SWANN’S WAY [IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME VOL. 1] BY MARCEL PROUST

For a long time the prospect of re-reading Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu has terrified me. My first experience of the novel-series was so rewarding that I feared that it would not live up to the idea I had of it in my mind, that a re-reading would, in some way, sully my memories of it. It is a little bit like considering getting back together with an ex: sure, it is appealing, and it could turn out great, but one cannot help but think that one has perhaps forgotten all the bad things and retained only the good, giving you a false impression of what that earlier relationship was actually like. So, I have dithered; I have thought about picking up the first volume numerous times, only to succumb to my anxiety. Is it better to protect your positive memories of something or try to forge new ones? It’s a risk.

What eventually compelled me to re-read Swann’s Way was purchasing a different translation; this, I felt, gave me an excuse, gave me a way of defending the book, if I found it disappointing in this unfamiliar form. It’s a poor translation, I could say to myself, and so would be able to continue to hold dear my first reading. The version that I had read a few years ago was Lydia Davis’; the one I recently tried was Moncrieff’s translation, as revised by Kilmartin and Enright. I knew, of course, that Moncrieff’s original translation was considered beautiful, but suspect. The revisions, I have been told, corrected many of Moncrieff’s errors and pruned his flowery language.

However, twenty or thirty pages into Moncrieff’s book, I was struggling. My worst fears had been confirmed. Well, maybe not quite my worst fears. I liked it, of course. I hardly think it possible I could read any version of Swann’s Way and not like it at all; but I was disappointed. It felt prissy and fey and precious. As promised, it read beautifully, but it also read as though it had been written sometime in the mid-1800’s, rather than the early 1900’s. I tried to persevere but it was genuinely making me sad; I felt cheated, as though I had been informed that someone had only been nice to me in order to steal my wallet when I was not looking. I was now in crisis. I was wrong too, about my excuse; I could not just put it down to a translation issue and leave it at that. So, I pulled out my copy of Davis’ translation. And I compared them, briefly. They seemed very similar at first glance, but there was something about Davis’ version that drew me in, that made me instantly happy.

In order to understand why that is the case, one might point to the obvious stylistic differences between the two. Davis’s translation is tougher, and not as flawlessly elegant [although I would wager that she would say that this is Proust]; and, crucially, it does not read as though it was written by some smoking-jacket wearing fop. Yet I think my admiration, my affection for it goes deeper than mere style. As soon as I held the book I experienced a kind of comfort. The smell of it, the flash of recognition as I eyed the cover, the spine, the type, the bumps and folds and tears…all of these things conjured up in me an intense sensation, a sweet, almost nauseous feeling of nostalgia, and warm memories of the days I had spent with the book, with this specific copy.

Photo on 25-01-2015 at 11.37

It struck me, as I read on with complete calmness and joy, that my relationship with this book is itself Proustian. Towards the end of the series, in Time Regained, if I recall correctly, Marcel writes about how the most intense experiences are those that are, in a sense, layered. He uses, I think, the example of music. A piece of new music may be beautiful, one may appreciate the beauty of it, but one’s emotional response will be greater if that specific piece is in some way personally connected to you, if it evokes some feeling or memory; it is, for Marcel, the combination of memory – or the mind or intellect – and the physical object or world that is significant. Of course, there is a more famous example of this idea, which involves Marcel eating a little cake, a madeleine, with his tea, the taste of which reminds him of his childhood. So, in this way, my original copy of Swann’s Way has become a madeleine for me.

On that madeleine, it is often thought to appear in the text at the very beginning. It does not, however. It actually turns up some fifty pages into Swann’s Way, after the almost equally famous mother’s kiss episode. One of the most pleasing things about re-reading a book is how much richer, or deeper, one’s understanding becomes. You are able, a second time around, to move forward and back at will, because you know the story, you know where it is going. This allowed me to make a connection, maybe a tenuous one, between the mother’s kiss episode and Swann in Love [the novella in the centre of this volume] and Marcel’s relationship with Albertine much later in the series. Young Marcel is desperate for his mother to give him a kiss goodnight, considers himself unable to sleep unless she does so; and eventually he gets out of bed in order to go to her. She is angry, because she wants him to be independent. It stuck me that this kind of behaviour, this neediness, this being prepared to anger the object of your affection, is not particular to mummy’s boys, but is also an aspect of romantic love. For example, Swann finds himself behaving in exactly this kind of manner; he knows that it is not in his long-term interests to badger Odette, but he cannot help himself.

It is my understanding, based on a large amount of reviews and articles, that many readers give up on Proust sometime during Combray, the first section of Swann’s Way. Although I like it very much I can understand why some people would bail on it, why they would find it problematic. Like Pynchon with Gravity’s Rainbow, Proust does not let you find your feet, but instead immediately drops you into the toughest part of his entire work. Combray is roughly 190 pages long, and is entirely plotless; it is frequently lovely, and funny, but is also occasionally tedious. However, despite being plotless it isn’t pointless. It is significant, I think, that Proust begins Combray with a discussion of sleep and, more importantly, waking; indeed, he writes that upon waking he would, in a sense, recreate his room, would bring it back, would piece it together bit by bit…first the bed, then the lamp, the walls…etc. This is exactly what he is doing with his narrative in this first section; he is forming it, he is, in a non-linear fashion, just like when one opens one’s eyes after sleep and bring back one’s bedroom in no particular order, pulling together the bones of the major themes and stories from the whole of In Search of Lost Time. So, he references Swann and Odette, he hints at his own future love troubles, he introduces his family, and Vinteuil, and mentions the Baron de Charlus, and Balbec, and so on. If you have not read all six volumes before you would not notice that he is doing this, nor would you understand the significance of the references, but as someone re-reading the work Proust’s intention becomes clear.

As already discussed, In Search of Lost Time is, amongst other things, about memory, and this scattershot opening section is an attempt at recreating how memory functions. Combray is strangely out of time; it is never made clear how old Marcel is at any one time, even though it is clear that he is not always the same age; likewise, one does not know what year, or years, the events are taking place. This is, indeed, the nature of memories; they are not time-stamped and not coherently ordered. Furthermore, they do not come to us as fully formed narratives, or stories, they come piecemeal, or as snapshots, or moments or fragments. For 190 pages Proust sorts these fragments, he examines them, and then, over the course of the following sections and volumes, he puts the pieces in order, he reveals the full picture, he, essentially, works these fragments into a coherent narrative. In this way I find Combray fascinating; and it is entirely justified to begin with it, even though it could turn people off.

That is not to say that there are no straightforwardly entertaining anecdotes and passages and insights or ideas, there are many of them. I particularly enjoyed the snobbish Legrandin, who doesn’t want to admit to having a sister in Balbec so as to avoid having to introduce her to Marcel; when the boy’s father asks Legrandin if he knows anyone in Balbec, he answers ‘I know everyone and I know no one.’ I liked Mademoiselle Vinteuil and her lesbian lover and what that, according to Proust, reveals about sadism. Marcel watches the two women through a window; they are carousing in front of Monsieur Vinteuil’s picture, who we are told disapproved of their union, and the lover threatens to spit on it. This leads Proust to discussing how sadists are not evil, because they must know what good is, must actually be good to some extent, in order to get a thrill from doing bad.

There are also some lovely little asides concerning Swann; such as when the aunt is said to consider any high-ranking society person as diminished if he or she knows Swann, rather than, as one would expect, it being the case that Swann knowing this person raises him in her estimation. My favourite, however, is the grandmother, who will not present someone, who has an interest in volcanoes, with a picture of Vesuvius, but will give him a painting of it; she will not buy someone a brand new chair, but an antique, even if it functions much less successfully as something to sit on. The idea, which I have already touched upon at the beginning of this review, is that the more layers of meaning a thing has, the greater it is, so that a chair that has a history is preferable to an ordinary chair, and a painting of a volcano more worthwhile than a photograph of it; it is a kind of embellished reality.

After Combray comes Swann in Love, the events in which, however, take place some time before. As intimated, this section is much easier to read than the one that preceded it. It is essentially the story of Swann’s relationship with the cocotte Odette de Crecy, who, Combray already informed you, he eventually marries, and who was considered to be, by Marcel’s family, a bad sort, so much so that they went to some lengths to avoid meeting her. [You will also know that it was suspected that Odette had an affair with the Baron de Charlus]. In Swann in Love, Proust, appropriately enough, bearing in mind the title, makes many charming observations about what it means to be in love, how one comes to love certain people, etc. More interesting, however, is the way that he shows how the dynamics of a relationship can change. Initially, Odette does all the chasing; she wants to catch Swann and, consciously or not, her traps are baited with girlish modesty; she appeals to his manly pride, she positions herself as the clearly inferior, silly, and love-stricken, little girl. Swann falls for it, and falls for her. Yet once bitten by love, once the toxin has seeped into his blood, he finds that it somehow transfers all the power over to Odette. Being intensely in love involves a kind of abdication, involves a loss of power and position. Swann needs Odette, and therefore she holds the cards; she has, in fact, taken those cards directly from his own hands.

They are chronically ill-suited; Swann is refined, and intelligent, yet prefers earthy women; Odette is rather stupid, morally dubious, but classically attractive. A large part of Swann in Love is about Swann’s fears regarding Odette’s past [she may have put it around, folks] and her current fidelity. Somehow Swann, who famously says of himself that ‘I felt my deepest love, for someone who did not appeal to me,’ makes of such meagre ingredients a feast of intense suspicion, jealousy and heartache. I tend to find books concerned with jealousy compelling, for it is thoroughly destructive and seemingly irrational. It makes the subject of it miserable, and the object also. No one wins. Swann in Love brilliantly captures the agony, the hopelessness, the hope, the mood swings, the bitterness, etc. It is, in this way, very much like Othello, but is perhaps even more true than Shakespeare’s great play, in that most often the real jealous person is both Iago and the Moor, he pours pestilence into his own ear.

During this section, Proust, although not explicitly, brings us back to sadomasochism, which I have already briefly mentioned, and which is a recurring theme in the entire work. Jealousy is, for me, both sadistic and masochistic. There is within it the desire to master, and an enjoyment in causing him or her some pain or discomfort [which we justify to ourselves as either punishment for a perceived wrong, or as necessary in order to teach a worthwhile lesson – like when Swann asks Odette if she is ‘one of those creatures in the lowest grade of mentality’ who is ‘incapable of giving up a pleasure’]. There is also a kind of pleasure in one’s own pain and discomfort. Think about how the jealous person will linger over their evidence, will go over it multiple times, will embellish, will feed their suspicions, will strive to be proved correct in their theories. Proust says of Swann: ‘he took pleasure in pursuing his evil fantasies further and further.’ The jealous person enjoys the pain, otherwise he would stop, or make a break from the person whom he cannot trust.

Speaking of stopping, I really ought to bring this review to a close. Swann’s Way does include a short third section, Place Names: the Name, which is excellent, but not really worth discussing at any length.  In any case, in order to sum up my feelings about Proust, about this volume, and the work as a whole, I want to finish with a quote from the man himself. When discussing a piece of music [Vinteuil’s phrase], he writes:

Of course although human from this point of view, it belonged to an order of supernatural creatures whom we have never seen, but whom despite this we recognise with delight when some explorer of the invisible manages to capture one, to bring it, from that divine world to which he has access, to shine for a few moments above ours.

This is exactly what Proust – an explorer of the invisible – could do; he could capture those supernatural creatures with impressive ease and frequency, and deliver them to us.

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4 comments

  1. I’ve read the updated Moncrieff, so far the first of the three big volumes, and I’m interested to hear your comments on the effects the two different translations had on you. Once I had got past the Combray section I was fine. I dare say I will get onto the second volume but I find that Proust is not attuned to modern life – if I was rich enough to be able to sit and read all day long, I think reading him would be no problem at all…

  2. I understand what you mean by ‘not attuned to modern life’; I hear that a lot [Germaine Greer said the same thing], but I don’t agree. It’s up to each individual person how they spend their free time; some want to read, some don’t, but for those who do In Search of Lost Time is only six volumes. So, in effect, six books. That’s not a big ask. Those who give up on Proust, or avoid him while claiming to want to read him, do so because they choose to read other things, or choose to do other things entirely, but that is not anything to do with Proust’s work. Most ‘readers’ will finish way more than 6 books, or 3,500 pages, a year. That probably sounds really patronising, I don’t mean it to. The penguin translation is easier to navigate.

    1. No, what I mean is that because of work and family commitments I rarely have *long* stretches of time to read – often my time with books is fragmentary. I would prefer to have say several hours at a time to spend on Proust and just wallow in the language. Reading him in shorter snatches, I feel I don’t do him justice. But I *will* read the rest of the sequence! 🙂

  3. Yeah, that’s fair enough. When I first read In Search of Lost Time I did all 6/7 volumes in 6 weeks. When I tell people that they seem to think it’s some kind of extraordinary feat; but it wasn’t a boast; doing it that way was not about wanting to read quickly, but about being able to dedicate hours and hours a day to something I loved. Like you suggest, my belief is that it shouldn’t be read over months/years; I don’t understand how anyone could possibly remember all the threads of the story that way. I think that some books end up being dissed by people because they spend too long on them. In fact, the reason I am re-reading a lot of big books at the moment is because I anticipate very soon not being able to dedicate the same amount of time to reading.

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