Book Notes: Who’s Who in Proust

07/05/2007

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Yes, dear reader, it’s been Proust season lately here at Kirkville. You may have spotted my article about listening to a French audiobook of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, as well as a review of a biography of Proust. I’m a Proustian, and have read the novel several times, first in English, then in French, after I came to France. It is, for me, one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century, and deserves to be read by all. The former article has links to suggested books about Proust, both in French and in English, so if you’re a Proustian, or just curious, you should check it out.

But today I want to talk about a small book that Proustians will find invaluable: Who’s Who in Proust, a guide to 50 of the main characters that appear in Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past, the title of an earlier translation). When reading Proust, you almost need a program. Over some 3,000 pages, dozens of major characters, and hundreds of minor characters, enter and leave, some of them changing names as they move up in society, others remaining the same or descending the social ladder. Proust’s characters are complex people, their destinies are never linear, and their histories become more intricate as the novel continues and we learn more about them. Patrick Alexander, a serious Proustian, realized the need for such a program, and went through the entire novel to create this book which can be seen as the ultimate guide to the people of Proust’s world. He examines the 50 main characters, including some who may not seem so important at first glance, and gives an overview of who they are, who they become, and, in many cases, why they act the way they do.

However, if you’re a first-time reader of Proust, you might want to read this book carefully, since each character sketch gives you spoilers, telling you what the characters will become as the novel progresses. If you’re just at the beginning of this great work, you don’t want to know what becomes of, say, Gilberte or Albertine, or especially Madame Verdurin, since their roles evolve greatly throughout the novel. However, if you’ve already read Proust, this is the perfect book to have by your side in your next traversal of the novel, to remind you of the complex characters and their evolutions.

The book also contains some useful information about Paris during the Belle Époque, the Dreyfus affair, and an overview of Proust’s life to help better put the novel in context. But the heart of the book is the succinct “biographies” of the characters who come to life in this vast novel. Even after finishing the novel, you won’t have remembered all the details or the subtle links that exist among the characters; this book will fill out your understanding of Proust’s cast of characters and get you prepared to read La Recherche again. Not only for obsessives, Who’s Who in Proust will help you better understand the multitude of people who cross this stage of this astoundingly rich novel.