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I want to read the In Search of Lost Time series out of order, because there is no good translation of the second book in my language.

Is it necessary to read the book series in order? Are they related? Do I miss anything if I read these books out of order?

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Yes, the books are related and are intended to be read in order. In Search of Lost Time is one work in seven volumes. Each volume is not an independent work. Rather, the novel is a developing story; the narrator is relating events from his life, and each volume furthers the narrative. Outside of specialized research or publication/translation contexts, it is rare to find the individual volumes being treated singly. The English Wikipedia, for example, does not even have separate entries for each volume. (The French one, however, does.)

It is true that some sections of the narrative are relatively self-contained. For example, Roger Shattuck points out:

The first two sections of Proust's novel, "Combray" and "Swann in Love," can stand separately and have earned many admirers.

Similarly, the second half of Sodom and Gomorrah (volume 4), and the entirety of The Prisoner and The Fugitive (volumes 5 and 6), constitute what is called "the Albertine cycle". Aaron Matz says of this cycle:

Despite all their connections to the earlier volumes of the novel, The Prisoner and The Fugitive (along with the second half of Sodom and Gomorrah) constitute a novel unto themselves, a total fiction.

However, from both Shattuck's and Matz's articles, it is clear that these relatively self-contained narratives don't map cleanly to individual volumes. In talking about the "first two sections of Proust's novel", Shattuck means the first two parts of volume 1, Swann's Way, which are thereby the first two sections of the novel as a whole; he does not mean (as one might assume) the first two volumes of the seven that constitute the entire work. And Matz likewise refers to the Albertine cycle as comprising half of one volume, and the two next volumes.

So a given volume of Proust's work does not itself constitute a self-contained whole. Characters recur from one volume to the next, and for the most part, knowledge of what went on in a previous volume is assumed in subsequent volumes.

Since Proust did not complete the final revisions on the last three volumes, some overlaps, repetitions, and inconsistencies occur, so the narrative isn't developed entirely in a clean arc. Proust's technique, too, isn't strictly linear. However, this makes reading the novel in order more important, not less; reading the volumes out of order will make the experience difficult and confusing (some might say "more difficult and confusing"), as you won't be able to tell whether some gap or inconsistency is due to the technique, the inadequate revision, or your having skipped a volume.

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People who want to read Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu / In Search of Lost Time should realise that it was not conceived as a series of seven novels but as a novel in seven volumes (though originally planned as a novel in three volumes). Even though plot isn't as important as in many other novels (it's definitely not a plot-driven novel), there are good reasons for starting with the first volume and reading the other volumes in order of publication.

  • The first volume already introduces many themes that will continue to be developed in the rest of the novel, for example, the narrator's view on art and aesthetics, the role of memory (including involuntary memory), the power of names (e.g. what they evoke versus what they turn out to refer to), the Dreyfuss affair, etcetera.
  • The first volume introduces or at least mentions several characters that later become important, such as Bloch (see also the Dreyfuss affair that is also often mentioned), Palamède de Guermantes (Charlus), Elstir (see the theme of aesthetics), Gilberte Swann, Charles Swan, Odette de Crécy, Norpois and others.
  • Since the novel expanded from the originally announced three volumes to seven volumes, some parts of the work that belong together got separated from each other. For example, volume 1, Du côté de chez Swann ends with "Noms de pays : le nom", which belongs together with the second part of À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, "Noms de pays : Le pays".
  • Even though the novel is not plot-driven, there are references back to previous events (e.g. encounters with specific characters), opinions that have changed, relationships that have changed, etcetera.
  • Even though the novel is not plot-driven, it still follows the narrator from childhood to a riper age.
  • Last but not least, one should simply not miss the beginning of the first volume: "Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. (...)"

The part that can most easily be read separately is the second part of the first volume, which has sometimes been published separately as Un amour de Swann / Swann in Love.

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