I’m writing this in the beautiful Spanish Pyrenees, having spent a day doing little more than reading Proust and looking down, from an off-season ski-lodge 1000 metres above it, at a beautiful (though man made) lake.
I’d been reading Swann’s Way (the first volume of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu (check spelling)) for about a week, and had felt it begin to drag. No, that’s not fair. I’d read it slowly because I’d been travelling around northern Spain (and Andorra) and, quite simply, had more immediately engaging things to do than read French modernism.
Andorra is weird (that’s an aside), but the first volume of Proust’s rightly seminal novel is not.
I wasn’t certain what to expect, tbh. I was aware of comparisons with James Joyce and I was wary*, but I was also aware of his famed similarity to Karl Ove Knausgaard and was the literary equivalent of ENGORGED TO MOMENTS BEFORE POINT OF ORGASM. So, my expectations were confused and conflicted, but they were much more favourably met than they were when I finally knuckled down and read Ulysses about 13 months ago.
Swann’s Way contains three sections, the latter two much more enjoyable than the first.
The first one is about the narrator, the (to my knowledge) autobiographical “I”. This section is about his childhood in a wealthy rural town, with occasional visits from an intriguing neighbour, Swann, interrupting the narrator’s mother-obsessed daily routine. The world is rich and “privileged”, but the narrator (unnamed)’s attachment to his mother is clearly and deliberately excessive to the point of embarrassment, and the central event is an attempt to fulfil the narrator’s childhood need (age unspecified) to get a goodnight kiss from his mother on an evening when she is entertaining a guest, the aforementioned Swann. This, as narrative, is dull. But it is written with panache and, I suppose, poetry.
The second part of the novel is “Swann in Love”, and we are rushed back in time to the early twenties of this family friend, and his confused and conflicting love affair with a notorious young woman. This, imo, is great. Lots about snobbery, class, desire, love and sex. Lots of philosophical passages about “important” things and-
The third part ties together the first two sections, tightening the narrator’s relationship to Swann, his daughter and his wife (a “who will it be???” of disappointingly gripping dimensions) and exploring further the book’s discussion of love and memory.
Because this is a text all about memory. About its falsity and about its pleasures, about its ridiculousness and its importance, about the fact that it (dis)colours every experience one ever has.
There is philosophical rambling like in Ulysses, but here it comes amongst a story where I care about and am interested in more than one character. Swann is more charming than Leopold Bloom (though perhaps not as INTERESTING in a politico-cultural-21st-century kind of way), but the nameless narrator is so much more engaging than Stephen Dedalus** that the book’s boring bits are still, even, a bit interesting. There is the poetic philosophising of Joyce, and there are bits that are dry, here, but in Proust I was still interested in what was happening. No matter how close to being bored I was by the narrator, I wanted to keep reading so I could learn more about Swann. Which was not the case with Ulysses. There every chapter about Stephen made me want to consider abandoning literature for life…
Knausgaard, my real “favourite writer”*** is often compared to Proust, and this was incredibly striking when I began to read the P-man. The digressions, the detail (several pages about dunking a biscuit in tea), were familiar, but rather than being about the familiar lower middle class Northern European upbringing in the late 20th century I also had, it was about being super rich and double-homed in France a century before. Knausgaard has taken Proust’s techniques and applied them to a time and lifestyle much more familiar and recognisable to me and the other wanky self-described literati like me.
But this isn’t really the real comparison I found. It wasn’t cross-language echoes of Joyce or the precursors of King Karl I found most prominent in Swann’s Way, it was instead the influence of two comic writers whose tones and techniques I felt to be the most apparent: Oscar Wilde and Laurence Sterne.
The drawing room comedy that exists during “Swann in Love” was incredibly reminiscent of Wilde’s farces, whilst the overall tone of the book read almost like (a cleverer) Tristram Shandy. The digressive nature, the narratorial self-importance coupled with self-shaming, the wit, the frequent good jokes, reminded me of Sterne. Who is a writer I do find funny and do wish had written more than one novel and some scraps.
Proust (certainly in this translation) is readable, is evocative, is charming and is witty. There is poetry and philosophy, there are ideas and there is plot. Do not be intimidated by this, because even the boring bits are swiftly over.
Swann’s Way is an engaging and an entertaining read. I will definitely persist with Proust, and I will proudly admit that I like it because it is nowhere near as difficult as I had feared.
Ultimate comment: Worth the effort, despite the effort being less than expected.
* Last Summer I went to Essaouira (Morocco) to read Ulysses, this year I have come to the Pyrenees to read Proust – the second trip a MUCH BETTER DECISION.
** The arch villain of this blog.
*** If one must be so juvenile as to name one and feels inclined to forget BS Johnson, Malcolm Lowry, Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace.