Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book Notes: Swann's Way (Marcel Proust)


I actually read In Search of Lost Time back in college, although all I remember of it now was that I enjoyed the way Proust describes experiences and thinking the whole thing would work fairly well as a soap opera. Certainly, the secret lesbian underworld seemed like something from a soap opera. Not surprisingly, that stuck in my memory as well! Anyway, I figured I'd pick the books up again as I've been reading Chateaubriand's memoirs and wondered if there was any influence there in the Proust volumes.

The novel came up a few years back in a graduate seminar, in which we briefly discussed modernism. One of the other grad students asked if she should read the full work, to see what it is like. The professor laughed and said, "Well, sure! It's only like the greatest novel ever written!" I've not read as many novels as he has, I'm guessing; but, so far, it's the best one I've ever read.

Swann's Way (Volume 1) describes the narrator's childhood in Combray, as well as M. de Swann's great love affair (before the narrator was born) and gives some idea as to how Swann found himself on the outs with high society. Chateaubriand's Combourg is close to Combray, but the fictional provincial town in the story was apparently based on Illiers, where the young Proust summered with his family. Illiers has since been renamed Illiers-Combray in honor of the book, which one might call a "particularly French thing" to do.

When you start reading the novel, the tone is the first thing that strikes you- it's fairly languid and you have to settle into these massive coiled sentences, like puffs of cotton candy. They're actually quite pleasant to read, although in French they can be difficult. In places, Proust writes sentences that go on for over a page, and it can be hard to remember what the main clause was by the time you reach the end, especially if it's not your native tongue.

However, there is a real vividness to his observations that makes the reading worth slowing down for. Very good writers have a way of describing things that brings them into focus. Even with something mundane, they paint it in a way that I think, "Yes, it's exactly like that!" With Proust, there is a lot about how characters respond to certain sensations, memories, and dreams that strikes me as true. Or, at least, it reminds me of being reminded of things.

Indeed, the famous incident in Swann's Way (Vol. 1) with the Madeline details how a certain taste can bring up a mass of memories. I don't actually agree with the reading that all six books are entirely predicated on that one scene. Even here in Vol. 1, there's the entire "Swann in Love" story that couldn't possibly have been recalled by the narrator since it occurred before his birth.

Sometimes people use the word "Proustian" to suggest fictional total recall. What's interesting though is how often Proust's characters remember things incorrectly. Here, the narrator has to visit his childhood crush Gilberte frequently because he can't hold her face in his mind. Swann changes his mind about Odette nearly as often based on how he assembles his memories of her. Memory is seen as something creative, and eventually creative remembering will be the basis of the narrator's art of writing.

A scene similar to the famous Madeleine incident takes place in this volume with Swann's reaction to the music composed by the fictional M. de Vinteuil- Proust beautifully describes how the music washes over Swann without his understanding why. Later, the music brings him back to earlier and happier days with Odette. I wonder if the entire story is composed of memories unfolding into other memories, like one of those paper flowers that unfold when you place them in water.

For instance, this volume begins with the narrator describing how lying in bed as an older man reminds him of lying in bed as a child and yearning desperately for his mother to come see him, which recalls that his parents were dining with Swann, which eventually recalls the two routes through Combray: called Swann's Way and Guermantes' Way by the family. Swann's reduced status at this time brings us back to his earlier days, in which he met, and fell in love with the young girl Odette at the "Verdurin circle"; and how she was eventually found not to be up to his level of intelligence or character, eventually discovered while he listens to the Virteuil piece, now removed from society.

And, of course, the social lives in the story unfold into more complex and wicked private lives- there's a real sense of hiddenness to the story- I'm thinking of the major infidelities that will come up in later volumes, but also of Odette's somewhat surprising love affairs. It sounds as if she can hardly sit down in the park without cheating on Swann! He's a confusing character in that one wonders what in the world he's doing with this bubble-head, or socializing with the horrible snobs in this book. And yet, while he is refined enough to be friends with the Prince of Wales- a major point in his favor with all of the "circles", he is also a Jew, and an aloof one at that. Eventually, it is his aloofness- and ironically the genuineness that it masks- which alienates him from the dreadful Verdurin.

He's also ultimately jealous and possessive, which humanizes him quite a bit, but there's something almost unnaturally good about Swann, and it's worth noting that Odette, by comparison, can't live up to him. Should we take her as a poorly-developed female character, or a realistic character in relation to Swann, who is akin to the few genuinely sensitive souls we meet in our lives? It's hard to say, but I'm anxious to see what happens next.

5 comments:

Holly said...

This is a beautifully written review, in that it makes me want to read a book I have never been particularly interested in. Frankly, I've always been very suspicious that the claims of best novel ever were a sly form of intellectual elitism, perhaps stemming from the simple fact that most people could never, ever get through so many pages without being interrupted by life, and thereby losing the plot.

But now I'm intrigued.

Rufus said...

Thanks a lot. Yeah, when I read it in college, I basically read it like a soap opera. You know, yelling at the book, "Oh, no, she didn't! Marcel, she cheatin on you! Don't take that, boy!" It was like Redneck Proust.

But, I'd say it's definitely a lot more entertaining than some of its scholars might let on. I think the trick to it is just to read it for pleasure. It's not got one of those tremendously convoluted plots anyway. It's definitely not a thriller. But, it's really just fun to read around in- most of the sections work as stand-alone novellas, so you can read a volume here, or half a volume there, and get a lot out of it.

Here's another reader talking about it: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/article660853.ece

Note: The newer translation is also a lot better than the old one, which was called "Remembrance of Things Past".

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