Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, appeared in 1913. This year, exactly a century later, Proust enthusiasts, both individually and institutionally, have found all manner of ways to celebrate. The Morgan Library and Museum, for instance, put on an exhibition of “a fascinating selection of the author’s notebooks, preliminary drafts, galley-proofs, and other documents from the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France” — literarily serious stuff. For a Proust centennial experience equally literary but far less serious, why not watch the Monty Python sketch above depicting the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition”?
The situation presents the challenge you’d expect: contestants must relate, in fifteen seconds, the entirety of Proust’s seven-volume masterwork, “once in a swimsuit, and once in evening dress.” The attempt of one hapless participant, portrayed by Graham Chapman, runs as follows: “Proust’s novel ostensibly tells of the irrevocability of time lost, the forfeiture of innocence through experience, the reinstallment of extra-temporal values of time regained. Ultimately, the novel is both optimistic and set within the context of a humane religious experience, re-stating as it does the concept of atemporality. In the first volume, Swann, the family friend, visits…” But ah, too long. Watch the whole thing and find out if Michael Palin’s character fares any better at summarizing the unsummarizable, and, this happening in Monty Python’s reality, how quickly it will all cease to matter anyway.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.