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?