You are here

Book review: <i>Swann's Way: In Search Of Lost Time - Volume 1</i> by Marcel Proust

Image icon swanns_way.jpg18.96 KB

the cover of the book

If this was sent to a publisher this morning it probably wouldn't get bought. Let's face it. "-and you say this is one-seventh of the actual book, son?"


Despite being the most respectable English translation of Proust available (Montcrieff and Kilmartin edition), mine had a dustjacket like the laminex from a 1950s beach house. I suppose, with most classics, the safe option is either A- a print by an artist of the period, B- a classy photo of the author, or C- a classy photo of a windowsill or something. Either way, this yellow and orange Paul Klee headbutt aint doin' it for anybody.


Obviously Proust's seven-volume novel(-ish-type-of-thing) In Search of Lost Time is an undisputed work of genius. Writers far better than writers far better than me have written books about how great it is. With that in mind, I can only tell you what I personally got out of volume 1 and how much I enjoyed it. There's also the argument that, if classics truly deserve their status, they must continue to bear reading outside of critical and historical context, even if, to discuss them afterwards without said context, one runs the risk of sounding like the 80s talk show host on Fry & Laurie who interviews a Fascist about Hitler from the point of view of knowing only that he (Hitler) was famous at some point in the past, e.g. "So he was totally into the whole uniform thing, yeah?"


Um. OK. There's a young lad growing up in France at the turn of the century. His family are financially comfortable and relaxed inside the formal bounds of the lower upper class (there's hats and servants, OK? I was born after Pong.) They have relatives in Paris and the countryside, who they sometimes visit. The boy's family has a friend, Mm. Swann, who the narrator, as a boy, idolises. Then Swann, a rational, intelligent, charming man, forms an obsessive love for a gold-diggin' trollop from the (ew) upwardly-mobile middle class, and loses all his 'respectable' friends, including the boy's family.

The good

For a thick chunk of fiction without a traditional plot or structure, this never felt...ineffectual, I can say that. Part autobiography, part novel, part philosophical tract, it just sort of...flows out of the narrator, who tells us about himself and his perceptions in fine, fine detail, detail as fine as the lacy capillaries of a leaf. He traces his thoughts and memories back to the roots, and, to be honest, he doesn't mind how long that takes. He also describes the lives of most of the people close to him: His strange, self-bedridden aunt, who knows everyone in her village from a first-story window; his parents' friends, holders of soirees and caterers of an over-spiced recipe of UMC snobbery. And, most prominently, Mm. Swann - the narrator's idol, father of his childhood sweetheart, X-ed friend of the family, social butterfly with the soul of a poet, man of measure and sucker to a 19th-century video ho.

The last third of the book covers Swann's relationship with this unsuitable woman Odette, from beginning to (what seems, at least,) end. The section is told in third person but from the perspective of Swann himself. It's a compelling, slow-motion dissection of a doomed relationship, but it's also a complex, subtle categorisation of the thought processes employed by men to explore, delude, and ultimately (we hope) learn about ourselves and our lovers. There's plenty of femininity in there, too - Proust was obviously no stranger to the anima; through Swann's masculine P.O.V, a woman could learn a great deal about men from his pursuit of Odette alone. And that's not to mention the narrator's relationship with his mother, his maids, his childhood girlfriend, or his various female relatives.

OK, Tom, so it's long, French, girly and hard to classify, we get it. What else? Right, well, it also happens to be beautifully written, and I use that adjective with more care than unusual. I'm assured the original French has a music that this fine translation lacks, but nonetheless the prose certainly has rhythm, and the thing about rhythm is that it takes effort to pick up, but once you've got it, it informs throughout the senses. Proust's rhythms are bloody polished, I promise you that, from the beating of insects' wings to rain on a Parisian street, a rippling stream you followed aged six, and the rustling of bedclothes as you watch the morning sun climb the wall. Unlike that sentence, Proust's style falls somewhere between poetry and prose, just as the book itself falls somewhere between fiction and everything else.

Proust delineates emotional truth on every single page, via his perfectly (if not effortlessly) drawn characters, who will each remind you of somebody you know - always a sign of quality characterisation. With perfect poise, Proust wields his little brush and paints characters and the world with a craftsman's care for detail and the confidence not to paint fireworks when sparks will be more effective. Swann's Way really is a beautiful thing.

I'm not sure if I'd call it funny (though if released today, reviewers would undoubtedly describe it as "Shit-your pants hilarious! Like reading a funny book on the bus................................ON ACID! The other passengers tried to kill me! Although that may have due to my beard!") but, as Proust's self-awareness and other-people-also-awareness are almost tangible identities within the prose, there are definite moments of levity. Usually it's character humour, but when he can stoop to brevity, Proust is capable of prose like this:

"Poor Swann," said Mme des Laumes that night to her husband, "he's as charming as ever, but he does look so dreadfully unhappy...I do feel it's absurd that a man of his intelligence should let himself suffer for a woman of that sort, and one who isn't even interesting, for they tell me she's an absolute idiot!" she added with the wisdom invariably shown by people who, not being in love themselves, feel that a clever man should only be unhappy about a person who is worth his while; which is rather like being astonished that anyone should condescend to die of cholera at the bidding of so insignificant a creature as the comma bacillus."

The bad

There's no getting away from this, I'm sorry. Proust has the magic touch with descriptive writing, but his philosophical insights use really long sentences. "But Tom, surely that's a retarded complaint about a work of literature, what are you, Rupert Murdoch or something?" (You say.) But, (I reply,) how does a sentence TWENTY LINES LONG sound? And not twenty lines discussing that TV show you were watching last night, either; twenty lines, sans full stop, about the intricacies of human behavioural psychology. After a few pages of those, when you finally reach some dialogue it's like the soap squipping out of your hand in the bath. Combined with the carefully orchestrated rhythm of the prose, it can take five goes at a sentence before you make the fucker play, and God help you if there's some wanker on a cellphone in the background. Try this - Swann has been avoiding Odette, his lover, to prove that he can, on the basis she's become an addiction. Finally, he allows himself to visit her...

"The fact was that his idea no longer found as an obstacle in its course the desire to resist it without further delay, a desire which ceased to have any place in Swann's mind since, having proved to himself - or so at least he believed - that he was so easily capable of resisting it, he no longer saw any danger in postponing a plan of separation which he was now certain of being able to put into operation whenever he wished."

If you can read that once and explain it, then you're a lot more advanced than me. And that's one of Proust's SIX-line sentences. Of course, if you read it again (etc) to get the sense you'll find a needle-sharp observation in the haystack of clauses. Anyone who's tried to quit smoking will know exactly what he's talking about.

There's nothing else I can say to criticise this book that can't be said about any work of literature from a hundred years ago - it's full of towns you've never seen, anachronistic references, weird Euro upper-crust bulldust, and to top it all off the style bears little to no resemblance to Dan Brown. That's a joke, but I'd be lying if I said this didn't give me a sweat on, and I couldn't help but feel that maybe we have learned a little bit about effective plotting in the last century. Granted, this isn't really a novel, but Swann's soured romance is a great climactic event (with a fantastic final paragraph), yet is followed by fifty more pages of seriously anti-climactic childhood reminiscence. Yes, there's one absolute piranha of plotting in that placid pond, I don't think I could justify the pacing by any modern standard. Clive James could. But I thought that the final segment detracted from the main story, I'm sorry, and I found it self-indulgent in a bad old-fashioned fashion.

What I learnt

Swann's Way is a challenge for the lazy reader category (into which chair I undoubtedly slouch) but you'll never read anything quite like it.

The best compliment I can give this book is quite probably the best compliment I can give ANY book: You will learn things about who you are. Which is worth quite a few serpentine sentences, I can tell you.

In short

Title: Swann's Way: In Search Of Lost Time - Volume 1
Author: Marcel Proust
Publisher: Penguin
Year published: 2004 (reprinted)
Genre(s): Classic literature
Review Type: