This is my eulogy to Proust (and for that matter, the entire French language). As a former joint schools linguist, now pursuing the lonely open fields of sole German, the taste for studying Proust’s masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu is one that is unlikely to leave with the last remains of my torn-up prelims essays. For those unacquainted with this work, it is a novel of epic proportions exploring different layers of involuntary and voluntary memory. Its beauty lies in its manipulation of the reader’s own recollection and the multiple different lenses through which this shared reader/ protagonist past is viewed. By the end of the final volume – le temps retrouvé – the reader is forced to reach back into their own, now-distant, memory to recover how the book began.
Within this framework, the reader gets to know the narrator by way of his own observations. Humans are complex beings and while even a novel the length of la recherche only begins to scratch the surface of the complexity of self-presentation, it at least draws the reader away from tired stock characters and begins to delve beneath the surface of a protagonist’s consciousness, forming some level of intimacy between him and the reader.
The longer novel, a category of which Proust makes up a small if heavy proportion, is like a long-term relationship. Yes, filled with ups and downs, boredom, and potentially finishing long after it should, yet strangely delightful and formative within this unpromising frame. It is the difference between being an enraptured follower of Downton and just reading the reviews afterwards to keep up to date with conversation (an infuriating habit of a friend of mine); between a career politician who has chosen a particular seat to try and make it to Westminster and a grass-roots campaigner who is a genuinely proud member of their community. Unarguably in the above situations the career politician could be right and the campaigner completely off-kilter, and my interpretation of Downton could be completely misled in comparison to the objective review. But it is about passion and commitment, without which life is only ever bland. That’s what Proust means to me. Time spent so stuck in another world that it becomes part of your very being.
George Eliot is another champion of the long novel. In a world of period dramas incessantly obsessed with Jane Austen, whose works, though great as a form of light comedy, are nothing in comparison to the intricate presentation of an entire community with deep, twisted yet convincing characters which is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Indeed, every description is so wonderfully delicious and phrased to such perfection that it truly surprises me that anyone does anything with their life apart from read Eliot. Nowhere else have I found an author present characters to which I have so closely identified, which became only the more concerning when serious life-disturbing flaws were revealed. Dorothea’s marriage to the decrepit yet knowledgeable Edward Casaubon reveals a quest for knowledge worthy of any Oxford student, made all the more striking by its miserable results. None of the characters are condemned for being the way they are. Indeed, a reader would be challenged to try and find an outright favourite or moral paragon. Neither are we left with an ending with unrealistic expectations. Even after falling into the arms of the man of her dreams, a point which I found disappointing but again an utterly believable chink in even the strongest and most wilful heroine’s armour, Dorothea is lamented by her friends: “Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother.” A tension of the feminist debate not unique to 1850. Oh, the joys of literature.
The interminable drive of the quest for greatness and the pointlessness in part of such never-ending academic endeavour is seen in the character of Casaubon and the lack of realistic self-expectations in Lydgate (take note, Oxford): “His skill was relied on by many paying patients, but he always regarded himself a failure[…]”. This character also presents the idiocy of idolising a future partner, to the neglect of their true nature, as seen in his relations with Rosamond. The self-delusion of the bourgeois and their declaration of a right to certain privileges is seen in Rosamond herself, as she “often spoke of her happiness as a ‘reward’ – she did not say for what”. Philosophically, Eliot is realistic, and impeccably so, as she writes: “For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” Indeed, we could all take a few social lessons from the 1800s now and again.
On that lasting note, I would urge you, o stressed Oxonian this Christmas, to slow down and immerse yourself in a longer novel. It may just be the best thing you ever do for your own sanity and sense of perspective


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