Marcel Proust’s life-consuming literary epic is not just merely one novel, but a series of books. Throughout the 20th century, this collection of volumes was more often than not referred to by the collective title of Remembrance of Things Past. The original French title La Recherche du Temps Perdu translates more readily into In Search of Lost Time, but little argument can be made that it is a less aesthetically pleasing translation. Somehow Remembrance of Things Past is far more poetic; ironically, in light of the widespread adoption of the new English version of the title, it is far more appropriate.
The reason is that, in fact, Proust’s masterwork is closer a mammoth attempt at remembering the past than it is searching for time lost. The collective work encompasses individual entries titled Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, Cities of the Plain, The Captive, The Sweet Cheat Gone and Time Regained. Swann’s Way was published in 1913 and Time Regained in 1931. Even the transposition of the final two numbers in those years seems to speak to the essential element at play in Proust’s work: the look backward to an earlier time from the future with the conceptual conceit that events remain unchanged, but nostalgia makes liars of memory.
While the reader may pick up this enormous task of working through the multiple volumes with the goal of searching through time, do not expect to find traditional literary elements like plot, rising and falling action, climax and conflict. Proust structures his life’s literary ambition much like a dream; it is far more non-linear and musically composed than other extended literary memoirs. Conventional notions of the dividing line between realty and illusion plays an enormous part in the construction of the storyline as well as In Search of Lost Time advances the very art of the novel from the quagmire of mere traditional reportage of realism in which had become trapped by turn of the 20th century. Proust may not necessarily have set out to show that theme and motif and emotional carriage could drive a narrative as well as the whodunit process of a mystery, but by the time he completed the complex and ambitious work, he had paved the way for even more experimental works like those of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner.