Harmony in Blue and Silver, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Even before Marcel Proust died in 1922, ordering iced beer from the Ritz on his deathbed, his monumental novel about art and memory was being dissected for wisdom on a stunning variety of topics.

It has been celebrated for its obsessions with everything from Norman architecture to optics, homosexuality, classical music, botany, tactical warfare, fin de siècle fashion and princely copper-pot French cuisine. (In one passage the narrator describes Françoise, the enduring housekeeper, combing Les Halles for the choicest cuts of meat, like Michelangelo in Carrara, “selecting the most perfect blocks of marble for the tomb of Pope Julius II.”)

Proust has even been hailed as a pioneer in the field of brain function (“Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” by Jonah Lehrer) and as surely the strangest self-help author in the canon (“How Proust Can Change Your Life,” by Alain de Botton).

So it’s remarkable that before now no one has focused at book length on painting, a subject that dominates his novel — “In Search of Lost Time,” or if you prefer, the more melodic Shakespearean “Remembrance of Things Past” — like almost no other.

As Eric Karpeles, a painter, points out, Proust names more than 100 artists, from Bellini to Whistler, in the novel and mentions dozens of actual works from the 14th through the 20th century, making the novel “one of the most profoundly visual works in Western literature.”

In its pivotal moments, paintings often play supporting roles, as when Charles Swann, a leading candidate for fiction’s most tortured character, wills himself into love with the faithless courtesan Odette de Crécy partly because she resembles a figure in a Botticelli fresco: “The words ‘Florentine painting’ did Swann a great service. They allowed him, like a title, to bring the image of Odette into a world of dreams.”

Mr. Karpeles has now helped translate the dreamlike visual passages of Proust back into the images that inspired them. His guidebook “Paintings in Proust,” just published by Thames & Hudson, makes up a kind of free-floating museum of the paintings, drawings and engravings that figure or are evoked in the novel. Even for those who have never scaled the 3,000 pages of Mount Proust, the book presents a lush coffee-table snapshot of the artistic spirit of Third Republic France as filtered through Proust’s keen sensibility, formed mostly in the Louvre, with excursions (real or imaginative) to Florence, Venice, New York and London.

But for Proust cultists, the collection of more than 200 reproductions will undoubtedly be greeted with the literary equivalent of a hosanna. It fills a longstanding gap in the huge shelf of books — including ones by Samuel Beckett, Edmund Wilson, Roger Shattuck and Gilles Deleuze — devoted to navigating and understanding the novel. While some of the its painting references are famous enough to call the images to mind — Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” details of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, “The Angelus” by Millet — many are not. And some of the artists mentioned, like the society portrait painter Jules Machard, have fallen so far from art history’s pages that even digging up reproductions would require detective work.

“This grew out of my own desire to be able to see these paintings in one place — and looking to see if such a book existed, I couldn’t find anything,” said Mr. Karpeles, who added that he had come across only a doctoral dissertation that focused on paintings in Proust and a book published in a small printing in Bogotá, Colombia, in the early 1990s with a number of black-and-white reproductions. “If you can’t conjure up the visual analogy that Proust is making,” he said, “then I think you lose many of the insights in the book.”

In late 2003, when Viking began publishing a landmark series of new translations of “In Search of Lost Time,” Mr. Karpeles, 54 — who fell in love with the novel as a high school student in New York and has studied it devotedly through the years — was spurred to action. “I thought, ‘Aha, this is when I’m finally going to do what I always said I was going to do, which is to track down these paintings,’ ” he said.

But the personal project grew so large that it became a professional one. Mr. Karpeles wrote a proposal to create a visual companion to Proust, twinning the images with corresponding passages from the novel, using C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s original English translation as revised by Terence Kilmartin in 1981 and D. J. Enright in 1992. Mr. Karpeles found a fellow Proustian, Robert Adkinson, an editor (now retired) at Thames & Hudson in London, in 2006 who agreed to take on the book, not an easy or cheap one to publish because of the number of reproductions and the cost of permissions.

Even when the permissions weren’t expensive, they proved complex. The estate of one minor neo-Impressionist, Henri Le Sidaner — his work is praised in the novel by a boorish lawyer, who prefers it to that of Monet — declined to participate in Mr. Karpeles’s project because of concerns that it would only remind people of Proust’s sly ridicule.

But most of the paintings woven into the novel’s pages are there because Proust loved them and used them to amplify descriptions and evoke moods. (The narrator, Marcel, an anxious traveler, compares foreboding Parisian skies to those in the work of Mantegna or Veronese, “beneath which only some terrible and solemn act could be in process, such as a departure by train or the erection of the Cross.”)

Second maybe only to music, painting is the vehicle used in the novel to examine the mysterious commerce between perception, memory and art. The art critic John Ruskin was one of Proust’s most important influences. Proust’s character Elstir, a Zen-like Impressionist thought to be made up of pieces of Whistler, Monet, Gustave Moreau, Édouard Vuillard and others, is important not only in terms of plot — Elstir introduces Marcel to Albertine, who will become his faithless love interest — but also in terms of ideas.

Elstir can come off at times as Proust’s caricature of the beret-draped Romantic, rushing to the beach at night, naked model in tow, to capture a certain quality of moonlight. But Elstir’s artistic ideal, to perceive things more innocently — or as Beckett describes it, to represent “what he sees, and not what he knows he ought to see” — is profound. And it goes to the heart of one of Proust’s main themes: that we are held prisoner by preconceptions, by habit and by the normal machinery of memory, which provides only a pale, distorted record of experiences.

At the end of the novel, the narrator resolves to devote the rest of his life to writing the novel that will become “In Search of Lost Time.” He stands at a party surrounded by many of the novel’s aging main characters and by the paintings of his beloved Elstir, which Proust has described so vividly it is easy to forget that they don’t exist somewhere, maybe in a room of their own at the Louvre.

But the insight that Proust has the narrator draw from such imaginary art seems as authentic and powerful now as it ever did: “It is only through art that we can escape from ourselves and know how another person sees a universe which is not the same as our own and whose landscapes would otherwise have remained as unknown as any there may be on the moon.”

Randy Kennedy
New York Times