[82] Swann's Way (In Search of Lost Time, v. 1)--Marcel Proust

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Robert Skipper:
This post does not mention a madeleine
August 21, 2009

Last spring, Jeri and I went to France for Holy Week to visit some dear friends in their new home in the Loire valley, completely unaware that just north of us, about 44 miles away, we could have stumbled into the small, fictional village of Combray.  I say "fictional," because in the real world it called itself "Illiers" until Proust made it famous.  Similarly, Nick Jenkins (narrator of Dance) had barreled through a certain Cabourg at the end of WWII, before he understood what had happened to him.  You see, he had carried with him and persistently read À la recherche du temps perdu during most of the war, but only noticed the road signs as his convoy drove through.  He knew that Cabourg had served as Proust's model for the fictional seaside resort, Balbec.  Jeri and I, too, explored much of the countryside around Illiers, the real-life inspiration for Proust's Combray, without understanding that we stood on the outskirts of a world of fiction.  Illiers now puts on airs and calls itself "Illiers-Combray," perhaps because any educated person knows about the Combray--and, I suppose, because some backwater commune up north had already taken the name, leaving the good villagers of Illiers to squirm in helpless rage at the thought of their own literary nobility forever playing second fiddle to some simple Norman commune.  How Proustian!

This week's novel, Swann's Way, initiates another huge project: In Search of Lost Time, the seven-volume roman fleuve of Marcel Proust.  The title of Swann's Way refers to a flowery walking path or promenade around Combray that takes one by the house of Charles Swann.  The other, longer path, the Guermantes way, goes by a river, takes longer, and lends its name to the third novel of the series.  Swann's Way consists of three sections, "Combray," "Swann in Love," and the mysteriously entitled, "Place-Names: the Name." The first and final sections have a first-person narrator, one Marcel, whose presence, I suppose, will dominate the remaining novels.  "Swann in Love," however, while narrated by Marcel, unfolds with a third-person omniscience that I found very puzzling.  So far as I can tell, Marcel hardly knew M. Swann.  In part one, Marcel paints a portrait of his own childhood in which Swann meant little more than some inconvenient person whose occasional visits triggered Marcel's bedtime rituals.  In part three, Swann became an almost mythic figure in Marcel's adolescence, due to a combination of a falling out that had occurred in the interim with Marcel's family plus the maturing of a childhood friendship between Marcel and Swann's daughter, Gilbertte, into a teenage infatuation.  Swann's role, in this final section, because of the socially determined distance between them, lifted Swann from the ordinary into the legendary.  The middle section--apparently told by Marcel with a divinely intimate knowledge of Swann's innermost soul--presents something of a puzzle.  Marcel could not possibly have known what he reveals, yet those revelations--so perfect, so intricate, so merciless--seem to certify their own truthfulness.

Proust has a reputation for difficulty.  I've heard several people say they couldn't "get through" Swann's Way.  I would say that, like all authors, Proust has a voice that you must accustom yourself to hearing, whereupon it becomes comfortable.  I suspect that most people find it  so hard because it demonstrates-by-showing the immense complexity of our experience.  Experiences don't just happen in isolation, but connect almost magically with the rest of one's life--past, present, future--in an almost fractal interweaving of memory, resemblance, and expectation.  Thus, a truly honest telling of, say, a simple conversational exchange at a dinner party would necessarily include not only words and gestures, but also the intentions behind the speaker's words; the inevitable gaps between meaning, expression, and interpretation; the deliberate lies, omissions, suppressions of impulse, calculations, improvisations, over- or understatements, and snubs; the unconscious oversights, misunderstandings, and self-deceptions; and the corresponding inner life of the audience, who, because forever barred from the speaker's interiority, must interpret the words and gestures from within his or her own utterly separate, monadic world of experience.  Reading Proust, one comes to see how rich the barest experience becomes in memory, as it carries with it myriad unbidden associations, which we can neither suppress nor call forth at will.  Buried within an incredible, eight-page description of a short musical phrase Swann hears at a concert, Proust says, "Even when he was not thinking of the little phrase, it existed latent in his mind on the same footing as certain other notions without material equivalent, such as our notions of light, of sound, of perspective, of physical pleasure, the rich possessions wherewith our inner temple is diversified and adorned.  Perhaps we will lose them, perhaps they will be obliterated, if we return to nothingness.  But so long as we are alive, we can no more bring ourselves to a state in which we shall not have known them than we can with regard to any material object, than we can, for example, doubt the luminosity of a lamp that has just been lit, in view of the changed aspect of everything in the room, from which even the memory of the darkness has vanished....Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is inexistent; but if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, must be nothing either.  We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate.  And death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable." (p. 346)

I suppose I could best describe Swann's Way as a masterpiece of phenomenology.  Proust describes experiences as experienced, invoking associations and memories without offering any theory as to how they explain the experience.  He assumes no theory of childhood trauma, or neurosis, or chemical imbalance.  He simply stands in the middle of the experience and surveys its vicinity.  So, I would not call Proust difficult.  I would say he succeeded in conveying, through words alone, full experiences--something I would have thought impossible to do.  Words, after all, consist of letters; experiences don't.  Yet somehow Proust can make you know what it feels like to exist in a certain place and time, embodied, conscious, and awash in the flow of affect.  But he does not limit himself to the interior realm.  He also places his characters within their objective context, juxtaposing inner and outer with such ironic effect one can't help but laugh.  In fact, I found the book very, very funny throughout.  I've almost concluded that if one writes about the human experience with pitiless honesty, wide-eyed clarity, patient thoroughness, and love, one must thereby write comedy.

In short, I thought Swann's Way astounding.  In my limited experience, it stands alone, sui generis, perhaps comparable to Ulysses or to War and Peace in the audacity of its project, but totally unique in its execution.  I would not recommend it to everyone, since it requires a certain frame of mind to truly love it: a combination of patience and concentration, of empathy and consent to that inevitable cringing embarrassment upon recognizing one's own ridiculousness mirrored back by a Swann or by a Marcel, and above all a sense of mortality and the preciousness of embodied self-consciousness.  I could not have truly enjoyed it even last year, but just now I think it a powerfully affecting, near-perfect work of art.  If you want to try it out, you couldn't go far wrong by reading the opening section of "Combray" (about 45 pages), or, more ambitiously, by reading "Swann in Love" (about 190 pages) by itself.  But, of course, both of those excerpts take on their full significance only as part of a larger context.

P.S.: Many variations exist among available editions of In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past).  I have an edition that Chip assures me outshines all others.  C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin translated it into English, D. J. Enright revised it, and Modern Library published it.  The popular three-volume gray paperback edition does not contain the Enright revision, and so may have some awkward phrases or archaisms.  I haven't compared them.




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