Monday, October 19, 2015

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

This was many years ago. The staircase wall on which I saw the rising glimmer of his candle has long since ceased to exist. In me, too, many things have been destroyed that I thought were bound to last forever and new ones have formed that have given birth to new sorrows and joys which I could not have foreseen then, just as the old ones have become difficult for me to understand.

In a way, it seems like no one can ever read Proust the right way. The books, thick and numerous, which make up In Search of Lost Time are really the work of a man’s entire life—he never really did anything else of note, because he spent so much of his existence on this one narrative. But also, it feels like an attempt to capture a life in its totality, not just what happens within it, but the various impressions, images, feelings, and ineffable sensations that really characterize what it is like to be a human being. Seeing some of that stuff in print—stuff that you never imagined it was even possible to even put into words—is what makes Swann’s Way so fulfilling. Proust meditates on these experiences as he describes how a piece of music reminds Swann of his beloved, Odette:

Even when he was not thinking of the little phrase, it existed latent in his mind the same way as certain other notions without equivalents, like the notion of light, of sound, of perspective, of physical pleasure, which are the rich possessions that diversify and ornament the realms of our inner life. Perhaps we will lose them, perhaps they will fade away, if we return to nothingness. But as long as we are alive, we can no more eliminate our experience of them than we can our experience of some real object, than we can for example doubt the light of the lamp illuminating the metamorphosed objects in our room whence the memory of darkness has vanished… Maybe it is the nothingness that is real and our entire dream is nonexistent, but in that case we feel that these phrases of music, and these notions that exist in relation to our dream, must also be nothing. We will perish, but we have for hostages these divine captives who will follow us and share our fate. And death in their company is less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps less probable.

The famous symbol of Swann’s Way is a cookie—the madeleine which the narrator eats which brings the memories of his childhood, flooding back. The first section, “Combray,” is a compendium of these memories, which are as much feelings of the “divine captives” of impressions as they are of people and places. The second section, “Swann in Love,” is a more traditional narrative, which abandons the consciousness of the unnamed narrator to tell the story of his parents’ friend M. Swann, who falls deeply in love with an unsuitable woman named Odette. “Swann in Love” is one of the realest depictions I’ve ever read of what it’s like to be really in love. It seems undeniable that

[o]ur belief that a person takes part in an unknown life which his or her love would allow us to enter is, of all that love demands in order to come into being, what it prizes the most, and what makes it care little for the rest.

I read once that the best literature puts words to ideas you possessed but had never articulated—I think that’s true here. That’s from “Combray,” but it’s proven true in “Swann in Love” when a friend tells Swann he saw Odette walking around Paris:

This simple sketch was greatly disturbing to Swann because it suddenly made him see that Odette had a life which did not belong entirely to him; he wanted to know whom she had been trying to please with that outfit, which he did not know she possessed; he would promise himself to ask her where she had been going, at that moment, as if in the whole of his mistress’s colorless life—almost inexistent, because it was invisible to him—there had been only one thing apart from all those smiles directed at him: her walking under a Rembrandt-style hat, with a bunch of violets in her bodice.

In a way, Swann’s Way reads like an attempt to make real the lives of others, which are so often colorless and inexistent. We know the narrator, and we know Swann, not because what they do or say is plausible—the discerning eye of realism—but because their inner lives seem as rich, mysterious, and conflicted as our own. The prose is overstuffed, circuitous, digressive, but only because people are that way. Swann’s Way, you could say, is more real than realism.

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