I’ve had a few false starts with Proust, but this year (2022) I was determined to begin Remembrance of Things Past. This goal was motivated by the short story Time Lost by Elizabeth Berridge. The story is told by a niece whose aunt says she is “leaving him [Proust] for my deathbed.” The aunt imagines herself “drift[ing] off” to the words of Proust. It’s a great image, no argument there, but that’s not what happens. When it comes to her deathbed, Proust is the last thing on the aunt’s mind. The story is a cautionary tale, ‘don’t put good things off.’ I needed no more, so in January I started the first volume.
I am obviously not an expert on Proust; no doubt there are many PhD’s out there on Proust, so here I am just a reader. First: if you have been putting off Proust: don’t. Second: if you want to read Proust because you think you should, then read him for the delights that await you. I am not going to rehash the plot. Over the years I’ve heard the madeleines reference so many times, that in a sense Proust became distilled down to that, and that’s a shame. The madeleines were a tiny part sliver of the whole idea of memory. Huge chunks of the book dwell on the elusiveness of memory and time: how the past can be ‘hidden’ in a material object.
The book opens with the narrator as a boy. Swann’s Way is essentially the childhood of the narrator, so we read about his family, his friends, his relations, his childhood holiday, influences. Snobbery and bourgeois values are weaved through the many relationships here. A significant character is Aunt Léonie who, after the death of her husband, retreated into invalidism. Even though she rarely emerges from her bedroom, she is nonetheless a tyrant. Friends and acquaintances are ‘dropped’ if they don’t show the carefully measured respect for her invalidism, and her loyal, fiercely protective servant, Françoise, simmers with resentment and jealousy when her employer pays attention to Eulalie, a servant who visits occasionally.
The Swanns dominate the novel: Monsieur Swann is referred to repeatedly as a somewhat problematic person, socially, (his “unfortunate” marriage) and over time his relationship with Odette, a courtesan, is detailed. I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intense description of obsession. Well, I’ll back up and say that Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is also incredibly intense on the subject. The sections with M. Swann were some of my favourites. Swann is a woman chaser. He visits houses of friends and when he does this, his hosts often wonder why he is such a frequent visitor, but it’s always because he’s pursuing one of the female servants. The references to Swann create a sort of mystique in the narrator’s eyes, and this mystique only increases when he eventually meets and loves, Swann’s daughter, Gilberte….
The narrator is an only child, and his fragile health sometimes constrained his desires. He develops a love of reading which is an intensely emotional experience. He notes “these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic and sensational events than occur often in a whole lifetime. These were the events that took place in the book I was reading.”
The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable by the human spirit, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which the spirit can assimilate to itself. After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, while we turn over, feverishly, the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to that state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid, and of a more lasting impression than those which come to us in sleep; why, then, 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. It is the same in life, the heart changes, that is our worst misfortune, but we learn of it only from reading or from imagination, for in reality, its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual, even if we are able to distinguish successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.
The narrator’s life is highly, leisurely, detailed. Many of the characters are so intensely described that it’s almost as if we know them. My copy is heavily marked with notes, and I can’t possibly include all the profound quotes that I chewed over repeatedly as I read the book. I should add here that I listened to this on audio (plus have physical copy), and for me audio was a very successful way to tackle Proust. I’ve read many Modiano novels, and Modiano also tackles the subject of memory. It’s not fair to compare him to Proust, but after reading Proust, I can’t help but conclude that Modiano presents a light version of memory. Also I read/listened along with Swann’s Way. Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past by Patrick Alexander. The book helped tremendously. Special thanks to Patrick Alexander for mentioning the Monty Python All-England Summarize Proust Competition. You can watch a sort clip here: