Everyone loves a centenary. One hundred years might not be more important than 99 or 101, but it’s an occasion to revisit a part of the past we don’t think about every day. Memory doesn’t require a reason — just an opportunity.
With the revolutions, wars and innovations of the 20th century now reaching their centennial points, those opportunities are about to increase dramatically. Already we’ve had the San Francisco Earthquake (1906), the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (2011) and the sinking of the Titanic (1912). In the coming years we’ll have the Russian Revolution, the Depression and both World Wars. We’re about to live the 20th century over again, this time as 100-year anniversaries.
Nestled among these events is a more humble occasion: the 1913 publication of “Swann’s Way,” the first volume of Marcel Proust’s great novel, “In Search of Lost Time.” To celebrate, there is an exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum featuring Proust’s notebooks, manuscripts and galleys, on loan from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. There was recently a marathon reading of the book at a Manhattan bookstore, kicked off by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. A new edition of Proust’s poetry is being published by Penguin Classics, in both French and English translation. For readers looking to acquaint themselves with the author, it’s a once-in-a-century opportunity.
It’s fitting that Proust, our culture’s high priest of memory, should usher in the coming onslaught of centennials. Though he is celebrated most for his revelatory expression of personal memory — the famous rush that accompanies a tea-dipped madeleine in the first section of his novel has become nearly synonymous with the whole book — Proust was fascinated by history in all its forms. “In Search of Lost Time” is filled with descriptions of paintings, landscapes and architecture that recall scenes from the distant past. Many of Proust’s characters are aristocrats whose pedigrees embody a near-mythical history, even as they exhibit the full range of modern foibles. In Proust’s novel, time is like an imperfect palimpsest, each layer revealing the strata beneath.