In Search of Lost Time is notorious for its length. Its six volumes stretch over 3,700 pages, with individual sentences clocking in at almost three pages (the longest sentence is 847 words long in the original French). Proust himself is known as an eccentric who slept all day in a cork-lined room and wrote obsessively about himself at night. So why even bother starting with Swann's Way, when the narrator spends fifty pages just lying in bed thinking?
Some people start to read Proust thinking that it is the literary equivalent of climbing a mountain or running a marathon: something that is horrible at the time but great to boast about afterwards; or rather, something that gives you a real sense of achievement. The last part is certainly true, but the best-kept secret about Proust is that once you get into it, it's actually good: enjoyable, funny, easy to read, and full of memorable characters. Everyone has had a Proustian moment: experiencing a smell, taste or sight which unexpectedly sets off long-forgotten memories.
Proust is, in fact, the perfect antidote to modern life. Everything around us is boiled down to its shortest form for our shorter attention spans, from 140-character tweets to sixty second news bulletins on the T.V., radio and internet. Proust forces you to slow down, to notice things about the world that get missed out of these edited highlights. The experience of reading In Search of Lost Time is different to reading any other book: you become immersed in an unique world which will change the way you view everything else. The patience and concentration required to work your way through some of the longer sentences is rewarded by the ideas with which Proust stuffs every page: thoughts about art, memory, love, and childhood.
Swann's Way is a brilliant introduction to the rest of the Search, introducing the themes of love, jealous, time and memory which will be elaborated in the other five volumes and full of eccentric characters such as Madame Verdurin, who collapses in ecstasy over her favourite music, and Françoise, who weeps over the suffering of people she doesn't know and torments those she does. It is also a fascinating guide to the early years of the Belle Époque, when Paris was full of writers, artists, musicians and ideas.
Proust's thought has been turned into a hugely successful self-help book by Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life. The famous Proust Questionnaire appears at the back of every issue of Vanity Fair. He has been tweeted, mocked by Monty Python, and filmed as Swann In Love, starring Jeremy Irons, and as Le temps retrouvé (Time Regained) with Catherine Deneuve. He is an important part of our modern world, a phenomenon literally too huge to be ignored.
"À la recherche du temps perdu is the constant attempt to charge an entire lifetime with the utmost awareness." Walter Benjamin, The Image of Proust
"Proust's great novel is like a beautiful garden filled with delights but hidden behind a forbidden wall..." Patrick Alexander, author of Marcel Proust's Search for Lost Time
"Getting to know Proust is not the acquisition of a bundle of facts, it is familiarity with a world of the imagination in which one gradually comes to feel at home." Richard Bales, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Proust