When I was young, I used to go to the public library and head straight for the “P” aisle in the fiction section. Then I would wander through the stacks until I came to Proust. I would gaze with awe at the seven volumes of the work that was called, at that time, Remembrance of Things Past. I would take a volume off the shelf, leaf through it, and put it back. The strange sounding titles, Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, The Sweet Cheat Gone, seemed to me like the chronicle of some secret world; a world that I could experience if I just read the novel. However, I never checked out any of the books. The thought at the time of reading a novel that long seemed too daunting. I said to myself, someday I will read it. Someday.
Someday came about five years ago when I took a class on Proust, specifically on the novel- within-a-novel which appears in the first volume. The first volume is entitled Swann’s Way, and the novel-within-a-novel is titled “Swann in Love”. I took the class as part of a personal effort to become proficient in the French language, a language that I had studied in college, but then neglected for years. I struggled through “Un Amour de Swann”, but when I finished it I was hooked. The characters, the writing, the discussions of art and literature were something that I had not seen before in another novel.
After I finished “Swann in Love” I went on to read the entire first volume, then the second, and then finally the entire novel. Many people read Swann’s Way and then give up, because it takes some effort to read Proust. The prose style is something that you have to get used to. Once you do, however, you find it a thing of enjoyment. The long, convoluted sentences that span multiple pages are at first difficult to follow, but soon they become something to look forward to. The pace of the novel is stately and measured. During the course of the narrative, when the protagonist encounters a rose (or any other flower, for that matter), he will stop not only to smell it, but also describe it in great detail. And if the flower is a Hawthorn, well:
And then I returned to the Hawthorns, and stood before them as one stands before those masterpieces, which, one imagines, one will be better to ‘take in’ when one has looked away for a moment at something else, but in vain did I make a screen with my hands, the better to concentrate upon the flowers; the feeling they aroused in me remained obscure and vague, struggling and failing to free myself, to float across and become one with them.
In short, if you are going to read Proust, you need to throttle back almost to idle. If reading Kerouac’s On The Road is like driving a fast car at breakneck speed cross-country, then reading Proust’s novel is like settling back in a horse-drawn carriage for a leisurely amble toward the sea. This is not a bad thing, just a shift in gears.
Before we get into the detail of Swann’s Way, 1et’s take an overall look at the seven volumes of the novel and how they relate to each other. The only way you can discover this is by reading the work from beginning to end, and then the architecture of the books makes sense. But if you are starting out with volume one, you are going to spend a significant amount of time reading the entire novel. It might be nice to get a sense of where you are going, so that when you reach the end, you will have a better insight into what the work means.
First and foremost, the series of volumes that comprise In Search of Lost Time, as it is now called, follows the growth of the protagonist, M. (also identified as Marcel in one section of the work), from his childhood at Combray through his seaside vacations at Balbec, culminating in his excursions into the literary and social world of Paris. He falls in love, experiences its joys and agonies, and then the freedom that comes with time and forgetfulness after love ends. The novel encompasses World War One and its aftermath, and addresses one of the great political events of its day, the Dreyfus Affair. Along the way, M. struggles to establish himself as a writer. He has always had the desire to write a great work of literature, but his indolence and lack of self-confidence prevent him. Finally, near the end of the last volume, he experiences a series of unconscious memory flash-backs. These bring back events from his past with such clarity that he realizes that he can mine his past and transform it into compelling fiction. He decides to write the massive work that we have just read. The novel thus circles back upon itself, the ultimate story-within-a-story. Proust likened it to the Mille et Une Nuits, our Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which was one of his favorite texts.
In Search of Lost Time is not composed simply of beautiful descriptive passages and interesting characters. The work also discusses major themes. Some of these are: the persistence of memory, the complexity and bitterness of love, and the preference of imagination to reality. Memory, we find, can be called out involuntarily and then used to serve art. Love, that is, Proustian love, is filled with jealousy and suspicion, and the desire for the lover to subjugate the loved one. No major character in the novel has a selfless, non-possessive love for another, and in fact love is often likened to an illness, which is painful during its course, and only “cured” by time. Imagination in Proust’s world always paints a brighter picture than reality. The young hero obsesses for months about seeing the actress Berma (a thinly disguised Sarah Bernhardt) perform in Racine’s play Phedre. He imagines the beauty and drama of the scenes. But when he sees the actual performance, although wonderful, it does not reach the levels that he had set for it in his imagination, and he is disappointed. Some of the major themes are discussed at soirees or at the salon of the Verdurins. The Verdurins are a nouveaux riche couple with more money than taste, and the members of their circle often serve as a foil for Proust’s ideas. The themes are also examined during the constant ruminations of the protagonist, M.
So this is what you are getting yourself into with Proust. Part philosophical treatise, part discussion of art and literature, part psychological analysis of love and other human behavior, In Search of Lost Time follows the history of France from the Belle Epoque to the aftermath of World War One, with the subsequent rise of the bourgeoisie and the decline of the aristocracy. Thrown in for good measure are wicked satires of the various social classes and their mores, and deft skewering of the pompous. All of this is framed by the coming of age story of young M, who enters the world of literature and art and struggles to make his mark.
Swann’s Way opens with the reflection of an older narrator looking back at how he used to fall asleep when he was a child, staying at his Great Aunt’s house in Combray, where his family took their spring (and often summer) vacations. He thinks back to that time, when sometimes he would drop off to sleep in an instant, while other times he would fall asleep, then wake up, and spend the night pondering some issue close to his heart. But his most anxious moments came when his mother was not able to come upstairs and give him a kiss goodnight. It is here that we see the fine line that separates the narrator from the protagonist known as M. The narrator is omniscient, is of mature age, and also has his own set of opinions on different characters, art, and society. M., the subject, wends his way through the story, and ages appropriately. I would place him at about eight years old in the “Combray” section of Swann’s Way. The narrator reflects back on a subterfuge that the protagonist pulled off to get his mother to give him a kiss good night, and it is the stuff of 007 espionage mixed with commedia dell’arte farce. His mother is being detained, at the hero’s bedtime, over coffee with their neighbor, Charles Swann. The hero despairs of getting his good night kiss, so he writes a letter to his mother begging her to come upstairs for an important reason that he cannot put in writing. He then entrusts the family cook, Francoise, to deliver the letter, although he is unsure if she actually will deliver it. Finally, Francoise assures him that the note was delivered. He now lives in the agony of waiting for his mother to come to his room, and he will not be able to sleep until she does. He also faces grave consequences if his father discovers the plot and disapproves. He waits. Finally, his parents bid farewell to Swann and come upstairs to bed. M. is terrified: what will happen? Waiting on the landing, he sees his mother and throws himself upon her. Her response: “Off you go at once. Do you want your father to see you waiting here like an idiot?” He implores her again, “Come and say goodnight to me.” Then he sees his father’s candle. “Go back to your room. I will come.” His mother says. But it was too late. His father was upon them. M. mutters to himself “I’m done for.”
But something quite the contrary to punishment occurs. When his mother tells his father what had happened, the father, instead of getting angry and punishing the boy, says to his wife “Go along with him, then. You said just now that you don’t feel sleepy, so stay in the little room for a while, I don’t need anything.” More than just getting a good night kiss, he gets his mother to spend the night with him. His grandmother had bought him a collection of books by Georges Sand and others. The books were a little “old” for the young Marcel, but his grandmother would rather have M. read substantive and well-written books than light reading, which she considers to be like candy and bad for his mind. His mother unwraps the book Francois le Champi by Georges Sand, and reads it to him. Marcel is enchanted by the story, and also gets a sense of the style of the author. A near disaster becomes a literary awakening.
But the remembrances of these sleep events are a bit grey, as if they have faded into the black and white distant past. The next event in the novel turns these grey events to Technicolor. The narrator was beginning to wonder if his memories of Combray were dying out, if even some were already dead. Then, one cold and dreary afternoon he returns to his mother’s house in Paris. She has made him an infusion of tea, and has offered him a little cake called a Madeleine, which is molded to resemble a scallop shell. He unconsciously dips the Madeleine into the tea, and sips the tea from the spoon in which he had dipped the morsel of cake. Then: “no sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped…An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.” He attempts to recreate the sensation, with diminishing results. Then suddenly the memory is revealed to him. He used to take these little cakes dipped in tea at Combray on Sunday morning, when he visited his Aunt Leonie. Suddenly, he experiences a flash back of memory, where he can see the town of Combray in color. He can see the square, the flowers in Swann’s garden, and water-lilies on the river Vivonne. The petit Madeleine has opened the floodgates of his memory.
In the next chapter, “Combray”, we enter completely into M.’s early life, all the places vivid with colors and sounds. We now see the protagonist as a young boy in this country town, and the cast of provincial characters that populate it. Some of the characters are not just provincials, however, and they go on to span the entire length of the novel. We have begun our journey through M.’s life.
We then encounter a novel-within-a-novel, “Swann in Love.” The story takes place long before the hero’s childhood, so the narrator recounts it in third person. This story shows us the character of Charles Swann, a wealthy stockbroker who has exquisite taste in art and who is much sought after by the smart aristocratic set of the Faubourg Saint-Germaine. He is a personal friend of the Prince of Wales, and is a member of the prestigious Jockey Club. Swann, despite having much better prospects, falls in love with a beautiful courtesan, Odette de Crecy. Odette is not really his type, and definitely beneath his social standing, but he falls in love with her nonetheless. Swann attempts to possess her completely, but he cannot. This leads to several years of agony, jealousy, and despair as Swann attempts to dominate this woman who constantly deceives him. He likens his love at one point to a disease, and hopes that he will die to free himself from the pain. Finally, the love passes, and Swann is well again.
“Swann in Love” introduces the theme of Proustian love. It is love that is based on jealousy and the desire for possession. During the love affair, one partner is consumed with jealousy and suspicion for the other. The blissful moments are few and far between, as jealousy constantly interrupts the lover’s bliss. This model of love will be repeated several times within the span of In Search of Lost Time. “Swann in Love” also introduces “the petit clan” — the salon of Mme Verdurin, which is used for comic relief throughout the work, as well as a sounding board for Proust’s theories on art, music and literature.
The last section of Swann’s Way, “Place-Names: The Name”, moves the story ahead several years. The protagonist and his family are now in Paris, and FranCoise takes young M to play in the gardens of the Champs-Elysee, where he meets Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette. Swann and Odette have, surprisingly, married, and they live in Paris with their daughter. Swann is no longer in love with Odette, but he dotes on his daughter Gilberte. The protagonist develops a crush on Gilberte, and they become friends. The book ends with the hero observing the promenades that Mme. Swann — Odette — takes in the Bois de Boulogne, and admiring the elegant fashions that she wears, a scene that will be reprised in the next book.
Swann’s Way introduces many of the main characters, gives us a wonderful look at French country life in Combray, and sets the narrator on his course to become a man of letters. We taste the bittersweet fruit of Proustian love, and along the way we discuss art and literature. It is a truly remarkable novel that will draw you in on the strength of the characters and the beauty of its writing. This is just the beginning. The best (and worst) is yet to come.
(Painting of Swann by David Richardson)