Course Instructor Days Times Room

Topics Title
Proust: In Search of Lost Time


Divided over two semesters, shared between the English and French departments, this course will be devoted to Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. A fat, fascinating, sometimes fatiguing novel about the pleasures and pain of experience, À la recherche du temps perdu, published serially between 1913 and 1927, is one of modern literature’s most complex, compelling achievements.

At its surface, the class will focus on the novel’s major themes, a dizzying mix of the emotional and intellectual. Among them: falling in and out of love, nostalgia and forgetting, loss and hope, jealousy and apathy, illusion and disillusionment, the problem of other people, dreams and wakefulness, synesthesia, homosexuality, solitude and the artist’s truth, and the vagaries of childhood, adolescence, death. These leitmotifs, in turn, unfold to reveal concepts crucial to the twentieth century, from the celebrated notion of voluntary versus involuntary memory to adjacent ideas regarding subjectivity and identity’s flux, repetition and difference, the nature of artistic perception, experience, and the various ways by which time, outside its standard role as mere chronological measure, defines and defies the individual.

Along the way, we will tend to important social and political contexts, such as the decline of the French aristocracy, the Dreyfus Affair and Judaism in France, industrialization, and the First World War. This background material will be examined alongside relevant aesthetic frames, including naturalism and expressionism, the Bildungsroman, psychoanalysis, late Romantic and early Modernist trends. Engaging the widest angles surrounding Proust’s epic, however, we will not neglect stylistic or structural aspects of the work, whose famously eccentric formal elements are inseparable from its content, and sometimes even eclipse it.

We’ll study all seven of Proust’s volumes in their entirety, in the classic English translation by C.K. Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright. The fall section will cover the first three installments: Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, and The Guermantes Way. We will complete the latter quartet—Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive, The Fugitive, and Time Regained—in spring. The course will be conducted in English, though capable students are, of course, welcome to read the work in its original language, provided they come to class prepared to discuss the assignments according to page numbers in the translation. Specific passages or problems will sometimes be pinpointed in advance, enabling us to coordinate our energies more productively.

Each student will be responsible for submitting a pair of critical essays during the semester, in addition to sitting a final exam. There will also be occasional quizzes on the reading. Designed as a graduate-style seminar, rather than as a straight lecture class, this course will depend heavily on in-house discussion. To that end, participants will take turns leading off each session, by offering a short presentation that addresses the week’s assignment, before posing questions to guide our conversation.

Needless to say, the course will demand a serious amount of reading, in terms of both breadth and intensity. Proust’s unabridged project tallies 4,500 pages, meaning that students will be required to read at a weekly pace of 160 pages or so. Unlike many other novels of similar heft, In Search of Lost Time is extremely dense. Despite its array of vivid personalities and enthralling scenarios, the book’s convoluted meditations frequently wander across protracted, non-narrative stretches, as they develop ornate hypotheses and seek to articulate theories. The story’s paucity of traditional plot is counter-weighed by extensive, abstract rumination on the grand scale and, at the local level, by an acute, obsessive attention to the sentence as elastic, poetical unit. Often less like reading ‘fiction’ than grappling with ‘philosophy,’ studying In Search of Lost Time hence necessitates a fair degree of re-reading, for its conjectures, arguments, ambiguities, and intermittent contradictions are rarely self-evident or easily yielded. Only rigorous students, committed to parsing ‘slow,’ difficult passages at a consistently accelerated pace, should sign up.

Students enrolling in the autumn ’18 semester are not required to take the continuing section in spring ’19. Given the topic and our approach, however, no one will be added into the second half of the course who has not successfully completed the first.