Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 24, 2009

SRC: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Swann's WayTechnically, I read this book for the Serial Readers Challenge, hosted by CarPoolQueen. Reading this series is kind of a hindrance to the overall goal of the challenge (reading as many series’ as possible in 2009), since it will probably take me all year to get through just this one!

Oh well. I learned pretty quickly that reading Proust takes patience, and getting through 20 pages or so in a day is doing well, so there will be time to read plenty of other books along the side. I’m going to try to read one of the next six books per month. I discovered that if I map out a reading plan and set a deadline, I make better progress.

What, then, do I have to say about Swann’s Way? For a book that I struggled so much to finish, I liked it a lot. It was unlike anything else I have ever read. I like this bit from the translator Lydia Davis’ introduction:

“…confronting the book itself is an entirely different, and individual, experience. One will have one’s own way of visualizing the narrator’s childhood bedtime scene with his mother, his visits to his hypochondriac aunt, his teasing of the servant Francoise, his embrace of the prickly hawthorns, his vision of the three steeples, and his first piece of serious writing. Swann’s agonizing love affair with Odette and the narrator’s youthful infatuation with Swann’s daughter Gilberte will be colored by the personal associations of each reader, who will likewise have unexpected memories, recalled by the unexpected stimuli, that will enable him or her to identify with the narrator in the most famous scene of all, in which the taste of the tea-soaked madeleine suddenly incites his full recollection of his childhood in the village of Combray and, from this, leads to the unfolding of all the subsequent action in the three-thousand-page novel.”

While summing up pretty much everything that happens in this section of the overall work, this excerpt also recognizes the strongest reaction I had to the experience of reading it – the feeling of identifying with the narrator’s thoughts and situations that arose in the story. The funny thing is that I read every book this way, taking to it all my own combined experiences and thoughts, hoping to identify with the characters I meet, hoping to agree with them, or learn something, or (the scary one) be challenged by them.

In Swann’s Way, I felt that all my hopes were fulfilled, perhaps more intensely than I am used to. Frequently I came across a passage (more like several pages) which contained a thought that seemed to have come straight out of my own head – something I had never fully articulated, but recognized immediately. These were not always huge, expansive thoughts – often they were simple little things, like this:

p. 143 “Suddenly I stopped, I could not move, as happens when something we see does not merely address our eyes, but requires a deeper kind of perception and possesses our entire being.”

While reading this, I remembered moments when I have been hiking, trotting along at a good pace, watching my feet most likely, and then have looked up and come to a sudden sliding halt almost in spite of myself, caught by a particularly beautiful vista, transfixed for a moment in sunshine and mountains and ocean spreading out all around me.

That memory, entirely different from what had captured the narrator’s eye, still drew me closer into the fabric of the book because the feeling of identifying with the writer was so strong. “This guy really gets me” – that type of thing.

These experiences, which demonstrated physically one of the main themes of the work, were one of the reasons that I kept plowing on, and why I’ll continue to read.

I of course have many other thoughts about the book, and about Proust as a writer, but I don’t feel that it is necessary to go into detail about every little thing. There are many more books to come, and then I’ll probably have to read a couple of books about the books, etc. For the moment I’ll let the subject rest.

I’m also giving myself a rest! No more Proust until March. 🙂


  1. […] Previously: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, and Swann’s Way. Possibly related posts: (automatically […]

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