The Way By Swann’s

In the introduction to my edition of The Way By Swann’s (the latest Penguin translation), it criticises people who use familiarity with Proust as a badge of erudition.

But I couldn’t help it. “Proust!” I cried all summer, waving my arms around. “Proust! I’m reading Proust!” It was frankly shameful. And now it gets an airing here – do I never learn.

It was an all-summer job, punctuated by several breaks with less improving, more holiday-appropriate reading (I’m looking at you, Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts.) Because whatever else it is, it is not easy reading and God knows, it’s not fast moving or clear.

Luckily, I have twice read 100 Years of Solitude, and if you can get through (and love) a tome where there about 50 characters are called by exactly the same two names (fie, Aureliano and Jose Arcadio) you can let your mind go slightly loose over a couple of pages of Proust. This looseness of mind I found fundamental to enjoying The Way by Swann’s. If you are trying to work out what each interminable sentence exactly means, enjoy, and I will meet you on the other side in 2021. If you don’t try, however, the meaning comes clear to you eventually anyway and you get to savour the real joy.

For me, this joy is in the rolling, undulating style of writing and the intricate observation which is at least as good as poetry at describing a known thing or emotion in a stunningly new way that makes you completely re-evaluate what that thing or emotion was in the first place. The most famous example is, of course, the nostalgia brought on by eating a childhood favourite food (madeleine), but the book is literally thick with these passages which are unlike those in any other novel I have ever read. This volume (the first of I think six that make up this translation of In Search of Lost Time) concentrates initially on childhood and then on a love affair, and each made me powerfully remember feelings that I had never managed to put into words. Ironically, in a book that makes 5 minutes stretch 100 pages, this effect is fleeting – as soon as you put down the book this elusive, magical quality evaporates, which left me with the feeling I should flick back to the beginning and start again.

However, I didn’t. In fact as I suspected, I will not be buying the next five volumes, despite the brilliance of the prose and Proust’s ability to make me recall and feel things no other book can. It’s not a book that profits from being dipped in and out of, so unless I break my leg, no more Proust for me.

Anyway, I’ve read enough to be able to name-drop Proust now. Result.

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