To read In Search of Lost Time is to undertake an intimidating project. Its sheer scale and magnitude reduces Ulysses, War and Peace, and other literary behemoths to mere books within a novel, by comparison. To my mind, the biggest challenge in reading the Search isn’t Proust’s tendency to digress or even his long, syntactically challenging sentences, but taking in all the action at a glance in order to appreciate the novel’s order and structure. Just as it’s impossible to gain a proper view of Lake Tahoe by plunging your face in the water, so it’s impossible to gain a proper view of the Search by dabbling in this or that episode, as if the overarching narrative shape were of no real importance. In Proust’s Way, Shattuck provides a very useful map for first-time readers who want to scale the Search without summiting all 3,000 pages. Here it is, you would-be Proustian!
- Swann’s Way — the first three quarters, “Combray” and “Swann in Love”
- Within a Budding Grove — Part Two, “Balbec”
- The Guermantes Way — II, Chapter One, “The Grandmother’s Death”
- Sodom and Gomorrah — first thirty and last thirty pages, which center on Charlus and Albertine
- The Captive — first thirty pages and two hundred pages on the concert at the Verdurins’ arranged by Charlus
- Omit the Fugitive, thank you very much
- Time Regained — the last two hundred pages, which center on the last reception and Marcel’s reflections on writing
According to Shattuck, this reading plan shrinks Everest by two thirds. 1,000 pages? No problem. You can read that in less than a month. And if you want to make your journey even more pleasant, acclimatize first by reading Shattuck’s bit in The Cambridge Companion to Proust, where he provides an elegant sketch of the Search in ten pages. I highly recommend it.