Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust.

À la recherche du temps perdu.
This is going to be a two-part post: in the first part I'd like to write a little about 'reading the hard stuff' and tackling Swanns Way, and in the second part I'll share my thoughts on the novel itself.

Apologies, by the way, for this being so long: I have a lot of thoughts and it is useful to write these things down when tackling something as large as this.

Part I: On Reading the 'Hard Stuff'.

I was thinking about the Chronicles of Barsetshire yesterday, which as you may know is a six book series by Anthony Trollope. This series contains, approximately, 1 291 165 words. In Search of Lost Time is believed to contain around 1 267 069 words, which is 24 096 less (I added up the word count of the Chronicles of Barsetshire using Feedbooks, and Wikipedia has a word count of In Search of Lost Time). So, the Chronicles of Barsetshire is significantly longer, and yet significantly less intimidating. Furthermore, I happily read through Émile Zola's Rougon Macquart series (20 books), yet I, along with everyone, fear Marcel Proust's seven (though these seven books are, in fact, one novel). Why? The answer of course: In Search of Lost Time is modernist literature. It is experimental, it's strange, it's out of my comofrt zone however hard I try to familiarise myself with it. ("Make it new" said Ezra Pound, and they did: even now, one hundred years on, it feels new, and it takes time to feel at ease with it (if, indeed, anyone ever does).

There are some books that demand more effort, and whilst these books may differ from person to person, I think In Search of Lost Time is one of these novels that everyone agrees is hard. This novel has companions, maps, 'field guides';  there is a book (which looks great) just about the art in In Search of Lost Time: so much is written, and it's easy to feel that in order to read Proust, one ought to read these. 

I do think they're beneficial. I would like one. But I also believe that there's a danger in feeling that one is not good enough for Proust. As I was writing about the first three sections of Swann's Way in Part III of this post, I consulted a wealth of material (little of it used in this post) and tied myself in knots. I have to ask - why do I feel the need to do this?

When I write reviews, I usually pick one or two aspects of a novel and write about that. People who have read the books I've reviewed know too well that I don't do, or try to do, an in depth analysis of the entire novel, novella, poem, or play. I don't look for that in other bloggers either: blogging is personal thing, and I like to read about what struck people about a piece of writing, and this is what I try to do myself. 

So why not do this with Proust? This is going to be my approach to Proust: my standard approach. What I hope to write in the coming months are my thoughts on each part of In Search of Lost Time and it will be, as with all my other posts, imperfect, biased (possibly), and incomplete. It is by doing this that I come to reach an understanding of a book. I don't want to feel intimidated by Proust, nor about writing about it, and I don't want to attempt to present an academic-style essay when I am not an academic. In short: I don't want to make this an impossible task and sap out the enjoyment! 

Part II: The Review of Swann's Way.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus'd to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet XXX.

The title of À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, or, In Search of Lost Time) derives from Shakespeare's Sonnet XXX quoted above - "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought  / I summon up remembrance of things past", and Swann's Way (originally titled Du côté de chez Swann, first published in November 1913), the first part of the novel refers to a path where Marcel would walk:
For there were, in the environs of Combray, two 'ways' which we used to take for our walks, and so diametrically opposed that we would actually leave the house by a different door, according to the way we had chosen: the way towards Méséglise-la-Vineuse, which we called also 'Swann's way,' because, to get there, one had to pass along the boundary of M. Swann's estate, and the 'Guermantes way.' [The Guermantes Way (Le Côté de Guermantes) is the title of the third book, published in 1920 - 1921]
It is divided into four chapters: the 'Overture', also known as 'Combray I', Combray, also known as 'Combray II', 'Swann in Love', and 'Place Names: The Name'. There are two stories: one about the narrator, Marcel, who dominates the 'Overture', 'Combray', and 'Place Names: The Name', and Swann, who Marcel writes about in 'Swann in Love', the action of which takes place around fifteen years earlier. I'll look at each section, but I must say: I know the quotes I share are very long. Proust's quotes are very long, and I feel as though I'm butchering them by making them shorter: in attempting to find the 'essence', I in fact lose it!

~ Overture ~
Pages 3 - 51
For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say "I'm going to sleep." And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.
Proust is frequently criticised by those who cannot get past the Overture that he has described an inconsequential character who cannot sleep, and taken up fifty pages in doing so. Obviously, it is much more than that: whilst not sleeping, Marcel muses on time and space, mortality, childhood, reality and fiction, and the descriptions are beautiful, both vivid and dreamlike.

The opening to Swann's Way, and, indeed, In Search of Lost Time, sets the tone for this dreamy part of the novel where the narrator, who we come to learn is Marcel, tells of his difficulties of getting to sleep. It is not the dark he fears so much as losing his sense of time, feeling at mercy to the "confused gusts of memory". He tells of falling asleep, "where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder". He reminisces, thinking of his childhood days at his grandparents at Combray when insomnia tormented and depressed him. He longed so deeply for the comfort of his mother expressed in a goodnight kiss that, when it was denied him, he would plot and contrive to make her come to his room. Most often, it is when M. Swann would visit, a friend of Marcel's grandfather (and "the unconscious author of my sufferings"), who, unbeknown to them, was
... one of the smartest members of the Jockey Club, a particular friend of the Comte de Paris and of the Prince of Wales, and one of the men most sought after in the aristocratic world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
But Monsieur Charles Swann is secondary to Marcel in the Overture, who describes most poignantly the desire to see his mother, yet, on this desire being satisfied, experiences terrific guilt at troubling her, as though by "winning" her one evening when his father tells her it would be best if she slept with him that night, he "traced a first wrinkle upon her soul and brought out a first white hair on her head."

The battle over, and mother "won", Marcel concluded, saying that thoughts of those days at Combray barely entered his mind, until one winter's day all the memories come flooding back in surely what is the most famous passage of the novel:
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

Combray ~
Pages 52 - 204
For there were, in the environs of Combray, two 'ways' which we used to take for our walks, and so diametrically opposed that we would actually leave the house by a different door, according to the way we had chosen: the way towards Méséglise-la-Vineuse, which we called also 'Swann's way,' because, to get there, one had to pass along the boundary of M. Swann's estate, and the 'Guermantes way.'
Hawthorn blossom.
In this section Proust describes Combray, a small village in the centre of France. Before In Search of Lost Time, the village was known as Illiers, but in honour of Proust the name was changed to Illiers-Combray in 1971 to celebrate the centenary of Proust's birth.

In this section we meet Aunt Léonie who, following the death of her husband, develops acute hypochondria. Marcel describes her in a humorous though somewhat unforgiving passage - 
I would often hear her saying to herself: "I must not forget that I never slept a wink"—for "never sleeping a wink" was her great claim to distinction, and one admitted and respected in our household vocabulary; in the morning Françoise would not 'call' her, but would simply 'come to' her; during the day, when my aunt wished to take a nap, we used to say just that she wished to 'be quiet' or to 'rest'; and when in conversation she so far forgot herself as to say "what made me wake up," or "I dreamed that," she would flush and at once correct herself.
We also meet Françoise, Léonie's servant, M. Legrandin (an engineer and poet), Uncle Adolphe, and his friend Bloch, who introduces him to the writer Bergotte (to name but a few of the characters).

There are a great many references to Hawthorn and Hawthorn blossom in 'Combray', Marcel (the narrator) describes himself as in love with them, and later writes, 
But it was in vain that I lingered before the hawthorns, to breathe in, to marshal before my mind (which knew not what to make of it), to lose in order to rediscover their invisible and unchanging odour, to absorb myself in the rhythm which disposed their flowers here and there with the light-heartedness of youth, and at intervals as unexpected as certain intervals of music; they offered me an indefinite continuation of the same charm, in an inexhaustible profusion, but without letting me delve into it any more deeply, like those melodies which one can play over a hundred times in succession without coming any nearer to their secret. I turned away from them for a moment so as to be able to return to them with renewed strength.
Hawthorns, according to Celtic mythology, are associated with balance and duality: the hawthorn is full of contradictions - the beauty of the flowers and the dangers of the thorns. But these are not the only flowers in Swann's Way, of course.

Proust's love of music shows in In Search of Lost Time, and particularly Swann's Way. There are the obvious examples, the use of words associated with music, but this is my favourite part - the 'symphony of flies' - 
It was hardly light enough for me to read, and my feeling of the day's brightness and splendour was derived solely from the blows struck down below, in the Rue de la Curé, by Camus (whom Françoise had assured that my aunt was not 'resting' and that he might therefore make a noise), upon some old packing-cases from which nothing would really be sent flying but the dust, though the din of them, in the resonant atmosphere that accompanies hot weather, seemed to scatter broadcast a rain of blood-red stars; and from the flies who performed for my benefit, in their small concert, as it might be the chamber music of summer; evoking heat and light quite differently from an air of human music which, if you happen to have heard it during a fine summer, will always bring that summer back to your mind, the flies' music is bound to the season by a closer, a more vital tie—born of sunny days, and not to be reborn but with them, containing something of their essential nature, it not merely calls up their image in our memory, but gives us a guarantee that they do really exist, that they are close around us, immediately accessible.
Also in 'Combray', when Marcel decides to become a novelist, he writes about literature (which, as I love this part, I'll quote at length):
Next to this central belief, which, while I was reading, would be constantly a motion from my inner self to the outer world, towards the discovery of Truth, came the emotions aroused in me by the action in which I would be taking part, for these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic and sensational events than occur, often, in a whole lifetime. These were the events which took place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Françoise would have called 'real people.' But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a 'real' person awaken in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the picture was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of 'real' people would be a decided improvement. A 'real' person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, he remains opaque, offers a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist's happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable by the human spirit, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which the spirit can assimilate to itself. After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, while we turn over, feverishly, the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to that state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid, and of a more lasting impression than those which come to us in sleep; why, then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which, only, we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the keenest, the most intense of which would never have been revealed to us because the slow course of their development stops our perception of them. It is the same in life; the heart changes, and that is our worst misfortune; but we learn of it only from reading or by imagination; for in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change. 
Next to, but distinctly less intimate a part of myself than this human element, would come the view, more or less projected before my eyes, of the country in which the action of the story was taking place, which made a far stronger impression on my mind than the other, the actual landscape which would meet my eyes when I raised them from my book. In this way, for two consecutive summers I used to sit in the heat of our Combray garden, sick with a longing inspired by the book I was then reading for a land of mountains and rivers, where I could see an endless vista of sawmills, where beneath the limpid currents fragments of wood lay mouldering in beds of watercress; and nearby, rambling and clustering along low walls, purple flowers and red. And since there was always lurking in my mind the dream of a woman who would enrich me with her love, that dream in those two summers used to be quickened with the freshness and coolness of running water; and whoever she might be, the woman whose image I called to mind, purple flowers and red would at once spring up on either side of her like complementary colours. 
This was not only because an image of which we dream remains for ever distinguished, is adorned and enriched by the association of colours not its own which may happen to surround it in our mental picture; for the scenes in the books I read were to me not merely scenery more vividly portrayed by my imagination than any which Combray could spread before my eyes but otherwise of the same kind. Because of the selection that the author had made of them, because of the spirit of faith in which my mind would exceed and anticipate his printed word, as it might be interpreting a revelation, these scenes used to give me the impression—one which I hardly ever derived from any place in which I might happen to be, and never from our garden, that undistinguished product of the strictly conventional fantasy of the gardener whom my grandmother so despised—of their being actually part of Nature herself, and worthy to be studied and explored.
It is in this section that Marcel first meets Gilberte, Swann's daughter, who he falls in love with.

~ Swann in Love ~
Pages 205 - 415

This part, Un Amour de Swann, is almost a novella in its own right and has been published in a volume of it's own. Marcel tells the story of Charles Swann who is in love with the vulgar, superficial, self-obsessed Odette de Crécy, who was once a prostitute. Proust writes of Swann's obsession that followed from his realisation that Odette looks like Botticelli's 'Zipporah' - 
He no longer based his estimate of the merit of Odette's face on the more or less good quality of her cheeks, and the softness and sweetness—as of carnation-petals—which, he supposed, would greet his lips there, should he ever hazard an embrace, but regarded it rather as a skein of subtle and lovely silken threads, which his gazing eyes collected and wound together, following the curving line from the skein to the ball, where he mingled the cadence of her neck with the spring of her hair and the droop of her eyelids, as though from a portrait of herself, in which her type was made clearly intelligible.

Left: Botticelli's Trial of Moses.
Right: Detail showing Zipporah, Jethro's daughter.
Swann is entirely consumed from then on in with Odette and his jealousy sends him around Paris looking for her, spying on her; wanting to know her movements. He becomes detached from the real world and suffers a nightmare of humiliations: she is, of course, unfaithful to him, but he believes he loves her, yet at times her wishes she would die. Ultimately he comes to his senses, and Odette ceases to be Botticelli's Zipporah-
Odette's pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn features, her tired eyes, all the things which—in the course of those successive bursts of affection which had made of his enduring love for Odette a long oblivion of the first impression that he had formed of her—he had ceased to observe after the first few days of their intimacy, days to which, doubtless, while he slept, his memory had returned to seek the exact sensation of those things.... "To think that I've wasted years of my life, that I've longed to die, that I've experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn't appeal to me, who wasn't even my type!"
'Swann in Love' is a desperately sad episode, and very moving: probably something many of us can identify with. 

~ Place Names: The Name ~ 
Pages 416 - 462

Cynical as this may sound (and I don't wish it to sound cynical), by this stage a chapter of less than fifty pages becomes very manageable. It is but a short chapter that returns to Marcel and describes his falling in love with Gilberte, which has parallels with Swann's love of Odette (Marcel, for example believes Gilberte's dark eyes are really blue). Marcel becomes fascinated with the Swanns, and at one point even tries to look like Charles Swann:
As for Swann, in my attempts to resemble him, I spent the whole time, when I was at table, in drawing my finger along my nose and in rubbing my eyes. My father would exclaim: "The child's a perfect idiot, he's becoming quite impossible." More than all else I should have liked to be as bald as Swann. He appeared to me to be a creature so extraordinary that I found it impossible to believe that people whom I knew and often saw knew him also, and that in the course of the day anyone might run against him. And once my mother, while she was telling us, as she did every evening at dinner, where she had been and what she had done that afternoon, merely by the words: "By the way, guess whom I saw at the Trois Quartiers—at the umbrella counter—Swann!" caused to burst open in the midst of her narrative (an arid desert to me) a mystic blossom.
'Place Names' also contains a beautiful description of synæsthesia (definition: "A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a colour.") - 
... Bayeux, so lofty in its noble coronet of rusty lace, whose highest point caught the light of the old gold of its second syllable; Vitré, whose acute accent barred its ancient glass with wooden lozenges; gentle Lamballe, whose whiteness ranged from egg-shell yellow to a pearly grey; Coutances, a Norman Cathedral, which its final consonants, rich and yellowing, crowned with a tower of butter; Lannion with the rumble and buzz, in the silence of its village street, of the fly on the wheel of the coach; Questambert, Pontorson, ridiculously silly and simple, white feathers and yellow beaks strewn along the road to those well-watered and poetic spots; Benodet, a name scarcely moored that seemed to be striving to draw the river down into the tangle of its seaweeds; Pont-Aven, the snowy, rosy flight of the wing of a lightly poised coif, tremulously reflected in the greenish waters of a canal; Quimperlé, more firmly attached, this, and since the Middle Ages, among the rivulets with which it babbled, threading their pearls upon a grey background, like the pattern made, through the cobwebs upon a window, by rays of sunlight changed into blunt points of tarnished silver?


Memory, time, and perception are the main themes of Swann's Way, that time is not an absolute entity and there are no universal truths, just understandings pertinent to an individual's emotions and experiences. As Proust concludes at the end of Swann's Way
The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.



  1. I think I feel the same kind of intimidation that you described as I've been reading Joyce's Ulysses. I've almost quit multiple times. But I persisted and now I'm in the home stretch with only 5 chapters left (still a whopping 300+ pages, though).

    Part of the intimidation factor I suspect is both size and these works' experimental nature. It's one thing to read an experimental short story or even an experimental novel of 200 pages, but it's a whole other level of intimidation to read works the size of some of Tolstoy's chunksters without the engaging straight-forwardness and full linguistic experiments!

    How did you balance your time reading Swan's Way?

    1. Ulysses... I've read it twice and I'm still no further forward! I'm going to get an annotated copy and read it after I've finished Proust. Lori is hosting a read-along, which I can't join as I've got Proust on the go, but I'm looking forward to her posts and any others that may spring up.

      One of the reasons I'm struggling is because balancing one's time isn't quite so simple. I can't just "read a chapter" and get on with my day - I'm reading 'Madame Swann At Home' (first part of the second book), and this "chapter" is from page 465 to 690! There are some natural breaks within the text, and this does make it easier to put the book down, but one never knows when they're coming!

      So, so far, I read the Overture in one go, Combray over a few days, Swann in Love in one go (readathon!), and later that day Place Names. I won't have any more readathons to help me out in the future, though, so I'm just reading it until I find these natural breaks.

      And I'm not reading it at bed time! I've got Adam Bede on the go for bed time :)

    2. Adam Bede, another book I need to read one of these days!

      Balancing time is always the tricky part with novels like Ulysses and Proust. I admire how many of my fellow book bloggers, like yourself, seem to keep a steady pace. Thanks for sharing your method of how you've tackled Proust so far!

    3. A *fairly* steady pace :) It's been a few days since I've read any Proust. I'm at the worried stage - do not want to end up abandoning it! That said, when I read Clarissa I had almost a two week gap but I picked it up happily enough.


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