📚 Swann’s Way (Marcel Proust)

Read In Search of Lost Time

In Search of Lost Time (French: À la recherche du temps perdu), first translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past, and sometimes referred to in French as La Recherche (The Search), is a novel in seven volumes by French author Marcel Proust. This early 20th-century work is his most prominent, known both for its length and its theme of involuntary memory. The most famous example of this is the “episode of the madeleine”, which occurs early in the first volume. The novel gained fame in English in translations by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin as Remembrance of Things Past, but the title In Search of Lost Time, a literal rendering of the French, became ascendant after D. J. Enright adopted it for his revised translation published in 1992.

In Search of Lost Time follows the narrator’s recollections of childhood and experiences into adulthood in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century high-society France, while reflecting on the loss of time and lack of meaning in the world.[1] The novel began to take shape in 1909. Proust continued to work on it until his final illness in the autumn of 1922 forced him to break off. Proust established the structure early on, but even after volumes were initially finished, he continued to add new material and edited one volume after another for publication. The last three of the seven volumes contain oversights and fragmentary or unpolished passages, as they existed only in draft form at the death of the author; the publication of these parts was overseen by his brother Robert.

There were a number of things that converged with me deciding to read the first volume in Marcel Proust’s epic Remembrance of Things Past / In Search of Lost Time. Firstly, there was mention of Proust in the BBC In Our Time episode on Bergson and time. Secondly, Stanley Kim Robinson mentioned his love of Proust in an interview. Lastly, the anti-hero of Damian Cowell’s series Only the Shit You Love is named Marcell Proust and although I felt I understood the association also wondered what I was missing.

I am not sure if I really ‘read’ Swann’s Way? I did not give up after the first few pages. I think it helped listening to the text. For me, Swann’s Way was one of those texts that lingers long after.

Meandering through the relationship of Swann and Odette felt like watching a car crash that you know is going to happen long before the point of impact. Although he comes out of it suggesting that she was not his type, it still feels like a case of one of those stories we tell ourselves to get to sleep at night.

Marginalia

[S]he spoke to Swann once about a friend to whose house
she had been invited, and had found that everything in it was ‘of the period.’ Swann could not get her to tell him what ‘period’ it was.

It shewed me finally, the new arrangement planned by my unseen weaver, that, if we find ourselves hoping that the actions of a person who has hitherto caused us anxiety may prove not to have been sincere, they shed in their wake a light which our hopes are powerless to extinguish, a light to which, rather than to our hopes, we must put the question, what will be that person’s actions on the morrow.

It was to me like one of those zoological gardens in which one sees assembled together a variety of flora, and contrasted effects in landscape; where from a hill one passes to a grotto, a meadow, rocks, a stream, a trench, another hill, a marsh, but knows that they are there only to enable the hippopotamus,
zebra, crocodile, rabbit, bear and heron to disport themselves in a natural or a picturesque setting; this, the Bois, equally complex, uniting a multitude of little worlds, distinct and separate—placing a stage set with red trees, American oaks, like an experimental forest in Virginia, next to a fir-wood by the edge of the lake, or to a forest grove from which would suddenly emerge, in her lissom covering of furs, with the
large, appealing eyes of a dumb animal, a hastening walker—was the Garden of Woman; and like the myrtle-alley in the Aeneid, planted for their delight with trees of one kind only, the Allée des Acacias was thronged by the famous Beauties of the day. As, from a long way off, the sight of the jutting crag from which it dives into the pool thrills with joy the children who know that they are going to behold the seal, long before I reached the acacia-alley, their fragrance, scattered abroad,
would make me feel that I was approaching the incomparable presence of a vegetable personality, strong and tender; then, as I drew near, the sight of their topmost branches, their lightly tossing foliage, in its easy grace, its coquettish outline, its delicate fabric, over which hundreds of flowers were laid, like winged and throbbing colonies of precious insects;

[R]emembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment

Criticism

School of Life

Proust’s goal isn’t that we should necessarily make art or be someone who hangs out in museums. It’s to get us to look at the world, our world, with some of the same generosity as an artist, which would mean taking pleasure in simple things – like water, the sky or a shaft of light on a roughly plastered wall.

Reading group: Bogged down on Swann’s Way? (Sam Jordison)

Meanwhile, it isn’t just the prose style, the long sentences, the great piles of subordinate clauses, the Mississippi-wide meanderings, the slow-flowing course of the narrative that might cause problems. You could easily be forgiven for taking against the narrator himself. At first glance, he seems a tremendous egotist and snob. Who is he to imagine that every aspect of his life is so precious and important that he has to share it in such detail? Who is he to suggest that his family know so much about life well-lived? Who cares about his precious hawthorns? Why does he make so much of social niceties and conventions? Why does it matter to us who his relatives do and don’t snub? Why should we care why?

Mind you, ChrisIcarus has a warning:

“If there are Guardian readers who have not yet swum in the deep ocean of Proust’s full masterpiece then I offer this advice: read no more than one paragraph at a sitting and no more than three paragraphs in a day. This is the CRACK COCAINE of art and if you want to stay on the sane side of Dionysian madness imbue this nectar sparingly.”

How to read Proust – A guide to getting through Remembrance of Things Past (Matthew Walther)

Proust should be read slowly, 20 or so pages at a time. (When you are a thousand or so pages in and cannot help yourself from pressing on to learn what Brichot has to say about the death of Swann, you will have reached the stage at which it is probably acceptable to lie down with Proust.) Sooner or later readers will discover that the novel unfolds not slowly per se but at something that approximates the pace of life itself — or, better yet, that “real life” is blissfully Proustian.

William C. Carter

I always tell anyone who might be intimidated by the many pages to be read that, although In Search of Lost Time is rich and complex and demands an attentive reader, the novel is never difficult. In spite of its length and complexity, most readers find it readily accessible.

I think he helps us to see the world as it really is, not only its extraordinary beauty and diversity, but his observations make us aware of how we perceive and how we interact with others, showing us how often we are mistaken in our own assumptions and how easy it is to have a biased view of another person. And I think the psychology and motivation of Proust’s characters are as rewardingly complex as are those of Shakespeare’s characters. Just as the Bard describes Cleopatra, many of Proust’s characters are creatures of “infinite variety.” Speaking of Shakespeare, Shelby Foote, in an interview, placed Proust in the top tier of writers he most admired: “Proust has been the man that hung the moon for me. He’s with Shakespeare in my mind, in the sense of having such a various talent. Whenever you read Proust, for the rest of your life, he’s part of you, the way Shakespeare is part of you. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I truly feel that he is the great writer of the 20th century.”

Oliver Munday

The novel’s obsession with perception is part of why so many people find reading Proust to be profound: the philosophical interrogation of time, the discursive meditations on art, the musicality of its structure. Yet beneath these lofty ambitions is the beauty of his descriptions. Characters, emotions, and ideas are all rendered with such precision that the reader never suspects a hierarchy. Take this view of a balcony: “I saw it attain to that fixed, unalterable gold of fine days, on which the sharply cut shadows of the wrought iron of the balustrade were outlined in black like a capricious vegetation.” These visual encounters felt like intimate revelations.

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