Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Saul Friedländer revisits Marcel Proust's masterpiece in a reexamination of In Search of Lost Time, exploring literature, memory, and the question of identity--that of the novel's narrator and Proust's own.
... brief but haunting ... Mr. Friedländer confirms his late swerve toward literature in the incisive and quizzical essays ... Some readers might expect Mr. Friedländer the historian to focus on the social Proust of salon intrigue and upper-class rivalry—the writer who takes his prose scalpel to a changing elite as the old aristocracy competes with a confident new bourgeoisie. Yet the narrator, as he insists, is not just an 'observer' but a 'dreamer.' Mr. Friedländer also turns a forensic gaze on the Proustian principle of “involuntary memory,” the mental process that re-creates a vanished past ... Mr. Friedländer’s anti-tragic reading seems oddly out of kilter with his own insights into a work built on grievous loss that seeks salvation through enchanted memory. Proustian uncertainties—and contradictions—may ensnare critics too ... intimate and subtle.
... charmingly ramshackle ... Friedländer, a lauded expert on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, describes his short book as an essay, and notes at the start that he is no specialist on Proust. Indeed, the pleasure of the book comes from its old-fashioned, amateur quality, the author unspooling thoughts and venturing theories collected over many years about a book he clearly loves.
Friedländer reads In Search of Lost Time very much against the grain, alert not only to the pleasures of its prose and its psychological acuities and metaphysical masteries, but even more so to its many contradictions and moral ambiguities ... Friedländer, it must be said, is not a natural literary critic. His praise for the excellences of In Search of Lost Time are dutifully delivered but feel rote and under-felt in comparison to his reservations. Many of his sentences in Proustian Uncertainties are ungainly, in contrast with the elegant directness of When Memory Comes (first written in French and beautifully translated by Helen R. Lane). The historian in him is at the wheel ... It is finally quite clear that this author has a lover’s quarrel with Proust and his masterpiece, and that the relationship has almost descended in his last rereadings into the kind of bickering to be observed in certain long-tethered couples. But displeasure and disapproval can be stronger signs of love than swoony approbation, and Proust’s novel not only can survive such astringent examination, it relieves the reader of the often annoying burden of prescribed admiration that is expected in the reading of a classic.