subject to intellectual exploration before their reality is encountered—often with deeply disappointing results. À la recherche du temps perdu is mainly about searching, and researching, a kind of cognitive quest romance.

Scott Moncrieff’s original title, Remembrance of Things Past (from a Shakespeare sonnet), missed the point, but he set to work without seeing the whole of the novel, without understanding its temporal architecture. As well as using the by now well-accepted overall title In Search of Lost Time, the Penguin translators have given new titles to some of the parts. Lydia Davis’s first volume (to my mind the star of the Penguin enterprise) was in its UK version called The Way by Swann’s, which nicely captures the sense of Du côté de chez Swann, but the US version conservatively restored the comfortably familiar Swann’s Way.

What about Finding Time Again, which Ian Patterson, whose translation overall is well crafted if not particularly eloquent, offers us in place of the old Time Regained (or, in some earlier versions, The Past Recaptured) for Le Temps retrouvé? I don’t get the present participle: Why, since the French uses a past participle? It’s true that the action of the novel is about finding time after losing it—and wasting it, another important sense of temps perdu, since Marcel, like Proust himself, wastes time on frivolous pursuits before he discovers his vocation and is saved only at the last by his discovery that he must dedicate himself to art. Still, Finding Time Again seems less satisfactory than Time Regained, especially when one hears the entirely appropriate Miltonic echo: Paradise Regained—after its loss. Proust even writes in Le Temps retrouvé: “the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.” In his secular world, paradise is not recoverable. Only within the book of time is retrieval possible.

Readers who can’t get enough of Proust from the novel now can delve into the beginnings of the Search in The Seventy-Five Folios. These pages offer the first sketches of a number of moments in the novel: the painful evening in the country when the arrival of Swann (here M. de Bretteville) prevents Marcel from receiving his mother’s bedtime kiss, the first adumbration of the two “ways” that will structure Combray and beyond, the first glimpse of the girls on the beach at what will become Balbec, a meditation on the names of the nobility that poetically evoke the places they come from, and a few pages on Venice. They apparently date more or less from 1908, when Proust, having abandoned Jean Santeuil, his first novelistic venture, finally started work on the Search.

To Proust’s biographer Jean-Yves Tadié, they give us “the sacred moment” of first creation. You can see, for instance, how the originally prolix and diffuse drama of bedtime, with his mother’s kiss withheld, becomes in Proust’s rewriting the utterly memorable, indelible scene of childhood anguish in Swann’s Way. They are surely of interest to dedicated Proustians, though not quite up to the hype that greeted their appearance in France, where their publisher, Gallimard, claimed that they offer a Proustian “holy grail.” These pages had become a legend in France: mentioned by the critic Bernard de Fallois in his 1954 preface to the Gallimard edition of Proust’s critical essay Contre Sainte-Beuve, they went missing when the novelist’s papers (originally left by his brother Robert to his daughter, Suzy Mante-Proust) entered the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 1962. They were then discovered at de Fallois’s home after his death in 2018.

Their hyping may have to do less with their inherent importance than with a French obsession with what’s known as “genetic criticism,” which proposes to study the avant-texte and the brouillon—the pre-text and the draft—to establish the evolution of the text, the process leading up to the final version. That’s the opposite of traditional textual scholarship, which attempts to establish a “definitive” version. Genetic criticism can, of course, be highly interesting to the specialist. But in France it has attained canonical status, in the process providing a proliferation of unpublished material and blurring the outlines of familiar texts. This is a boon for publishers, who can produce “new versions” of classic texts full of alternative material, “variants,” with lots of editorial commentary, but which the rest of us may largely see as a boondoggle. With Proust, the genetic obsession has had results that are less than clearly positive, though perhaps inevitable, since he did not live to establish a definitive version of his novel. The three-volume Pléiade edition of À la recherche du temps perdu in 1954 contained 3,500 pages. The four-volume edition of 1987–1989, edited by Tadié, has over 7,000, with a large number of drafts and alternative versions in tiny font. There are of course other editions that are easier on the common reader.

The claim that texts are enriched by their earlier states—by the material their authors discarded—seems to me a dubious proposition, or at least one that should be confined to the literary geneticist’s playground. It gives pride of place precisely to material that authors wished to delete. We owe a certain respect to their decisions to revise, to abandon one version for another, to refine life in the crucible of art. It was by getting rid of the overly autobiographical—as in the discarded Jean Santeuil—that Proust created the Search. Kafka is supposed to have said that he entered literature by learning to say he rather than I. With Proust, the process was a bit different: Jean Santeuil is written in the third person, whereas by the time of the Search Proust has chosen to say I, but an I that isn’t identical with the writer, indeed an I that is shifting, elusive, in the process of becoming. As he wrote in his critique of Sainte-Beuve’s biographical approach to criticism, “A book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.”

And so the time-wasting dilettante Marcel becomes the writer who withdraws from society and devotes the dwindling time remaining to the creation of a never-quite-complete masterpiece. Truth and death contend until the end, with Proust gluing scribbled additions onto his manuscript pages virtually on his deathbed. That seems an overly romantic picture of “the artist.” Yet the result was not mere aestheticism but a novel that now seems crucial to our culture. Of the many descriptions of the work to come that we get in Le Temps retrouvé, there is one where he recalls his efforts to decipher those impressions that seem to offer some

new truth, a precious image that I sought to discover by efforts of the same kind as those which one makes to remember something, as if our most beautiful ideas were like tunes in music which come back, so to speak, to us without our ever having heard them, and which we do our best to listen to and to transcribe.

This music that comes back to us without our ever having heard it, which we must listen to and transcribe: that’s a fair description of what’s refound at the end of the Search.