Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Review: Swann’s Way

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust (translation by Lydia Davis)

9/10, a classic of literature in a new translation


Proust’s "In Search of Lost Time" is one of the most lauded and least read classics of literature. A staggering seven thick volumes, it’s a daunting read for even pretentious Ivy League graduates. But I decided I wanted to read it before I turn 50, which seems like an achievable goal, and a journey of a thousand books starts with a single page, so I picked up "Swann’s Way." The new translation is getting rave reviews for capturing the spirit of Proust more elegantly than the older but classic Moncrieff translations.

There’s a lot to love about Proust, and one big thing to dislike, or fear, or grow tired of, which is also one of the things to love: namely, his tendency to write sentences that stretch into paragraphs so long and dense that after hacking your way through the undergrowth of dependent clauses, some of which decide to tell their own story in the middle of the sentence, rather like one of those hard candies that abruptly shifts from one flavor to another on your tongue as you’re holding it in your mouth, you will sometimes turn around, look back, and realize that although you’ve quite enjoyed the path, you have in fact lost sight of your subject. Sentences the size of paragraphs; paragraphs that go on for pages; it’s like "The Lost World" for literature.

The good, though, is as monumental as the prose, and it’s hard to read even a few pages without gaining a huge amount of respect for both Proust and translator Davis. The first twenty or so pages of the book describe what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night. Really. But Proust gets away with it, by examining every nuance of feeing and perception and exploring its relation to his own humanity and ours in general. If this sounds dry and academic, it’s because I’m not doing it justice in the least. You end up reading passages and thinking, "I know exactly that feeling"–he describes them more thoroughly and accurately than anyone else I’ve ever read.

You don’t even notice, at first, that there is no real story, that you’ve been reading for thirty pages and the narrator is still lying in his bed in the middle of the night. But Proust slides easily from the general to the specific, and in the middle of a discussion about his neurotic need for a good-night kiss from his mother, mentions the cases in which this became embarrassing, usually when company was over, and thus M. Swann enters the picture.

Swann dominates the first book: as a guest in the first part, the subject of the second part, and the father of the narrator’s sweetheart in the third. By the time we’re done, we know him backwards and forwards, as a young man pursuant of ideals and trapped in his own conceptions of what is worthwhile and proper; later as a father, mellower but still kind at heart. We know our narrator well, too: his insecurities and desperate need for female affection.

There are other terrific touches of character, like this, one of my favorites in the book:

[Mme. de Gallardon has drawn the attention of her cousin, the Princesse des Laumes, to M. Swann at the party they are attending, where the pianist has just begun to play a polonaise by Chopin.]

[Mme. des Laumes] belonged to that half of the human race in whom the curiosity the other half feels about the people it does not know is replaced by an interest in the people it does. As with many women of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the presence in a place where she happened to be of someone from her set, though she had nothing in particular to say to him, monopolized her attention at the expense of everything else. From that moment on, in the hopes that Swann would notice her, the Princesse, like a tame white mouse when a bit of sugar is offered to it and then taken away, kept turning her face, which was filled with a thousand signs of complicity unrelated to the feeling in Chopin’s polonaise, in Swann’s direction, and if he moved, she would shift in a corresponding direction her magnetic smile.

"Oriane, don’t be angry," resumed Mme. de Gallardon, who could never stop herself from sacrificing her greatest social ambitions and highest hopes of someday dazzling the world to the immediate, obscure, and private pleasure of saying something disagreeable, "but people do claim that M. Swann is someone whom one can’t have in one’s house, is that true?"

"Why…you ought to know," answered the Princesse des Laumes, "since you’ve invited him fifty times and he hasn’t come once."

If you love language, you owe it to yourself at least to pick up Swann’s Way and read a couple pages in the bookstore. It’s a daunting task, and I’m glad to have a friend reading it at the same time I am, or else I’d never get through it (that and a lot of plane flights helped). This translation is copiously footnoted, in case you are curious about questions like "what is Les Filles de Marbre?" or "who is Nicolas Maes?" Proust is sometimes a struggle to read, but the moments of delight, like the one listed above, are so unique that they are worth the effort.

And now, on to book 2…


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