I finished “Swann’s Way” several weeks ago, reluctantly, as it was a great read. I loved it. I am eagerly awaiting a Proust biography now from Amazon.com, to supplement me as I go along, but I wanted to experience “Swann’s Way” without knowing much about Proust or without reading too much criticism. I’m glad I did. I feel I learned something valuable by reading the book “on my own,” as it were. I learned that I can take on a challenging read, even when working at a challenging job. I learned that a few pages each evening, regularly read, do miraculously add up. I learned that I bring a certain element of unique reading to a great book. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned I could again be excited, down to tips of my marrowed-bones and quiver of my soul, about words.
I rediscovered the thrill of reading, just as I did when I was a small girl who fell in love with the world of “Little Women” (the book that made me a lifelong reader). I feel as if I stumbled upon a secret, that was always there, out in the open.
Proust, in fact, has spoiled me permanently as far as junk reading is concerned. Not that I really ever read much trash. But, having read Proust, I am like a sensitized tuning fork and cannot tolerate the imprecision of mediocre writing.
“Swann’s Way” is a beautiful thing, though I find the experience of reading difficult to describe (especially now that my job is entering the proverbial busy season and my brain has tempered into the consistency of a three-minute egg cooked for 10 minutes). This terrible busy-ness is making it difficult for me to slow down and analyze, though I am dying to share some unique insight with other readers. For now, I simply say: Read.
Here are some impressions as I crossed the finished line:
Proust led up to the ending by indulging (inexplicably but enjoyably to me) in some extremely catty prose. Witness this quote from Mme. des Laumes, toward the end of Swann in Love, referring to Swann:
“I do find it absurd that a man of his intelligence should suffer over a person of that sort, who isn’t even interesting—because they say she’s an idiot,” she added with the wisom of people not in love who believe a man of sense should be unhappy only over a person who is worth it; which is rather like being surprised that anyone should condescend to suffer from cholera because of so small a creature as the comma bacillus.
Hoo-hah—there’s a bitch-slap heard across the century! Proust continues that kind of verbal whip lashing for a number of pages before he waxes prosaic over Swann, Odette and the musical phrase that so captures Swann. Here is a passage that took my breath away, describing “the beautiful dialogue which Swann heard between the piano and the violin,” which, of course, echoes Swann’s love for Odette and all romantic love by extension (and is an exquisite description of musical harmony to boot):
First the solitary piano lamented, like a bird abandoned by its mate; the violin heard it, answered it as from a neighboring tree. It was as at the beginning of the world, as if there were only the two of them still on the earth, or rather in this world closed to all the rest, constructed by the logic of the creator, this world in which there would never be more than the two of them: this sonata.
In the third and final part of the book, Place-Names: The Name, Proust returns to the “I” narrator, back to the insomnia in the bedroom, and back to the boy walking with the family servant, Francoise, and then into his love for the girl Gilberte. Finally, using time compression, Proust moves the reader into the future, when the narrator is a man (clearly middle-aged or older) reflecting on his past, and all of the images harmonize, ending on a perfectly balanced and satisfying note:
They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.