It’s one hundred years this week since the publication of the first (‘Du côté de chez Swann’) in the seven volumes of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’. Marcel Proust had started work on it in 1909; in 1913 it made its first appearance in French, and he kept working on it until illness forced him to stop in the autumn of 1922.

At the beginning of 1920, an editor at The Times in London resigned so that he could spend all his time working on the translations of the books into English. C.K. Scott Moncrieff is often co-credited alongside the author because his translation work was so good. Nearly two years later, in the same autumn of 1922 that Proust’s illness incapacitated him, notices appeared that the first title (‘Swann’s Way’) would soon be ready . It also said that the book would be called ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ in the English translation.

This title comes from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste

There was an immediate controversy about the title. In the sonnet, memory is seen as something associated with recall. The mind is a large warehouse or library of memories and we retrieve them like books from the shelves. Proust, however, was talking about memory as reconstruction. From tiny shards of factual recall, we re-create the experience and effectively “make it up” to be like the first time we had that experience. The word ‘recherche’ can mean search or research, and from a few ingredients we can follow a formula to make something that is rich in detail.

In the famous section when the narrator visits his mother and accepts a cup of tea and a small sponge cake (a ‘petite madeleine’), the taste of the tea and cake brings on a strong sensation of comfort. It doesn’t last – by the third sip the drug is losing it’s potency. But suddenly the memory returns. He is transported back to his childhood and his Aunt’s country house. The “vast structure of recollection” allows him all of this from the smell and taste of small things. My own example is the smell of box hedging. One sniff and I am four years old again standing outside a house in the back-end of rural Cavan where my grandparents once lived. I did not return there for another forty years or so, but when I did, there was the hedging with its distinctive smell, in the precise corner of the garden where I remembered it. Truly, we can all have our madeleine moment.

Proust exchanged letters with Moncrieff on the matter. He told him he really wanted to retain the notion of ‘lost time’ which “is found again at the end of the work”. The final volume is ‘Le Temps Retrouvé’. (Time Regained). It was not until 1992 that the English version was renamed: ‘In Search of Lost Time’. Even now, both titles are used.

Sadly, just as Proust died in November 1922 leaving the novel unfinished until 1927; so too Moncrieff died in 1930, leaving Le Temps Retrouvé untranslated. That task was completed by others.