Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 4, 2009

Premature Musings on Proust

I have wandered 92 pages into Lydia Davis’ new translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. I am, thus far, enchanted. The day I first entered the rolling hills of Proust’s prose I made it 15 pages before drifting into a pleasant Sunday morning snooze. He had begun by discussing sleeping and waking, and the description of the “winter bedroom” was the first image that I identified with:

Swann's Way“…winter bedrooms in which, as soon as you are in bed, you bury your head in a nest braided of the most disparate things: a corner of the pillow, the top of the covers, a bit of shawl, the side of the bed and an issue of the Debats roses…a sort of immaterial alcove, a warm cave dug out of the heart of the room itself…”

I curled more deeply into my own version of this bed, tucking the quilts closer round my neck, and turned the page. While the narrator was remembering the agony of trying, as a boy, to fall asleep without a goodnight kiss from his mother, I slipped into a dream about being a child in Rehoboth, NM. I was walking near the cactus garden at the entrance to the neighborhood I lived in, and I could hear very clearly the sound of cars rushing across the highway overpass, and the crunch of volcanic rock beneath my feet.

This experience seemed only fitting, and it set the tone of this particular adventure in reading. Proust’s words wash over me like waves on a beach, gently catching the pebbles of my interest and moving me ever so slightly, releasing and then catching me again, carrying me from image to image. I love the long, meandering sentences that pour forth in a quiet rush, sweeping me off into the tangents, side stories, and back stories that constantly wind new colors into the main thread of the tale.

Reading Proust is like hiking through a landscape filled with arroyos. Pausing at the top of one you gaze around, taking in the mountains in the distance and the narrow stripe of river that you’re aiming for. You walk down into the arroyo and your focus shifts to what is immediate – the sand beneath your feet, the prickly pear just ahead. Coming up the other side you once again gain a view of the grand sweep of land surrounding you.

For me this journey is of two parts – the actual tumble of the storyline, which winds back and forth and through itself, not getting very far but still making progress – and the more intriguing and personal gathering of images and moments that speak to me. (For the first time in my life I actually want a copy of the book, just so that I can mark it up with a highlighter!)

The narrator remembers the time spent in Combray during his childhood, introducing quirky relatives and neighbors and bringing back to life in his own mind, piece by piece, the daily workings of the village. For awhile he dwells in detail upon M. Swann’s visits and the effect they had on his nightly ritual with his mother. Later he ponders the immense impact the church – the building itself – had upon his day to day life. I left him most recently sitting in the garden on a Sunday afternoon, reading, and observing the curious way time managed to slip past without him noticing.

Sounds like boring stuff, you might say. I would almost agree, except that there is something wonderful and rather mysterious about the spell Proust weaves. I made a note the other day after finishing a section, striving to express the effect the novel had upon me. I wrote, “There is something comforting about reading this – it’s like thick, flavorful stew, or shepherds pie. The words seem to cradle me.”

I haven’t read enough to begin to have theories or opinions on Proust’s style, or subject, or what-have-you. Hence the “premature musings”. However, I felt that it was necessary to make some record of this point in my exploration. Proust is effecting me in some way that I can’t describe yet, and I am eager to get to the top of the next arroyo and see what the landscape looks like from there.

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