Finding Time Again is a new translation of the final volume of Marcel Proust’s classic epic novel In Search of Lost Time, the culmination of Viking Penguin’s new translation, begun in 2005, with each volume handled by a different translator. Translated by Ian Patterson, this volume follows Marcel as he observes the changes wrought by the Great War in his high society friends.
In Search of Lost Time has an intimidating reputation with its lengthy sentences and deep look at early twentieth century French society, but once you begin, it’s hard to stop. Patterson especially captures the language well here, which feels surprisingly easy to follow and almost addictive to read, drawing us further into the story. Plus, Marcel makes for an engaging narrator, giving us all the gossipy tidbits about the large cast of characters.
His candid discussions of homosexuals (or “inverts” as they were known back then), are simply amazing. He remembers his childhood friend Gilberte’s husband, Saint-Loup, who had a longstanding affair with the violinist Morel, and he wonders how much Gilberte knew and understood of Saint-Loup’s secret life. Later, he wanders into a hotel and accidentally spies on Baron de Charlus being chained and beaten by working-class men as part of his fetish. Afterward, the baron talks to the men, whom he’s paid to pretend are rough, dangerous criminals, and he gets offended when one of them forgets it and mentions a minor crime. Years later, Marcel encounters the baron again, now decrepit and lowered in society after Morel “outed” him, and another aristocrat denounced his German leanings. Still, according to his valet, the baron continues to chase after young men; in fact, during their conversation, the valet must intervene in the baron’s conversation with the gardener’s son.
It’s easy to forget how groundbreaking this was at the time, as American and English novels never talked about homosexuality so openly. Even E.M. Forster’s Maurice, which was written in 1913, wasn’t published until after his death in 1971. And it’s fascinating that while Proust himself was gay, Marcel comes across as fairly straight, although in the first volume, Swann’s Way, he seems smitten with Charles Swann.
There are plenty of other juicy, soap opera-like events. At an aristocrat’s party, where for the entertainment a young actress is reciting poetry, Marcel discusses another party across town, hosted by the actresses’ dying former rival, to which only one young man has shown up. In fact, her own daughter and son-in-law sneak away to the more popular party, where the younger actress, not actually the host, has them beg to see her as a way of humiliating her rival.
Marcel also makes profound observations about life and art. At the party, he’s surprised at how old everyone’s become. He takes a while to recognize friends he’s known for years, and he mistakes younger people for their elders. Walking over the paving stones to the party dredges up memories of his childhood, which he analyzes while waiting in the library. At the volume’s beginning, he thinks he doesn’t have the talent to be a writer, but by the end, he realizes he’ll finally work on his novel, with time as its subject.
For the full Proust experience, it’s probably useful to read the earlier volumes, to become familiar with the many recurring characters who frequently pop in and out. Indeed, early on, Gilberte talks about her perspective of a pivotal event in Swann’s Way. She sent a signal to the young Marcel at that time that he totally misinterpreted. But for being nearly a century old, and about a society that no longer exists, Finding Time Again feels almost contemporary and can certainly be read on its own. Endnotes for now-obscure figures and events, as well as a synopsis, are helpfully included at the end.
Reviewed by Charles Green