Review: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Well, it only took me nearly three months. Lucky I was reading but a seventh of Proust’s modern monstrosity. I could read it only in bite-sized chunks, pushing on until I finished a paragraph or two. Reading an ebook, the percentages ticked by oh-so-slowly.

The thing is, Proust’s prose is not that difficult. The words are simple. The settings and descriptive passages are clear. There are a lot of characters, but not so many that they are impossible to keep track of. However sentences, phrases, clauses (bracketed thoughts – and dashed interruptions) proliferate to create labyrinthine, exhausting paragraphs.

Swann’s Way, the first book of Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, opens in a sleepy haze. The narrator – who is never named – awakening finds that “I could not be sure at first who I was; … such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal’s unconsciousness” (I’d love to read his thoughts on jet lag). From this waking (in Paris it at length becomes clearer) his minds casts back to other beds and bedrooms, particularly in rural Combray, where he would holiday as a child with his family. Here he fears above all going to bed without the kiss of his mother. His family hosts dinner parties, including with a certain Monsieur Swann, with whom they eventually have a falling out. He wiles away his time exploring the countryside, including the two path’s to a nearby town, one of which they call Swann’s Way because it passes by one of his properties, where the young narrator sees and falls in love with Swann’s daughter Gilberte.

Then the novel switches, to a long section about Monsieur Swan and his affairs with Odette de Crecy in Paris. As they hop from party to party and “faire Cattleya” (their own lovers’ talk for getting it on) Swann experiences the elated highs and devastating lows of love, symbolised by a beautiful phrase of music he hears at a soiree one evening. A final section returns to the narrator now in Paris, as he longs to play with Gilberte in the city parks. So much, and so little, happens. The action on the page is mundane, yet it is all of life. There is a whole cast of fabulous characters, from the narrator’s older female relatives, to Francoise the maid who may actually be from the Middle Ages, and the eccentrics and social climbers who hang around the salons and parties.

Even in theme there is a not a lot going on, except everything. It is as little as much as a book length expression of the ideals of Truth, Beauty, Love and Freedom. It is an exploration of the life of the mind, and the elevation of life to art. The narrator is obsessed with it – books, painting, music, theatre – particularly the Renaissance and the Impressionist movement, and compares many of the characters to those he has seen in paintings. One particularly striking scene sees him walking beside a stream filled with waterlilies:

with a quiet suggestion of infinity, afternoon or evening, it seemed to have set them flowering in the heart of the sky.

It could exactly be a description of Monet’s view of the world.

What then kept me going? It was the precision and ornateness of Proust’s sentences and paragraphs, which contain whole worlds, like Madame Verdurin, “perched on her high seat like a cafe-bird whose biscuit has been steeped in mulled wine”, sobbing “with fellow feeling”; or the narrator’s grandmother whose “brown and wrinkled cheeks, which with age had acquired almost the purple hue of tilled fields in autumn”. Each is a complete story in its own right, such as his musings on the gift of an author:

for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which, only, we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the keenest, the most intense of which would never have been revealed to us because the slow course of their development stops our perception of them.

Or the power of a phrase of music:

Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is without existence; but, if so, we feel that it must be these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, are nothing either. We shall perish, but we have for our hostages thee divine captives who shall follow and share our fate. And death in their company is something less biter, less inglorious, perhaps even less certain.

I am not certain where this book took me, but I very much enjoyed the way there.

Gay rating: 2/5 for a briefly hinted at lesbian affair, a bi character and some rather queer steeple worship.

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