By Dennis Abrams
You can, of course, read In Search of Lost Time on its own. It’s not like reading James Joyce, where a reader’s guide is almost essential to help you get through the sea of puns, allusions, experimental prose and parodies. Proust is, despite its formidable reputation, remarkably accessible. There are, however, many many books available that may help illuminate your path and guide you along your journey. Here’s a selection of a few that I think are definitely worth your time.
Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles (Thames and Hudson). Having this book by your side as you read In Search of Lost Time will add immeasurably to the experience. Proust makes countless references to paintings and drawings, both as works of art in themselves, as well as a way of describing his characters and his landscapes. Karpeles’ book, with his perceptive introduction and reproductions of over 200 of those artworks, allows the reader to see for him or herself what exactly Proust was talking about.
Proust: A Life, by Edmund White (Penguin Books). Published in 1999 as a part of the Penguin Lives series, it’s a lovely biography; a literary homage from one gay author to another.
Marcel Proust: A Life by Jean-Yves Tadie (Viking). If White’s 164 page biography leaves you wanting more, Tadie’s nearly 800 page tome is your next step. In the words of Eric Karpeles, it is “Indispensable. Insightful, informative, often fascinating reading.”
Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time, by Roger Shattuck (W.W. Norton and Company). The masterwork by the man who has been called the preeminent Proust scholar of our time. Important, even if occasionally bogged down in overly academic prose.
Monsieur Proust by Celeste Albaret (New York Review Books). Celeste was Proust’s housekeeper in his later years, and her warm and intimate memoir gives a nearly unparalleled look at the daily life of a great writer.
Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 by Edmund Wilson (Farrar Straus & Giroux). First published in 1931, Wilson’s essay is an early and perceptive look at Proust’s work, written by one of America’s greatest critics.
Proust by Samuel Beckett (John Calder). Roger Shattuck calls it “seventy of the most probing and succinct pages ever written on Proust’s work.”
Proust by William Sansom (Thames and Hudson). A lovely biographical essay, written by an unjustly neglected British author (Check out his collected short stories as well as his novel The Body, once named by Anthony Burgess as one of the greatest English novels published after 1939.)
The Proust Project by Andre Aciman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Aciman asked twenty-eight writers (Colm Toibin, Geoffrey O’Brien, Edmund White, Louis Auchincloss and Shirley Hazzard among them) to choose a favorite passage from Proust and comment on it in a brief essay. Fascinating.
Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide by Patrick Alexander. I hesitate to recommend this, (it’s not unlike a Cliff’s Notes for adults), but it does contain an extraordinarily useful guide to what Alexander describes as the fifty most important characters in Proust.
Use this list at your own discretion. As we wind our way through Proust, I’ll try to post quotes and ideas from these books and others that you might find useful and/or thought provoking.
And, if any of you can recommend any other titles, or would be interested in reviewing any of these books (or any other books relating to the topic as well), let me know, send them on to me, and I’ll put them up.