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Finding Time Again, by Marcel Proust

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Ma longue absence de Paris n’avait pas empêché d’anciens amis à continuer, comme mon nom restait sur leurs listes, à m’envoyer fidèlement des invitations, et quand j’en trouvai, en rentrant — avec une pour un goûter donné par la Berma en l’honneur de sa fille et de son gendre — une autre pour une matinée qui devait avoir lieu le lendemain chez le prince de Guermantes, les tristes réflexions que j’avais faites dans le train ne furent pas un des moindres motifs qui me conseillèrent de m’y rendre. Ce n’était vraiment pas la peine de me priver de mener la vie de l’homme du monde, m’étais-je dit, puisque le fameux « travail » auquel depuis si longtemps j’espère chaque jour me mettre le lendemain, je ne suis pas ou plus fait pour lui, et que peut-être même il ne correspond à aucune réalité. À vrai dire, cette raison était toute négative et ôtait simplement leur valeur à celles qui auraient pu me détourner de ce concert mondain. Mais celle qui m’y fit aller fut ce nom de Guermantes, depuis assez longtemps sorti de mon esprit pour que, lu sur la carte d’invitation, il réveillât un rayon de mon attention, allât prélever au fond de ma mémoire une coupe de leur passé, accompagné de toutes les images de forêt domaniale ou de hautes fleurs qui l’escortaient alors, et pour qu’il reprît pour moi le charme et la signification que je lui trouvais à Combray quand passant, avant de rentrer, dans la rue de l’Oiseau, je voyais du dehors, comme une laque obscure, le vitrail de Gilbert le Mauvais, sire de Guermantes. Pour un moment les Guermantes m’avaient semblé de nouveau entièrement différents des gens du monde, incomparables avec eux, avec tout être vivant, fût-il souverain ; ils me réapparaissaient comme des êtres issus de la fécondation de cet air aigre et vertueux de cette sombre ville de Combray où s’était passée mon enfance et du passé qu’on y apercevait dans la petite rue, à la hauteur du vitrail. J’avais eu envie d’aller chez les Guermantes comme si cela avait dû me rapprocher de mon enfance et des profondeurs de ma mémoire où je l’apercevais. Et j’avais continué à relire l’invitation jusqu’au moment où, révoltées, les lettres qui composaient ce nom si familier et si mystérieux, comme celui même de Combray, eussent repris leur indépendance et eussent dessiné devant mes yeux fatigués comme un nom que je ne connaissais pas. My name being still on their lists, my long absence from Paris had not prevented old friends from continuing faithfully to send me invitations, and when upon my return I found, alongside one to a tea-party given for her daughter and son-in-law by La Berma, another for an afternoon reception to be held the following day at the house of the Prince de Guermantes, the melancholy reflections that had assailed me in the train were not the least of the motives advising me to go there. There is really no point in depriving myself of the life of a man of the world, I told myself, since the famous 'work' which I have so long hoped each day to begin the next day, is one that I am not, or am no longer, fitted to, and perhaps corresponds to no reality whatever. In fact this reasoning was entirely negative, and simply removed the value of the counter-arguments which might have put me off going to this society concert. The real reason I decided to go was the Guermantes name, for so long out of my mind that when I read it on the invitation card it re-awakened a ray of my attention which was to lift from the depths of my memory a section of their past, accompanied by all the images of seigneurial forest and tall flowers which had then accompanied it, and took on again for me all the magic and significance which I used to find at Combray when, as I passed by on my way home, in the rue de I'Oiseau, I would see from outside, like dark lacquer, the stained-glass window dedicated to Gilbert the Bad, ancestor of the Guermantes. For a moment the Guermantes had once again seemed completely different from the rest of society, not to be compared with them or with any living being, even royalty, creatures sprung from the impregnation of the sour and windy air of the sombre town of Combray, where my childhood was spent, by the past, visible there in the narrow street, at the level of the stained-glass window. I had wanted to go to the Guermantes' house as if that might have been able to bring me closer to my childhood and to the depths of my memory in which I saw it. And I had continued to read and reread the invitation until the letters composing that name, at once so familiar and so mysterious, like that of Combray itself, rebelled, regained their independent life and reorganized themselves before my exhausted eyes into something like an unknown name.

When I first read this ten years ago, I wrote:
Well, I've done it: finished the final volume of the Penguin set of À la recherche du temps perdu, a year and a half after starting them. Like the previous one, I found the last volume very lucid and involving; I wonder if this is really the case, or just reflects my increasing comfort level with Proust's prose? It's quite a break with the previous volumes in some ways, chronicling the effects of the 1914-18 war on France, on Paris, on the places the narrator loves and on his social circle; then an accidental encounter with a gay brothel; then a fifty-page reflection on memory while the narrator walks upstairs from the courtyard to the Guermantes' party; then further meditations on age, on death, on what has happened in the previous volumes and on what drives the narrator to write it all down and turn it into a book. It is very satisfying, and now I want to go back and read it all again (though I may read the Alain de Botton book first).
I read the six books in six months this time, and to be honest I feel that slightly rushed the job; it would have been a bit better to savour the whole experience. I agree with my earlier self that the last volume is very approachable - we still have endless parties, but the author has grown up and is working through what this means for life, and the closing pages are very reflexive indeed. Given this year's cenetenary commemorations, it's interesting to note how the first world war happens here as a change of background rather than a series of events (the death of Saint-Loup perhaps being the only specific war incident reported).

But now that I'm a bit more familiar with the great modernists than I was ten years ago, I am struck by the extent to which À la recherche du temps perdu is a diversion rather than a foundation for what came after (or at least what I have read of what came after). I'm glad to have read it (twice), but I don't think I'll do this again. You can get this volume here.

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