The Dim-Post

January 24, 2014

Notes on ‘Du côté de chez Swann’ by Marcel Proust

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 9:16 am

Ugh! Thank God that’s over.

Briefly: Alternately translated as Swann’s Way or The Way by Swann, this is the first volume (of eight) of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. It’s famously long, famously slow-moving and contemplative and routinely praised as the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century. I read Lydia Davis’ translation.

And I hated it. Proust writes very dense sort-of-stream-of-consciousness prose. There are no paragraph breaks and no chapters – it just continues on for hundreds and hundreds of pages, and he writes this very dense prose in very long sentences.

Now some people love Proust’s long sentences. They’re cited as an example of his genius and most of the essays on the internet urging everyone to read Proust instruct prospective readers to ‘surrender to Proust’ or ‘give yourself up to Proust,’ and let his long, meandering sentences sweep you away into his beautiful tableau of art and love and obsession and memory and time. And I really tried to do that! But while Proust’s writing is very beautiful and meticulously crafted, I found the act of reading it to be a tedious joyless experience for which I blame the endless, endlessly long sentences. Here’s a typical Proustian sentence from the last section of Swann’s Way: 

The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcibly her whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of a man in his absence, but was directly addressed to her; it passed thus close by me, in action, so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and as it drew near to its target; — carrying in its wake, I could feel, the knowledge, the impression of her to whom it was addressed that belonged not to me but to the friend who called to her, everything that, while she uttered the words, she more or less vividly reviewed, possessed in her memory, of their daily intimacy, of the visits that they paid to each other, of that unknown existence which was all the more inaccessible, all the more painful to me from being, conversely, so familiar, so tractable to this happy girl who let her message brush past me without my being able to penetrate its surface, who flung it on the air with a light-hearted cry: letting float in the atmosphere the delicious attar which that message had distilled, by touching them with precision, from certain invisible points in Mlle. Swann’s life, from the evening to come, as it would be, after dinner, at her home, — forming, on its celestial passage through the midst of the children and their nursemaids, a little cloud, exquisitely coloured, like the cloud that, curling over one of Poussin’s gardens, reflects minutely, like a cloud in the opera, teeming with chariots and horses, some apparition of the life of the gods; casting, finally, on that ragged grass, at the spot on which she stood (at once a scrap of withered lawn and a moment in the afternoon of the fair player, who continued to beat up and catch her shuttlecock until a governess, with a blue feather in her hat, had called her away) a marvellous little band of light, of the colour of heliotrope, spread over the lawn like a carpet on which I could not tire of treading to and fro with lingering feet, nostalgic and profane, while Françoise shouted: “Come on, button up your coat, look, and let’s get away!” and I remarked for the first time how common her speech was, and that she had, alas, no blue feather in her hat.

I don’t know about you but I just find that shit really hard to read. I get confused. I get bored. My mind wanders. I force it back, realise I’ve forgotten how the sentence started, go back to the beginning, start reading again forcing myself to concentrate harder. The result is that Proust never took me out of myself. I never derived any pleasure from reading his book: I was always aware that I was staring at lines of text on a page instead of being transported into the world of the novel.

That’s a pretty huge stumbling block. But obviously some people get past that, fall in love with his prose and read and re-read all three-and-a-half million words of Recherche du temps, and a lot of them then run around telling everyone else to read it. And I get it. Some of the passages describing thought and memory and obsession are dazzling. Proust is a great psychologist, and what he’s done with his literary genius and psychological penetration is amazing. He’s taken traditional subjects like a childhood memoir and a doomed love affair and told them almost entirely through the interior thoughts of his characters.

By way of example: The longest section of Swann’s Way is entitled ‘Swann in Love’ and describes a doomed love affair and the mental states of a character called Swann as he falls in love and is consumed with jealousy. It’s about two hundred pages long, a bit longer than the Great Gatsby, so if you can imagine two hundred pages of Gatsby thinking about Daisy: her face, her voice, how he feels about her, how he feels about how he feels about her, how he feels when he’s with her, how he feels when he isn’t, how he feels when she’s with Tom, how she liked his shirts, (followed by several dozen pages describing each of the shirts in precise detail), how he feels about how she liked his shirts and how that makes him feel, with a brief coda at the end adding that Gatsby got shot and Daisy went back to Tom, then you have a rough idea of how Swann’s Way plays out.

Like I say, some people love it and celebrate it as the greatest novel ever, and when you read some of the famous passages – Proust and the madeline cake, the vision of the Church steeples, the opening passages about dreaming and memory – I can sort-of see it. But there are huge, huge sections of Swann’s Way which seem impossible to love. When I told a friend I was reading it he pulled a face and said, ‘I couldn’t get past the dinner party.’ There’s a very long scene in which Proust describes a very boring dinner party in which people make weak jokes and gossip about bourgeois society in belle epoque France. There’s another scene which, searching the internet, seems to make many readers of Swann’s Way throw the book aside in disgust in which Proust describes a rose for sixteen pages. I almost gave up near the end when I encountered a page-long sentence detailing the time a train Proust wanted to take – but didn’t – left the train station.

So I’m a little suspicious of Proust champions. Can a book with several extended sequences so dull they’re essentially unreadable really be a masterpiece, even if some of the other passages are sublime? Or do people who praise it so highly do so partly as an act of signaling to display that they’ve read a very long, very difficult work of literature?

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25 Comments »

  1. I quite enjoyed that sentence you provided, but I can understand how the novelty would wear off.

    Comment by Dave Guerin — January 24, 2014 @ 9:37 am

  2. If you’re calling the author of “a la recherche du temps perdu” a loony, I shall have to ask you to step outside!

    Comment by Sanctuary — January 24, 2014 @ 9:59 am

  3. Or, subconsciously:

    “I just spent months of my life reading this thing! I would only do that if (1) I am an idiot, or (2) it’s a work of genius. Clearly (1) is false.

    A masterpiece!”

    Comment by repton — January 24, 2014 @ 10:24 am

  4. It’s a cheat to extend a sentence using a colon, semicolon or dash. I just read them as full stops. Makes it heaps shorter.

    But is understanding what the sentences mean even necessary? Isn’t the point of evocative literature to kind of speed-read it, letting the images and words wash past you like a movie? A bit like being immersed in foreign language, you give up parsing every sentence, it takes too long, and instead just listen and let the timbre and intonation, the phrasing structures, etc all become internalized through endless repetition.

    Personally I couldn’t be bothered.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — January 24, 2014 @ 10:56 am

  5. Or do people who praise it so highly do so partly as an act of signaling to display that they’ve read a very long, very difficult work of literature?

    Congratulations, you’ve taken your first step to becoming a behavioural economist.

    Comment by Phil — January 24, 2014 @ 10:58 am

  6. If you could do Being and Nothingness next that could save us all a lot of time too.

    Comment by NeilM — January 24, 2014 @ 11:11 am

  7. I’ve tried that novel numerous times, and enjoyed parts of it, but inevitably come to the same overall conclusion each time. I had intended to read the whole series, but can’t see that happening in this particular lifetime…

    Comment by Michael — January 24, 2014 @ 11:14 am

  8. If you could do Being and Nothingness next that could save us all a lot of time too.

    No more Satre. I learned my lesson with Nausea.,

    Comment by danylmc — January 24, 2014 @ 11:24 am

  9. Or you could read GynEcology, which takes this idea to a whole new level, both philosophically and as a work of literature.

    To me, I just gave up a long time ago and said I’m a concrete literalist. If it doesn’t use simple sentences to describe actual things doing actual actions you’ve lost me already. Doesn’t matter whether it’s the Iliad or Feesum Endjginn, I’m going to read it one concept at a time and if the author can’t do spelling, sentences or logical consistency perhaps they should take up another profession. And just so you know, world domination is over-rated as a career for failed artists.

    Comment by Moz in Oz — January 24, 2014 @ 11:51 am

  10. ” ‘There ought to be some way of getting rid of one’s superfluous memories. How I hate old Proust! Really detest him.’ And with a richly comic eloquence he proceeded to evoke the vision of that asthmatic seeker of lost time squatting, horribly white and flabby, with breasts almost female but fledged with long black hairs, for ever squatting in the tepid bath of his remembered past. And all the stale soapsuds of countless previous washings floated around him, all the accumulated dirt of years lay crusty on the sides of the tub or hung in dark suspension in the water. And there he sat, a pale repellent invalid, taking up spongefuls of his own thick soup and squeezing it over his face, scooping up cupfuls of it and appreciatively rolling the grey and gritty liquor round his mouth, gargling, rinsing his nostrils with it, like a pious Hindu in the Ganges.”

    Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza”.

    Comment by Joe W — January 24, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

  11. I thought this site was about satire not satre

    Comment by insider — January 24, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

  12. Hell, I thought my wading through GIbbon was hard (about halfway through on third attempt since I purchased a handsome set in 2002) but there’s no way on Earth I could make it through volumes written like that.

    Comment by Conrad — January 24, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

  13. It’s a cheat to extend a sentence using a colon, semicolon or dash.

    Absolutely.

    “The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcibly her whom it labelled in that it did not merely refer to her, as one speaks of a man in his absence, but was directly addressed to her” is a sentence.

    “it passed thus close by me, in action, so to speak, with a force that increased with the curve of its trajectory and as it drew near to its target” is another sentence.

    What we’re looking at here is the deliberate decision to run sentences and paragraphs together and call it “art.” The correct term is “wank.”

    Comment by Psycho Milt — January 24, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

  14. …for ever squatting in the tepid bath of his remembered past.

    What an image.

    I did start Proust – in French too so quadruple pretentious points – but I have a short attention span at the best of times and usually fell asleep after half a sentence.

    But I did enjoy what I read and his preoccupation with the process of memory I think proved to be quite ahead of its time.

    As with Last Year at Marienbad there’s a sense of everytime you access a memory the memory changes.

    Comment by NeilM — January 24, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

  15. “So I’m a little suspicious of Proust champions. Can a book with several extended sequences so dull they’re essentially unreadable really be a masterpiece, even if some of the other passages are sublime? Or do people who praise it so highly do so partly as an act of signaling to display that they’ve read a very long, very difficult work of literature?”

    It’s OK for different people to honestly love things other people hate (cf. Picasso, Schoenberg, David Foster Wallace).

    ‘Essentially unreadable’ depends on the reader’s tastes. Whether you love or hate the stuff it is hard to separate the style (or ‘wank’ if you prefer) from the substance (‘actual things doing actions’). Same for the other big names of the era like Woolf, Lawrence, Joyce.

    I think I got something unique from Proust that I haven’t found anywhere else. Whether this something is ‘genius’ is subjective I suppose. But one of the things about Proust is exactly that you are forced to really concentrate hard and contemplate a rose for 16 pages and think about all the associations and experiences that this contemplation leads to. And then realise that doing that gives you something much deeper than “roses are beautiful” or “there is beauty in everything”. By the end it’s almost like he’s become a Buddha or something just by sitting and thinking about stuff in crazy detail.

    At least that’s what I got out of it. It did take a bloody long time to read and wasn’t always necessarily ‘fun’ (and no I don’t think you have to rigorously diagram every sentence to get the sense of it) but I don’t regret it.

    Comment by Giles — January 24, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

  16. I’d like to see how Chris Finlayson would review Proust…..

    Comment by Ben — January 24, 2014 @ 8:50 pm

  17. In 100 years, what will people still be reading – Chez Swann, or Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley? Hmmm…

    Comment by kalvarnsen — January 24, 2014 @ 9:16 pm

  18. @phil 5 – that is probably he pithiest thing you have written here. I salute you.

    @joe 10 – and that is why Huxley is terrific in his capacity to elegantly evoke pathos (like Greene, Hemingway, Conrad and Orwell) whereas Proust is a bore. Either that or something is manifestly lost in translation.

    Comment by Gregor W — January 24, 2014 @ 10:25 pm

  19. that is why Huxley is terrific in his capacity to elegantly evoke pathos

    I guess so, though his character who so eloquently mocks Proust soon finds himself dealing with a series of life-rending crises that barely leave him room to regret his former smart-arsery. While it’s probably how a younger snarkier Huxley would once have viewed Proust, the transformed character who stands ready to be martyred by British brownshirts in the final chapter of Eyeless in Gaza has little use for temps perdu.

    Sorry about that overlong sentence.

    Comment by Joe W — January 24, 2014 @ 11:27 pm

  20. Eyeless in Gaza is a great book and was a real discovery for me when I found it in a bookshop in Estonia last year. The last bit, which turns into a screed regarding Huxley’s weird spiritualism, was forgettable, but up til then, gold.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — January 25, 2014 @ 12:13 am

  21. You wrote: “Can a book with several extended sequences so dull they’re essentially unreadable really be a masterpiece, even if some of the other passages are sublime…”

    Yes it can, and is.
    I used to feel the same way about Wagner…but then years passed and I understood.

    Comment by Marcelita Swann — January 25, 2014 @ 5:32 am

  22. “Eyeless in Gaza is a great book and was a real discovery for me when I found it in a bookshop in Estonia last year. ”

    Such a great line, way better in the signalling stakes than saying I’ve just read Proust. And I mean that sincerely – as opposed to pointedly or snidely!

    Comment by Tinakori — January 26, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

  23. I have never read Proust, but I have read a lot of academic writing about food and a lot of academic writing about memory, and my god I am so sick of that f–king madeline, which everyone feels the need to namecheck.

    Comment by helenalex — January 27, 2014 @ 9:07 am

  24. You haven’t really experienced Proust until you have read him in the original Klingon

    Comment by PeterG — January 27, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

  25. I loved it, but it did take a lot of willful concentration – and a lot of time and few resources. I read it on a two-week holiday in a remote, hand built bach in Golden Bay without electricity. I didn’t have anything else to read and the closest beach was somewhat ruined by the rotting corpses of two dead whales.

    Would love to know what you think about Finnigan’s Wake. I found it very readable and funny, and that it flowed well – for me it was a page turner!

    I don’t mean to suggest I am some sort of mental giant – I’m far from it. I just found that the rythmn of the text was enjoable and kept me at pace. I didn’t stop to analyse things too closely, but rather I let the series of images flow before me without stopping to question them, stemming and perhaps disrupting their flow.

    I think Proust should be read the same way – i.e., if your mind wanders a bit then let it. I think of these dense, rich works like a series of busy scenes too busy to take in perfectly, and all at once – like life. But unlike life you can keep returning to the same scenes, to see more or other aspects to them.

    Comment by Bill — January 30, 2014 @ 5:47 pm


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