” The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us), which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we came upon it or not before ourselves must die. ” (Overture, p.46)
Swann’s Way is a novel of the rediscovery of experience through memory, of desire and disillusionment. It has a story, characters, and a clear setting in time and place, but Proust is less concerned with these matters than with dramatizing a metaphysical system. Therefore, describing Proust and his work in terms of plot alone does no justice to the rich reflections, counter-reflections, digressions and musings that delve into the mundane details and nuances of life. As the novel begins, the narrator, a man apparently in early middle age, describes sleepless nights and fragmentary dreams in which bits of his past drift through his consciousness.
Swann’s Way tells two related stories, the first of which revolves around Marcel, a younger version of the narrator, and his experiences in, and memories of, the French town of Combray, where his bed-ridden aunt and grandparents live in a comfortable burgeois household. The young Marcel is nervous about sleeping alone, and dreads about his family’s entertaining dinner guests, because he will be deprived of his mother’s company and good-night kiss. Among the guests is Charles Swann, who has frittered away his time in social life and inconsequential love affairs, using his knowledge of art to advise society ladies on paintings and furniture rather than to complete his study of Verneer of Delft. Marcel’s family treats Swann with slight unkindness when he marries his former mistress for the sake of his child. So the novel transports back 15 years to relate the second story, that of the love affair between Swann and Odette.
The life of Swann’s love, the fidelity of his jealousy, were formed out of death, of infidelity, of innumerable desires, innumerable doubts, all of which had Odette for their object . . . But the presence of Odette continued to sow in Swann’s heart alternate seeds of love and suspicion. (Swann in Love, p.391)
Odette is a woman with an invented name and a murky past. She is a guest of an ambitious couple, Verdurins, who have created a salon where they tyrannize a group of obscure people who are both envious and critical of high society. He quickly falls in love with her, and his love becomes an infatuation, to the extent that he’s jealous of her not being exclusively subordinated to him. His obsession runs so deep that he ignores the truth of their failed romance until there is no turning back: he must suffer the tormenting pangs of unrequited love. One of Swann’s closest friends, Charlus, tries to turn Odette back toward Swann that ends up sending him an anonymous letter about Odette’s history of infidelity.
Sometimes the fragment of landscape thus transported into the present will detach itself in such isolation from all associations that it floats uncertainly upon my mind, like a flowering isle of Delos, and i am unable to say from what place, from what time—perhaps, quite simply, from which of my dreams—it comes. (Combray, p.194)
Swann’s Way on the surface is a bitter love story, but at the core, as the French title of the larger work suggests, is the narrator’s mental and moral activity in search of the meaning of his experience in time. The hero is neither Marcel nor Swann, but time itself. Proust jettisons completely the methods of the conventional novelist. For him, being is not a chronological succession of events. Being is the complete past, which is evocable by memory; but this memory is not under our control. We might not understand ourselves at any given moment, nor are we merely the static sum of all the moments we have lived—because we are continually reliving them. Living memories of the past return with stunning immediacy, but at random. The structure of the novel evokes an image of the labyrinth of consciousness, which is explored in a style almost as complex and ramified as the mind itself. The style is one such that narrative adopts an ambiguous temporality, a fluid medium in which all times mingle without chronology. Time turns and twists upon itself like a snake, past and present merge, motifs and themes are recalled and redeveloped and answer each other in echo and counterpoint. Proust’s long, multi-clause sentences also force reader to slow down, to read and to re-read, to grasp every word, to tap into the rhythm of an emotional and psychological experience. This tension that pushes the sentence toward its continually deferred conclusion is heightened to almost a painful but intriguing degree. Proust is meant to be savored.
466 pp. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. Barnes & Noble Classics. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]