In Search of Lost Time Vol. 1: Swann’s Way & some of Volume 2 (review written with little time)

Marcel Proust around page 60 of Swann’s Way, dips a cookie, a madeleine, into his tea, and is instantly taken back to the Combray of his youth (1870’s and 1880’s), a country town where his elderly great-aunt lived, and his family would holiday; his nameless narrator, actually. He dips his cookie, at alternating short-cake saturation to relive this memory, this sensation; trying to understand the mechanism of remembrance and his own memory. And it seems, reading this the second-time around, makes the book more enjoyable, as you are remembering what you have read prior, as the narrator is remembering his life prior. Parts of the book, I found hard the first read, were actually easy: his description of the church at Combray seemed short, and actually important, where when I first read it, seemed to take forever, and be unimportant. Some instances of Proust’s musing on art were hard to identify with, though how he relates them to the characters’ lives were significant; how a tapestry in the church of Combray, the likeness of a saint is the likeness of a Duchess or Princess of the fabulous Faubourg-St. Germain; how M. Swann compares the face of Odette, his future wife, to the face of a famous painting, maybe by Botecilli; Or even more important, the “little phrase” that M. Swann and Odette take as their loves’ “little phrase”, a sad minor melody of piano-forte with violin accompaniment.

The form of Swann’s Way begins with Combray 1 and Combray 2; in the previous translation I had, Combray 1 was called the Overture, as this book, “Swann’s Way”, not the first section but the entire volume 1, is the overture of “In Search of Lost Time”, introducing all the themes: remembrance, attachment, possession, family, snobbery, aversion to morals (too much, or too little), class, antisemitism, homosexuality, S/M (the lesbian daughter of the narrator’s neighbor who are into S/M, which the narrator spies through a window while playing), high society, salons, literary desires, sickness, jealousy, art, and reliving the experience of a piece of art, or a lover’s touch/face.

In the first section the narrator waits for his mother to come in and give him a good-night kiss, which won’t happen (he fears) because they are having a dinner party. This 60 page section, I believe, is what stops most readers, but upon second read, it actually has great information about M. Swann, and Proust’s stream-of-conscious writing follows a thought in its infinitesimal detail, but not in trivial ways. At points, I did think, “Damn, get on with it.” And the next page, he does “get on with it”, and I find what is next interesting, like when he explains seeing a Duchess of the Guermantes at Church, during a wedding, he only describes her face, and her, somewhat, recognizing this child looking at her. Combray 2, delves into “Swann’s Way” or the hike that took the narrator’s family by Swann’s property, and compares it to Guermantes Way (which is the title of the 3rd Volume) a hike going towards the Guermantes’ Country Estate. These ways though literal walks in opposing directions, are also symbolic. M. Swann “married badly”, and his wife, Odette, was not allowed at the narrator’s house, and since M. Swann was allowed at the narrator’s house, certain friends of the narrator’s family, had stopped coming by, so as not to see M. Swann. Odette was a “kept woman”/former courtesan before marrying M. Swann, and their relationship (where he “keeps her” at 5000 francs a month) and, later, marriage had damaged M. Swann’s great reputation, even though he was still great friend with the Guermantes and the Prince of Wales. The Guermantes, are a family of snobs, really, who talk in an affected way and only like to socialize with people who talk in the same affected way, and laugh at the same affected jokes. M. Swann, who grew up with these people, are “old friends” of people like the Mme de Guermantes, and the great-character, the Baron de Charlus.

The 3rd section, is “Swann in Love” a novella, detailing the romance of Odette de Crecy and M. Charles Swann. They meet at a tea-party, and then she invites him to the Verudin’s, a wealthy, yet vulgar and socially-dismissed circle because they ran with too many, or were overly influenced by, bohemians. All the families and characters, (minus the staff, including the likeable Francoise, and Odette) were wealthy from family money, only being divided by snobbery based on a being immoral (like M. Swann and his love for Odette), or a lack of culture (The Verudins). At the Verudins, Swann bonds with Odette, and begins taking her home. It is not until he arranges some flowers stuffed in her cleavage that they become lovers, as he recreates this “rearranging of flowers” as a means to sex, but also like Proust dunking his cookie in his tea, as if trying to grab on to this memory, or emotion of happiness, the temporariness of it, and recreate it.  As their romance continues, Swann is ostracized from the Verudins and M. Swann becomes jealous of Odette’s possible other lovers. Here Proust writes of a possessive love (though in the beginning of “Swann in Love”, M. Swann visits a little seamstress before visiting Odette, and is remembered by the narrator’s grandfather as a womanizer, who would often visit a certain family, and then finally stop, and the family would find letters written to their cook, love letters from M. Swann), and M. Swann (whose father was a stockbroker) somewhat goes crazy with jealousy for Odette, and then somehow while at a music party, where Mme de Guermantes attends, he hears his and Odette’s “little phrase” and then, after so long of being jealous and love sick does he get over Odette, and goes on vacation to Combray. His marriage, or how it came about, is never mentioned, but is understood to happen because M. Swann and Odette love each other. (In the first 100 pages of “Within a Budding Grove”, Volume 2, a diplomat who dines with the narrator’s family, tell how Odette had a temper and gave M. Swann such a hard time before he married her; she had already had their daughter, Gilberte; thus explaining possibly how M. Swann cooling his jealousy, had turned relationship around, to her being possessive and jealous.)

This review feels odd, and unruly, but let me finish: The last section of Swann’s Way, “Place Name – the Name”, is a fantasy the narrator has of visiting Balbec and Venice, but is deemed too sickly; the narrator and Proust were asthmatic. Then, and mostly, it is regarding playing with Gilberte, The Swanns’ daughter, (whom he first sees in Combray 2, and endlessly relives the moment standing by the Hawthorne bush on the perimeter of M. Swann’s Combray property.) at the Champs-Elysees in Paris, and how he is in love with her, trying to possess her, and remember her face, just as M. Swann had tried to possess and relive memories with Odette in “Swann in Love”. M. Swann and the narrator, have much in common, how they love and regard art.

I began reading “Swann’s Way” on New Year’s Day, under the resolve to do something ‘literary’ everyday; also with the desire to finish the entire 6 volume set of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”; I had made it to the beginning of the fourth volume, almost a decade before. I read the beginning of an article on HTML Giant about someone who had read the 6 volumes, which also prompted it. Synchronistically, Swann visits the narrator’s on New Year’s Day in the first 100 pages of Vol. 1., and in the second volume New Year’s Day is mentioned in the first 100 pages (also later in “Within a Budding Grove”). There are many little things, repetitions, that only upon second reading are obvious. And now starting volume 2, “Within a Budding Grove”, I see now that these six volumes, do work as one giant novel, as volume 1 and volume 2 flow together and compliment each other so well. I have to say, I love M. & Mme Swann, and how Proust gives the information, as “Within a Budding Grove” begins with the Swanns being the topic of discussion at dinner, and an interest of all society, as The Swanns now were accepted into society and Odette, like the Verudins, was now trying to establish a salon at her house of artisitc and upper-class people.

Having read the first section of volume 2, “Within a Budding Grove”, the narrator starts visiting The Swanns’, mostly to visit Mme Swann, but really because he loves Gilberte. The story is similar to “Swann in Love”, as the narrator, though he is great-friend’s with Gilberte, is in love with her, but “breaks off” with Gilberte after he believes she no longer wants him; trying to feign indiffference. The story is told somewhat as a teaparty that Mms Swann is hosting, which seems to be preparing the reader for a 400-page teaparty in volume 3. M. Swann, now married, has another lover, though Odette, doesn’t seem to be bothered, but he is definately devoted to his wife, and basks her with attention. When the narrator breaks with Gilberte, he begins going to prostitutes (which made me assume his age of 15-18; he never mentions his age), and this also reminds me of M. Swann. Throughout the books, I believe, Proust keeps repeating sections and themes, like a constant repetition and rewording of things. My one dislike regarding the book, is how much he writes of possessive love that comes off as an unrequited love because it has no “real” companionship, only social meetings and letters. His “pimp” skills are bad. If she doesn’t like/love you–then get over it–because she’ll, most likely, never come around. And if she does, as Proust writes, the happiness you imagined once you did possess her, would not come, it would be too late, for the self who loved her is gone and the pain of yearning to love her, had caused too much suffering. The first section of “Within a Budding Grove”, “Madame Swann At Home”, ends with the narrator, now indifferent, or  trying to be indifferent, to Gilberte, though he stills writes her, and sometimes visits her mother, being over her, and thinking that this infatuation would end, that he’d look back on it as trivial, and that another woman would come along, and be what Gilberte had been to him.

The last section of “Within a Budding Grove”, is “Place Names- The Place”, where the pampered narrator finally goes to Balbec, on the Normandy coast, on the train he fantasized of taking at the end of “Swann’s Way”. He visits the church at old-Balbec, and upon realizing his fantasy, is disappointed, like when seeing his first play with the famous Berma. And here I am, as of last night, on page 320, knowing the narrator will meet and fall in love with Albertine, who is mentioned in conversations prior to this, and the narrator knows her aunt, a friend of Mme Swann.

My main thought regarding Proust is the Buddhist idea of attachment, which defined simply is: the delusion that a person or an object, once possessed, will fulfill and make you happy, and when this delusion is not met, or broken, you feel betrayed, or disillusioned. Yet Proust knows once he possesses what he covets, that his delusion will never deliver what he so craves. That the experience of life and the expectations, never meet, but instead of transcending this possessive delusion, he dwells in it, or it is his old-self that dwells in it, as his self of youth, is not the self looking back.

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About Brian McElmurry

I live in Denver with my wife and dogs. I'm the author of the novella Rocket Man and have written a few unpublished novels (that are awesome, if you are a publisher/agent). http://thoughtcatalog.com/brian-mcelmurry/ My novella Rocket Man is available here: http://www.amazon.com/Rocket-Man-Brian-McElmurry-ebook/dp/B00DLCWO44
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2 Responses to In Search of Lost Time Vol. 1: Swann’s Way & some of Volume 2 (review written with little time)

  1. Adam Lyons says:

    Great article! I’d be interested to hear how you get on reading the rest… I just finished Swann’s Way and thought it was one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    • Brian McElmurry says:

      Thanks! If you loved Swann’s Way, you’ll love Within a Budding Grove. The Swann family is drawn out lovingly and his time at Balbec is truly great. The second volume is the one that won the big time award. Elstir, an impressionist painter, and Robert de Loop are great characters. I started volume 3, and got 200 pages in and life happened. I’m actually going to start the third volume again.

      Sent from my iPhone

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