‘Or- Why A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu Can’t Be Called The Greatest Novel Of All Time, And Nor Can Anything Else’
Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is claimed as one of the greatest novels in world literature. It is a similar thing to how Citizen Kane or The Godfather are hailed as the greatest movies of all times or how Friends is supposedly the funniest sitcom ever made. Besides the claims being based on opinion (and then that opinion being shot out of a cannon as fact) they often do not stand up to scrutinity. Except for maybe Friends, (and this opinion isn’t going to win me any) they aren’t exactly terrible, but they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be either. Citizen Kane is watchable, memorable maybe, but there are an awful lot of movies that I’d rather sit down and watch instead. Same with The Godfather. It’s interesting, but very long and very dull at the same time. Which brings me back to Proust and the Recherche. Why is it labelled as one of the greatest novels in world literature?
It is ridiculously long, the whole lot clocking in at over four thousand pages. To read it all is a challenge I have not mastered, I will admit. I only reached just over a third of the way through, to the start of the third volume, before giving up. But a third of the book (some four hundred thousand words) is as much as most other long books- It is only two hundred thousand words short of War and Peace. The whole thing is over twice the entire length of War and Peace.
The Recherche is also pretentious. It is pretentious to a deathly degree. It is pretentious in the way in which it is written and it is pretentious in its content. As much of the gushing, w**key praise splashed across the internet will tell you, Proust revels in long unwieldy sentences and lengthy sometimes fifty page scenes describing tiny, near insignificant moments and objects. There are very few sentences in the book which are short, simple and to the point. They are there, although they are lost amongst an endless barrage, sentences which all contain at least five commas and a semi-colon each, as a minimum. Sometimes a short sentence can be the most powerful, but Proust does not seem to recognise this. He instead sews his readers into the human centipede of verbal diarrhoea and does not let it drop. The same with description. Sometimes short and to the point can be more powerful, especially when it comes to describing character. Proust, however, does not recognise this.
People will talk about how the novel gives a ‘sense of connection’ and ‘replicates the process of long past memory,’ and other such gobbledegook. Most of them, it’s fair to say, probably don’t have a clue what they are talking about. Like the Recherche itself they are being egregiously pretentious. They are talking in a way that may sometimes sound intelligent to the ears of the man in the street but most of what they are saying is horseradish or regurgitated from something which they have read elsewhere. They didn’t read Proust and draw their own conclusions, they read what somebody else said about Proust and took it as gospel. Were they to know nothing about the book and were they to pick it up for the first time, would they see the ‘sense of connection’ or the ‘replication of the process of memory?’ I doubt it. Instead of making up their own minds they are seeing what they have been told to see. They are also told that Proust is ‘great’ and they, like the blind mice that they are, swallow it whole and regurgitate it, again refusing to make up their own minds.
There is a place for long literature. There is place for the artsy and the pretentious. Proust attempts to do both. He attempts to have his madeleine and eat it, only he does not succeed. This is for a number of reasons.
The Recherche is a melodrama, that much is at least true, but to sustain any story over a long period a writer needs to keep his reader engaged. He needs to keep the plot moving, to keep the action rolling. He or she needs to keep upping the stakes to the point of climax.
Proust does not do this. In the first third of the book, at least, very little of any significance happens. There is snobbery. There is much snobbery. The narrator (based on Proust himself) is an outright and unlikable snob (as is everyone else in the book) who leers after and stalks numerous women throughout Paris and Northern France. At one point he even ‘falls out of love’ with a woman because she refuses to sleep with him. That is about all that has happened. There is no interweaving thread, nothing making the story progress from one point to the next, just a series of wordy vignettes in which two dimensional men leer at two dimensional women. There is no impetus, no drive anywhere and to sustain any long novel that is an absolute necessity.
It does not help that melodrama does not lend itself to the lengthy. By its nature it is staid, static, dealing in drawing room discussions rather than helter-skelter chases across the moors. It is precisely the opposite of an action genre and for that reason alone interest and engagement can only be sustained for a limited amount of time. Proust goes well beyond that limit. He does not sustain engagement, and that is thanks to the melodrama.
Pretention should also be kept brief. Every book, no matter whether it is long or pretentious or artsy, should stick to one basic rule- It must be readable. It cannot be incomprehensible gibberish and a reader should be able to get through from one side to the other. If a book cannot be read, it cannot be classed as such. It is possible to be pretentious and make a book readable at the same time, many have succeeded, but the best way to do that is to be brief. If something must be pretentious, it ought to be kept to the length of an average novel for a reader cannot keep up pretention much further than that. They can if the writing is exceptional, but it is a rare writer who is that exceptional, who can pull it off. Proust does not pull it off and so it becomes increasingly more of a challenge to get through the Recherche the longer it goes on. The problem here is compounded by the sentence structure, which is in itself pretentious. Even if the book were short, this would make it a challenging read. At the length it is, reading the Recherche becomes impossible for all but the most persistent of readers.
Don’t get me wrong, the book does have its merits. I have read far worse books than the Recherche in my time. The opening paragraph is perhaps the best part and some of those long sentences have a certain kind of poetry to them. But there are a lot of flaws to the book. It is overly pretentious, more pretentious than it needs to be, and this in turn has inspired a lot of people to talk about it in a pretentious, horseradishy fashion. It is never good when people start talking about something in a horseradishy fashion. This pretension is not helped by the length, which makes it almost impossible to read. There is also little in the way of plot and the characters are two dimensional and unlikable. Given its flaws, no matter how much some people love it (and people do, I’m not begrudging them that) can it really be considered as one of the greatest novels of all time?
There is a strand of thought, amongst some people, that if they do not understand something or if it is overly long and complex then it must be good. The same is true if someone with an academic qualification proclaims such a thing. They’re a wise old academic, it must be true! All we have to do, for a moment to divert from Proust, is look to Finnegans Wake. It is over long (though only short when compared to Proust,) and I don’t know if you could call it pretentious but it is certainly complex. A mere glance over the first page reveals just how unreadable the whole thing is.
Yet Finnegans Wake, like the Recherche, is often hailed as one of the greatest novels of all time. It is frequently included on such lists. This is despite the fact that most of the population has no hope of being able to read it. It is possible to read it, though it makes little to no sense thanks to it not being written in any legible language. I am not denying that Joyce pulled off a spectacular feat when he wrote it (it took him a lot of work to make it that incomprehensible!) but you cannot call something a great novel if it cannot be read and understood and interpreted by the general public. It is only called a great novel thanks to how complex and difficult to understand it is. And thanks to people regurgitating horseradish about it, it continues to be claimed as such.
The Recherche, however, can be understood. It can be followed, either in translation or its original language. It is simply a chore to get through. Yet, like Finnegans Wake, I get the impression that it is only called a great novel for its complexity and its length, for how much of a struggle it is to get through. Yes, it may have merits and like with Joyce Proust did pull off a feat of spectacle, but you cannot call it a great novel for that reason alone. On its other facets, on the plot and the characters and all the things that make a book good, it falls far short in many ways. Like Finnegans Wake the Recherche is not judged on those aspects, as it should be, as any book should be. In some places you will see people trying to excuse the poor plot or the poor characterisation, ‘nobody reads Proust for the plot,’ one excuse which I found reads. How, if you have to make excuses for the books failing’s, can you label it as a great novel? You can’t. Surely, to be one of the ‘greatest novels of all time,’ it must be an exemplar of plot and character. There should be almost no flaws. You cannot call something truly great if you have to make excuses for its failings.
Besides which, the idea of a ‘greatest novel’ is only a subjective one. We all have different tastes and opinions and interests and one person’s ‘greatest novel’ might be completely different from somebody else’s. The same is true of any ‘best of’ or ‘greatest’ list. Bleak House is often cited as Charles Dickens’ greatest work, but for myself it lacked the characterisation of Great Expectations or Oliver Twist. It was not so engrossing as A Tale of Two Cities. For me, Bleak House is one of Dickens’ worst, not his best. On lists of Terry Pratchett’s supposedly best works, Moving Pictures is often placed near the bottom. I actually rather liked that one, much more than some which are always placed relatively high on such lists. My point is that you cannot call anything a greatest of all time because such a thing does not exist. Such an idea is only an opinion and not a definitive fact.
There seems to be, around the world and across the internet, a general blurring of fact and opinion. Nobody seems to know which is which anymore. These lists don’t help as a significant proportion of people appear to take them as gospel. Nothing is really the greatest. Not the Recherche, not Finnegans Wake, not Bleak House nor Ethel The Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying. There is no way you can prove such a thing, because when it comes to opinion, proof does not exist. We can only argue our point.