Epic novels, such as Leo Tolstoy’s famously long War and Peace, can be both a fascinating read and a great achievement, though many would perhaps think twice before embarking on some of the absolute longest books in history.
Naturally debates arise over how exactly to measure a novel’s length, whether that’s through the number of pages or words written, the total number of characters used, or whether it can be made up of multiple volumes that still count as one book. However, according to the Guinness World Records, A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust is officially the longest book in the world.
Here we take a closer look at Marcel Proust’s tremendous tome.
A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust
Despite being split into multiple volumes, Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu is considered the longest novel ever published. Its title translates to Remembrance of Things Past (first translated into English as In Search of Lost Time) and contains nearly 1.3 million words with an estimated 9,609,000 characters. Each letter is counted as one character, and spaces are also counted as one character each.
The book also contains some long sentences – the longest being 958 words. This extreme sentence style is considered as Proust writing the task of thinking things through.
It’s obviously hard to summarise a book such as A la recherche du temps perdu, but essentially the book tells the story of Proust’s life and self-discovery, following the narrator’s recollections of childhood and his experiences growing up and falling in love in late 19th century and early 20th century high-society France, while reflecting on the loss of time and the pursuit of truth and meaning in the world.
Its contemplations on the transcendental potential of art, time, involuntary memory, self and loss means the work is often viewed as one of the seminal works of the 20th century. The mixture of high social comedy, formative years’ experiences and philosophy also covers subjects including class, homosexuality, antisemitism, psychology, botany and the sociopolitical shifts in postwar France after World War One.
The novel centres on the story of a man (potentially called Marcel) who is prone to obsessive love. He is a social climber in a district of Paris synonymous with nobility and high society. His gradual realisation that his own experience might be redeemed by translation into art becomes the subject of a book that unfolds at the pace of life.
One of the most renowned parts of the book is its take on involuntary memory with ‘the madeleine incident’, in which a memory of the protagonist’s childhood is conjured-up by the taste of a small cake dipped in lime-blossom tea. Such sensory memories are indicative of Proust’s artistic writing style.
Begun in 1909, when he was aged 38 years old, Proust finished the first volume of his masterpiece in 1912. He used his own money to have the first volume released by the Grasset publishing house in 1913 after receiving rejections from other publishers and editors. At this time, Proust planned only two further volumes.
Initially Proust paid critics to speak favourably about the book, but the second part of his work won international awards as soon as it was published.
Despite establishing the structure early on, even after volumes were initially finished, Proust continued to add new material. During the war years especially, he revised the remainder of his novel, enriching and deepening its feeling and construction, enhancing the realistic and satirical elements of his tale. This tripled its length.
Between 1913 and 1927 the full 7 volume novel was published, volume by volume. Living much of his later life as a reclusive semi-invalid in a sound-proofed flat in Paris, Proust gave himself over entirely to writing his masterpiece. The last 3 of the 7 volumes contain oversights and fragmentary or unpolished passages, as they existed only in draft form at the time of Proust’s death in November 1922. These were published posthumously, edited by his brother Robert.
The book was translated into English by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, appearing under the title Remembrance of Things Past between 1922 and 1931. Scott Moncrieff translated volumes 1 to 6 of the 7 overall volumes. He died before completing the last volume, which was then rendered by other translators at different times. When Scott Moncrieff’s translation was later revised (first by Terence Kilmartin, then by D. J. Enright) the title of the novel was changed to the more literal In Search of Lost Time.
C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s famous translation from the 1920s is today regarded as a classic in its own right, and is now available in three volumes in Penguin Classics.
In 1995 Penguin undertook a fresh translation of the book by editor Christopher Prendergast and 7 translators in 3 countries, based on the latest, most complete and authoritative French text. Its 6 volumes (comprising all of Proust’s 7 volumes), were published in Britain in 2002.
In addition to being seen as one of the most profound achievements of the human imagination, this huge and complex book also paints a comic portrait of France during Proust’s lifetime, and the striking characters of the novel loom large, such as Charles Swann and Odette de Crécy, Baron de Charlus, Morel, the Duchesse de Guermantes and Françoise, Saint-Loup.
A la recherche du temps perdu is considered by many critics to be the definitive modern novel, and it had a large impact on many subsequent writers such as Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. Even Marilyn Monroe was said to have 5 volumes of the book on her shelves and Sean Connery was said to also be a fan. Whilst some famous writers have conversely found the work dull, nevertheless, the novel had great influence on 20th century literature, and has been emulated and parodied ever since.