Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Swann's Way

Swann's Way
Marcel Proust
Translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff

First Sentences
"For a long time I used to go to bed early.  Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say 'I'm going to sleep.'  And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Fran├žois I and Charles V."
Publisher's Description:
In this first part, Proust paints an unforgettable, scathing and, at times, comic portrait of French society at the close of the 19th century, and reveals a profound vision of obsessive love.  (First published 1913)

Dear Reader,

I always feel very daunted by the task of reviewing a classic; often, I will entirely skip writing anything about it, because I want to let the book sink in over days and months.  Then, I will simply let myself not ever write anything, because my life has been changed so profoundly by the book and I don't know how to put that into words.  This review might, then, not be exactly what I want to say - and, perhaps, I'll come back and add more later - but I wanted to get some words down, for now.

Proust is an amazing writer.  That should come as no surprise; he is certainly a member of the elite authors circle, and has been for centuries.  However, I didn't realize how accessible he would be, either.  Swann's Way is long and dense and took me quite a while to get through, yes, but I was thrilled by what he put down on the page once I had finally opened the book.  Proust writes so very true to life.  He seems to just get human nature.  His study of Swann's obsessive love, swinging wildly from one extreme to the other, was so apt.

I loved the layering of the book: how it went from the idyllic life in Combray to the story of Swann's pursuit of Odette, and then back to the narrator's (in academic discourse, he is often referred to as "Marcel", since most assume this is Proust's portrayal of himself) own yearning for the young Gilberte.  The book has this wonderful, cozy sandwiching feel, where the two stories ultimately intertwine to create a complex layering of people and time and places.  This seems quite appropriate, as Proust was writing a book which, at its core, examines the nature of time itself.  He questions whether time is truly linear or whether we simply feel that it is, when in fact it often folds back upon itself in our lives, in our memories, in our experiences.

Certain gorgeous writing still stands out in my mind after having closed the book: of course, the famous madeleine scene where a small taste of cookies dipped in tea recalls the Narrator to a previous time, and also a quite amusing bit where Swann attempts to catch Odette in infidelity, only to discover he has been lurking underneath the wrong window.  Proust's descriptions recall paintings, appropriate because art is again something for which the author felt passion. Combray was vividly illustrated in my mind, and I know I will recall certain pieces of this story - descriptions of places and events - for years to come.  Exactly as Proust intended, I believe.

I can still almost smell the cattleyas, taste the madeleines, and hear the Vinteuil.

I'd like to think more on this book, of course - it still needs a lot of time to settle into whatever place it will inhabit in my mind from now on.  For now, though, I am glad I was able to get some words down to express my emotions after reading this wonderful book.


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