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Book Review

A Detailed Road Map to a Complicated Work Worth Exploring

PROUST'S WAY: A Field Guide to "In Search of Lost Time" by Roger Shattuck; W.W. Norton$26.95, 292 pages

May 08, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One notable feature of 20th century literature has been a tendency toward fragmentation. It might be attributable to social change, political upheaval, the waning of religious belief, the discoveries of quantum physics, the theory of relativity or the aftershock of World War I.

It is also possible that anxieties of influence made it hard for modern writers to attempt "big" works in the wake of the achievements of 19th century masters like Tolstoy, Dickens or Dostoevsky. Whatever the reasons, the results are evident in the deliberate discontinuities of Pound's "Cantos," the laconic style of Hemingway's disaffected heroes and in T.S. Eliot's desire to shore up "fragments . . . against the ruins."

Yet even as many modern writers were embracing discontinuity, emptiness and absurdity, others were attempting, in works of monumental scope, to encompass vast new worlds of interrelated meanings: James Joyce in "Ulysses"; Robert Musil in "The Man Without Qualities"; Thomas Mann in "The Magic Mountain," "Dr. Faustus" and "Joseph and His Brothers"; and Marcel Proust in his multivolume masterpiece "In Search of Lost Time."

The eminent scholar and lifelong Proustian Roger Shattuck emphasizes this point in his latest book, "Proust's Way": "Proust did not seek to tear his world apart, a tendency present in a large segment of modern literature. He tried to convey to his readers the richness and the cohesiveness of his inner life." Shattuck's aim in writing this "field guide" is twofold: to convince us of the immense rewards of reading Proust and to show us some useful ways of going about it--in sum: why to read Proust and how.

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Shattuck takes pains to dispel the prevailing misconception of Proust as a decadent aesthete. True, he was sickly, neurasthenic, snobbish and, in his early years, rather dilettantish. But the man who devoted the last 15 years of his life to creating "In Search of Lost Time" had not only transformed himself into a true artist but had also transformed the raw material of his experience into a work of universal resonance. Proust's novel, Shattuck argues, "does not subside into passivity and coterie art . . . [but] creates a four-dimensional society and a stringently critical perspective on the snobbery and superficiality of that society."

"In Search of Lost Time" does not merely expose the hollowness of the beau monde. As Shattuck demonstrates, Proust draws clear distinctions between art falsely worshiped as idol or fetish and art perceived in a way that enriches consciousness and returns us to life.

Shattuck points out two key passages: In one, Proust, himself a lover of art, warns an art-worshiping friend, "Do not sacrifice men to stones whose beauty has caught for a moment a few human verities." In the other, Proust comes to an understanding of his own vocation as a novelist: "The true greatness of art . . . was to find, grasp, and bring out that reality which we all live a great distance from . . . that reality which we run the risk of dying without having known, and which is quite simply our own life."

Shattuck's love of Proust is matched by his eagerness to help readers who may be daunted by the size and complexity of this masterpiece. In plain language further clarified by charts and diagrams of the characters, settings and basic plot, he provides an overview of the whole grand enterprise. He even acknowledges--horror of horrors to Proustian purists--that although it is preferable to read every sinuous sentence, it might also be permissible to take a few shortcuts. (He offers specific suggestions.) For, it is sad to think that many people deny themselves the pleasure of reading some of "In Search of Lost Time" simply because they feel they are unlikely to read all of it.

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"Proust's Way" has something for everyone. For the reader well-versed in Proust: subtle insights and appreciations. For the neophyte: useful tools and quick references. Wearing his erudition lightly, Shattuck has put his expertise at our disposal to help and illuminate rather than to impress or intimidate.

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