Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Random House. Three vols. $75.
When Marcel Proust (1871-1922) ''retired'' to that custom-built cork-lined bedroom to spend the last years of his life completing his epochal seven-volume novel, the act was really only a logical extension of the eccentric and reclusive behavior long indulged by this most singular of all great writers. A sedulous social climber and the very incarnation of insecurity, Proust nevertheless, by his exemplary self-dedication and persistence, made himself into something very like a hero of art.
He had planned and worked on his novel ''A la Recherche du Temps Perdu'' (''In Search of Lost Time'' is the literal translation) for nearly 20 years before its first volume, ''Swann's Way,'' appeared in 1913. Though the outbreak of world war, of course, drew attention away from this apparent breakthrough in fiction, the succeeding volumes quickly fired the imaginations of sympathetic readers. There have always been detractors who find the novel's introspective concern with aesthetic growth slow-paced, yet this painstaking portrait of an artist is, for most readers of serious fiction, the ultimate roman-fleuve (serial novel) - the work that virtually ushered in the modern novel, and has profoundly influenced writers as dissimilar as Faulkner, Woolf, and Camus.
The novel is given form by the attempt of its narrator, identified, near the conclusion, as ''Marcel,'' to reconstruct in detail his life from childhood through middle age. The effect of this reconstruction is Marcel's realization that he has pursued ''false'' goals (romantic love, social success), and his emergence as the serious artist who will now recast his total life experience as fiction.
The choices that confront Marcel are embodied in unforgettably rendered places and people. ''Swann's Way,'' that first volume, and ''The Guermantes Way, '' the third, are the sites, respectively, of the newly powerful bourgeois class and the obsolescent landed aristocracy. Besides Paris, the settings include the village of Combray where Marcel's family vacations, the resort of Balbec where first love and first disllusionments overtake him, and the Faubourg St. Germain, enclave of that high society which obsesses him.
Most prominent among the many dozens of characters are those who most powerfully impress the ever-observing Marcel. The Jewish businessman Swann and his coy inamorata Odette stimulate his first awareness of sexuality. The Baron de Charlus, that striking image of depravity allied with elegance and power, represents the enervated core beneath the dazzling veneer of the aristocrats' world. Marcel's beloved grandmother and, in a different way, his family's cantankerous old servant Francoise keep him anchored to the ''way'' of his parents. The composer Vinteuil shows the young artist that his ''way'' to success will surely be arduous.
The essentially dramatic presentation of ideas about society and art does balance a concern with the subjects of time and memory that is virtually expository - though Proust's continual emphasis on character expresses vividly the way people change in our perceptions of them and in life. The novel is firmly grounded in the temporal. The rise of the bourgeoisie, the progress of the Dreyfus affair, and the threatened onset of war - all these demonstrate the chaotic fluidity to which human experience can be vulnerable - and justify Marcel's belief that the past, sure to escape us otherwise, must be ''recaptured'' through the willed exercise of memory.
An uncompromisingly analytical novel, then - and yet this is a work distinguished and enlivened by a number of memorable episodes and extended scenes. The best known incident is the occasion on which a small cake, ''petit madeleine,'' dipped in tea and eaten, triggers memories of Marcel's youth - and, in effect, opens the door to the bulk of the novel. An impression of Marcel's extreme sensitivity emerges from the scene in which he begs his mother to leave her dinner guests and come upstairs to kiss him goodnight.
The seaside scenes at Balbec introduce Marcel to ''sophistication,'' and provide his first glimpse of Albertine, the semifaithful great love of his adolescence and early manhood. Those in the privileged ''world'' of the Guermantes - crowded, amazingly skillfully handled scenes, rich in comic detail - show the confused, self-indulgent dissipation of energies from which Marcel will eventually rescue himself. So do the later episodes, especially in Volume 4 , ''Sodom and Gomorrah,'' which reveal, first, the depths of Charlus's degradation, then, the unworthiness of Albertine. And, for those who'll stay with the novel, there is the surprising intensity and dramatic power of the final volume, ''Time Regained,'' dominated by a lengthy, plainly authorial, backward look at the work's welter of themes, and a final explanation of Marcel's/Proust's method of ''recapturing'' his past.
This great work has been available for over 50 years in the celebrated English version published shortly after Proust's death by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, who translated only the first six volumes before his death; the seventh was translated in 1930 by the English novelist Stephen Hudson. Terence Kilmartin, author of the present version, which is not, he emphasizes, a completely new translation, gives three reasons for having ''revised'' Moncrieff. The most important and persuasive is his assertion that Moncrieff worked from a ''notoriously imperfect'' original edition, made so by Proust's eccentric habits of composition and especially revision. This edition has since been supplanted by the essentially authoritative ''Pleiade edition'' of 1954. Kilmartin used this text hand in hand with Moncrieff's English version.
Kilmartin also claims (reason two) that Moncrieff frequently ''bowdlerized''; Kilmartin's own versions of sexual scenes are more explicit in physical details but not in feelings, yet the point remains that, in comparison even with other writers of his time, Proust is basically restrained and reticent.
There is something to Kilmartin's (reason three) claim that he has ''simplified'' Moncrieff's stiff Latinate prose. This needed doing, considering also the Proustian penchant for long ''labryinthine'' sentences.
For example, here's a Kilmartin sentence: ''Only the desire that she aroused in others, when, on learning of it, I began to suffer again and wanted to challenge their possession of her, raised her in my eyes to a lofty pinnacle.'' In Moncrieff's version, there's a comma after ''Only,'' ''others'' is ''other people,'' ''on learning of it'' is ''upon hearing of it,'' ''again'' is ''afresh ,'' ''wanted'' is ''was impelled,'' and ''eyes'' is ''sight.'' The sentence has, in the present translation, been made more colloquial, but not, I submit, more clear. I compared about three dozen passages, and found nothing much different from the above. There are reorderings of material, particularly in Volume 7, and restorations. The best of these, to be found in an ''Appendix'' following Volume 2, is the tale of the Princesse de Guermantes's pointless passion for the woman-hating Charlus. ''Addenda'' and ''Notes'' are sensibly minimal. A detailed ''Synopsis'' with page references is extremely helpful.
The three volumes in which Proust's seven are here contained are sturdily bound and unpretentiously handsome. If you remind yourself that a book is a lifetime investment, you may not find the price all that excessive.
I do hope readers other than reviewers and bookclub inductees will be able to afford Kilmartin's version. Its great virtue, its easy readability overall, may well dispel for all time the myth that ''Remembrance of Things Past'' is prolix and dull. On balance, this is almost certainly the Proust for our time.