Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

Proust’s great literary classic À la recherche du temps perdu is well-known among those who haven’t read it for two things: first, that it is really fucking long (who is Tom Perdue, and why is it going to take 7 books to find him?), and second, that the enormous hundred-odd-page recollection at the beginning is set in motion by the narrator dipping a madeleine in tea and eating it (I have trains of thought like that too, but I don’t write them down). Among a certain class of intellectual in a certain generation (neither of which I belong to, I think), reading Proust or at least pretending to have read Proust was compulsory. So I borrowed a copy of Swann’s Way (in the Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright translation) and set off to be blown away by an extraordinary work of literary genius.

Six hundred pages later, I’m a bit torn. At this point I have no particular desire to read the other six volumes, for reasons which will probably become abundantly clear, but I can appreciate the craft. One thing I can definitely appreciate is Proust’s command of language, which I imagine even comes through well in translation: the structure at both the sentence and multi-sentence level is evocative and well-handles (despite a multitiude of subclauses which often muddles the grammatical structure and makes the reader slow down). On technical issues, this is a beautiful work in a superb translation, rich in sensory detail and in expository whimsy. That’s the sort of thing I like. My problem with it is that this this display of mastery is in the service of very little indeed.

For Swann’s Way (and, as I am given to understand it, the entirety of In Searth of Lost Time) has no actual plot to speak of, but is cast on flotsam and jetsam of memories. The first chapter, “Combray”, was almost intolerable, because it seemed to go nowhere. Things much improved in the second and third sections, “Swann in Love” and “Place Names/The Name”, both of which had a cohesive strand running through them. i’m afraid the rest of the volumes probably more resemble the first section, and its dreamy, pointless ramble through memory. But the last two chapters were very enjoyable indeed.

You might argue that I’m inconsistent: I pan “Combray” for its lack of cohesiveness, and enjoyed The Mezzanine for largely the same reason! That maybe gets to the point of how this book can be enjoyable to people who are not me; those who prefer a ramble through childhood memories of nature and family circles to musings about shoelaces and milk cartons might feel completely opposite to my impression. However, I found disentanging (and trying to derive meaning from) Proust’s memoryscapes to be exhausting. Some of that might be subject matter, some might be the complexity of the sentance and phrasal structure, some might simply be how extraordinarily long the work was. I didn’t find the first chapter enjoyable at all, but I could appreciate the craft.

And, really, the second and third sections are well worth the read.

See also: Wikipedia.

Advertisements

About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: