viernes, 18 de marzo de 2011

Swann's Way

Swann's Way [Du côté de chez Swann] (Penguin Classics, 2004)
by Marcel Proust [translated from the French by Lydia Davis]
France, 1913

No doubt, by virtue of having forever indissolubly united in me different impressions merely because they had made me experience them at the same time, the Méséglise way and the Guermantes way exposed me, for the future, to many disappointments and even to many mistakes.  For often I have wanted to see a person again without discerning that it was simply because she reminded me of a hedge of hawthorns, and I have been led to believe, to make someone else believe, in a revival of affection, by what was simply a desire to travel.  But because of that very fact, too, and by persisting in those of my impressions of today to which they may be connected, they give them foundations, depth, a dimension lacking from the others.  They add to them, too, a charm, a meaning that is for me alone.  When on summer evenings the melodious sky growls like a wild animal and everyone grumbles at the storm, it is because of the Méséglise way that I am the only one in ecstasy inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the smell of invisible, enduring lilacs.
(Swann's Way, 189-190)

I'll probably regret this later, but may I share a personal anecdote with you?  The morning after finally finishing Swann's Way, I was telling my boss about how much I'd loved it and how it was even more spectacular than I'd suspected it would be.  After poking fun at myself for how ridiculous it was to be surprised by any of all this--In Search of Lost Time's first volume does have something of a reputation after all--I found myself almost tearing up talking about the many things that Proust does so beautifully in the novel.  Thank God my boss is a bibliophile and understood the point I was feebly trying to make: this book got to me.  Why it got to me would probably be more easily explained in person, of course, but I think the three things that stand out about it the most are Proust's skills as an observer, his unexpected humor, and that justly celebrated all-enveloping prose which wraps you up in its velvety grip.  Examples.  In Swann in Love, in the midst of the book within a book chronicling Charles Swann's tumultuous love affair with the not quite to be trusted Odette de Crécy (a segment itself surrounded by the first and third sections of the novel that focus on the narrator's childhood memories of life at Combray and his own first impressions of how the clingy love for his mother would eventually be joined by the romantic feelings felt for Swann's daughter Gilberte), the reader is party to an agonizing close-up of the highs and lows of that "holy evil" also known as love (239).  Although the narrator proves himself to be an astute observer of the arts of deception and self-deception practiced by lovers everywhere, he saves one of his absolute best descriptive moments for Swann's non-romantic encounter with a footman at a party: "One of them, of a particularly ferocious aspect and rather like the executioner in certain Renaissance paintings which depict scenes of torture, advanced upon him with an implacable air to take his things.  But the hardness of his steely gaze was compensated by the softness of his cotton gloves, so that as he approached Swann he seemed to be showing contempt for his person and consideration for his hat" (336).  Just love those Proustian juxtapositions!

As if to demonstrate that the hilarity of this moment isn't incidental to his larger objectives in the novel, Proust provides us with at least two superb examples of elaborate and totally unexpected sources of humor that originate early on in Part I's Combray.  In the first instance, a scene poking fun at both the hypocrisy of the family maid and the narrator as a young man takes place in which the beheading of a chicken as preparation for the evening meal ends with the servant frantically shouting "Vile creature!  Vile creature!" at the unfortunate chicken, troubled by the animal's understandable resistance to its impending demise (124).  Even after the chicken has been dispatched with, though, Françoise feels the need to insult it one more time.  "Vile creature!"  Over 150 pages later, with this amusing scene long forgotten, poor Swann himself will be labeled a "vile creature" by a third party, Mme. Verdurin, upset at his possessive streak in regard to Odette.  This situation provides the narrator with an opportunity to reflect on the two characters' defensive need to justify themselves with "the same words which the last twitches of an inoffensive animal in its death throes wring from the countryman who is killing it"--and, by extension, to compare Swann's fate in love with that of the chicken's.  Just brutal!  In the second instance I wanted to talk about, the narrator finds a unique way to comment on the strange ways of his class by developing a parallel--this one some 50 pages apart--between the actions of a certain M. Vinteuil and the behavior of his daughter soon after his death.  While I can't hope to do justice to the exquisiteness of the joke, the humor revolves around M. Vinteuil's strategic positioning of a piece of music on the piano just prior to the arrival of the narrator's family (he wants to be recognized for his musical talents while simultaneously affecting to be too modest to acknowledge them) and the daughter's parallel placement of a photo of her deceased father on a table in the piano room as she hears the sound of an approaching carriage bearing her lesbian lover. "Oh!  That picture of my father is looking at us.  I don't know who could have put it there.  I've told them a dozen times that it doesn't belong there,"  Mlle. Vinteuil showily feigns, inducing a confession from "her friend" that she'd like to spit on the portrait of "the ugly old monkey" (165-167).  The extended joke, not to put too fine a spin on it, is typical of Proust's pattern of finding humor in the weakest human frailties and propensities for deceit.

As for Proust's all-enveloping prose, that's thankfully "all too typical" of the novelist as well.  In a work in which various places and objects--churches and the countryside in Combray, the Bois de Boulogne and the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and most famously the taste of a humble madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea--trigger powerful memories of the past and lead to meditations upon how our memories of the past interact with and transform the present, some of the most affecting writing within the entire novel concerns the narrator's youthful love of hawthorns.  I love, for example, the exuberance and the extravagance of this recollection of a pink hawthorn pointed out to the narrator by his grandfather: "Inserted into the hedge, but as different from it as a young girl in a party dress among people in everyday clothes who are staying at home, the shrub was all ready for Mary's month, and seemed to form a part of it already, shining there, smiling in its fresh pink outfit, catholic and delicious" (143).  So, so poetic, no?  And I'm basically reduced to tears whenever I reread the young Marcel's farewell to the hawthorns, the precise moment where he talks about "putting my arms around the prickly branches," prior to his family's unexpectedly early return to Paris one year.

My mother was not moved by my tears, but she could not suppress a cry at the sight of my crushed hat and ruined coat.  I did not hear it:  "Oh, my poor little hawthorns," I said weeping, "you're not the ones trying to make me unhappy, you aren't forcing me to leave.  You've never hurt me!  So I will always love you.  And drying my tears, I promised them that when I was grown up I would not let my life be like the senseless lives of other men and that even in Paris, on spring days, instead of paying calls and listening to silly talk, I would go out into the countryside to see the first hawthorns (148).

Given the narrator's association of hawthorns with the human and non-human symbols of his childhood past, has there ever been a better evocation of the innocence of youth paired with a foreshadowing of the loss of the young self to be found in adulthood?  If so, I'd sure like to hear about it.  In the meantime, even though it's early in the year, I suspect that I've finally found another title to add to my all-time favorites list.  Absolutely brilliant and maybe even worth a good cry for all you sentimental types out there.  (

Marcel Proust

20 comentarios:

  1. PROUST!! *Swoon*

    I just love these books so much. The hawthornes! The steely gaze of the servant! Francoise and her perversely-bestowed compassion! It's all so wonderful. I am tearing up just reading about it. As you know these were the books that inspired me to learn French, and you are reminding me why.

    I am so, so glad you're reading the whole thing from the beginning. Starting in the middle I feel like the humor comes through but Swann's Way and Young Girls in Flower are really the emotional grounding of the entire behemoth. I love how in Proust people can be absolutely ridiculous and yet simultaneously worthy objects of compassion. Basically, there is almost nothing I don't love about Proust.

    And god, Lydia Davis does a great job with that opening passage, right? Takes my breath away.

  2. What a wonderful review. I actually have never read the book, having been intimidated by the size and the reputation of it, but you certainly have made me rethink my reluctance. And I don't think your confessed reaction is atypical to any remembrance of things past or evocation of same - what could be more absolutely bittersweet? Oh and the hawthorne - I never knew about the hawthorne! Thanks for all that.

  3. I did so love this as well when I read it. But it is quite a long time ago and feels almost as if it hadn't happened. You brought it back very well. I will have to reread it one day. I didn't remember the hawthorne.

  4. I'm really glad you loved it. Isn't he wonderful? Funny, spot on and perceptive. He sure makes fun of people but he's never nasty. On sent qu'il aimait les gens.
    You'll have a lot of fun reading In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. M. de Norpois is priceless.
    What I really enjoy is how he can be so politely subversive and at the same time capture the transience of life.

    My turn to share a personal anecdote. Last night, I came home late from work and my son, hearing my footsteps, got up and waited for me on top of the stairs. He wanted me to kiss him good-night. And he had such a contented smile when he got his kiss that I couldn't help thinking of little Marcel longing for his mother when Swann was there. Sometimes literature just breaks through everyday life.

    PS : there are very well-written posts about Swann's Way at Max' blog (Pechorin's Journal)

  5. *Emily: I love that "Proust-swoon" maneuver you conjure up--that's so true to my reaction to Swann's Way and also to what you say about In Search of Lost Time having inspired you to take up French! I do wish I'd written something about your great point about Proust being able to portray people as "absolutely ridiculous and yet simultaneously worthy [as] objects of compassion." That's such a big part of why I could practically hug Proust the writer in the same way others want to hug young Marcel the character. Anyway, glad to hear I'm not the only one who tears up over this stuff (Lydia Davis' translation is quite lyrical itself)!

  6. *Jill: Thanks, that post was a nightmare to write for some reason, so I'm glad you could at least make some sense of what I was trying to say (btw, the embarrassing part of my reaction for me wasn't so much that I had an emotional response to Proust's prose but that I got swept away thinking about it when I thought I was safe at work!). In any event, I hope you get a chance to read the novel someday; I think Proust demands a little more patience than the norm, but the reward on your investment is correspondingly greater as well!

  7. *Caroline: Although the hawthorn sequences are so poetic and tender, I think it's probably easy to overlook many scenes like that since there's so much great stuff like that going on throughout the novel. Proust certainly gets to me in a way that other writers don't, though.

  8. *Bookaroundthecorner: Thanks for sharing your own Proustian anecdote (lovely!) and for the tip on the Pechorin's Journal posts about Swann's Way--I haven't done as much blog visiting lately as I would like, but that looks like a great place to start. Of course, I also loved your comments about how Proust can be so "politely subversive" and yet sensitive to "the transience of life" at the same time. What a wonderful combination to have as a writer!

  9. Heard so much about Marcel Proust. It would be a shame to end this lifetime not reading his book, which one should I start first you think?

    Lucky your boss is bibliophile. Might is not! So just as well we don't have anything in common to talk about. :(

    Thanks for the great review Richard.

  10. *JoV: Thanks for the kind words--and sorry to hear you and your boss don't have anything to talk about (I guess I'm fortunate given that my boss has a book collection in the thousands!). As far as Proust, yes, you definitely need to give him a try at some point! You should start with Swann's Way, which is the opening installment of In Search of Lost Time, and worth every amount of praise it gets in my opinion. Cheers!

  11. Beautifully done, Richard. My grandparents had an enviable love affair both with each other and with a number of books over which all their sensibilities seemed to mesh, Proust being the first and foremost example of this. The love of his work has spread through our family so tears for your tears here and as a personal reminder to self, a "revival of affection" in a way.

    Proust for me is a place where truth (in keen observations of human nature) and beauty merge for me. Where craftsmanship takes my breath away. So happy to see it having the same effect upon you, friend.

  12. *Frances: Thanks for the kind words and for that cool story about your grandparents--what a sweet little nugget about your family's history/interest in Proust! Love your comment about Proust being the place where truth and beauty merge for you. I can see that even only after two volumes (such a soulful experience), so I better get cracking with In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Sounds like a perfect April read, does it not? Cheers!

  13. My goodness, that bit with Swann and the footman had me chortling into my coffee just now - I'm glad that you found and pursued some of the elaborate jokes and pointed out the humor in Proust. I don't think it's something that people associate with him, but in my experience he is consistently and bitingly funny. And he couples that with equally, ridiculously good writing. You can't go wrong. I still have one more volume to read before I'm done, but so far Swann's Way is my favorite. I'm so glad you liked it!

  14. *Sarah: Glad to get a chortle out of you with that Swann vs. the footman quote--esp. since even though many people admit that Proust can be quite amusing, I think that aspect of his repertoire is often overlooked in the face of what you call his "ridiculously good writing." Very interested in seeing what the rest of the novel has store in for me, and for sure I'll be digging up your posts, as well as those of Bookaroundthecorner, Claire and Frances, as I go. Very exciting for me--cheers!

  15. Dear Richard, you've just earned a pint of beer on me next time your in the Bay Area. I've read your post twice and enjoyed it both times. I'd read it a third time, but too much enjoyment on a Monday morning strikes me as mildly obscene. Have a good week. Cheers, Kevin

  16. Thanks Richard. Swann Way is it then. I'll check if my library stock it!

  17. *Kevin: Thanks, I'm going to hold you to that pint someday (I'll return the favor if you're ever in the Massachusetts Bay Colony area). Of course, if I had known anybody was going to read that post twice, I would have edited it down in size somewhat from the "rock opera" format to something a little more manageable. Cheers!

    *JoV: Great to hear--good luck with the book hunt!

  18. *Frances: I aim to please...sometimes at least!

  19. Great post, Richard - I have just finished posting on this and you have got much closer to the soul of the book than I managed. It is a great read. I have the fire roaring and am lining up a after midnight hour to get started into Within a Budding Grove. My post is
    if you want to check out another viewpoint.