Saturday, October 25, 2014

Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (1913)

Oh, yes. We are doing this, motherfucker.

You really have to make a conscious effort to decide to read Proust. It is unlikely that you will just wake up one fine day and casually think, you know what I want to do? Read thirty-five hundred pages of navel-gazing by a neurotic Frenchman. But you've gotta do it! What are you, some kind of jerk?

In the first section, “Combray,” the narrator talks at length about his childhood and his family. It contains the two things that people who haven't read Proust may nonetheless be vaguely aware of: a lengthy novel-opening treatise on going to sleep, and, of course, sense-memory with madeleines. It lets you know pretty much exactly what you're in for: pages on pages of very intense probing of internalized mental states. The novelist it reminds me most of—although, obviously, Proust came first—is Mishima, in his more relentlessly internal novels like Confessions of a Mask or Temple of the Golden Pavilion. One thing I noticed is that, for all its emphasis on exactitude, I wouldn't exactly call his characters “realistic,” or if so, then realistic in a kind of heightened, stylized way, if that's not a contradiction. Which it clearly is. But so for instance: the family eats lunch an hour late on Saturday. Hokay. And, we are told, if anyone asks, hey, why are you still eating? they'd be like DUH IT'S SATURDAY and that would be the cause for much violent merriment, that barbaric foreigners would wonder about such a thing, and you think, okay, families have their weird little in-things, granted, but this just makes them seem pathological rather than typical. I am not going to drag in Lukács here, even though that's an obvious thing to do, because I do not want to go down that rabbit hole. And anyway, it's not a complaint. Young Marcel (or whatever we want to call him)'s perceptions remain fascinating, and there certainly is a lot of verisimilitude here, even if it's of an idiosyncratic kind.

The second part is “Swann in Love,” Swann being a character who had frequently been invited to the narrator's family's get-togethers in “Combray”--though without his wife and daughter, who were considered low-class. Now, we hie ourselves back to a past (of which the narrator couldn't possibly be aware, but that's neither here nor there) in which Swann is not married, but in the process of answering in the affirmative that age-old question: ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't've? Odette, his future wife, is a possibly-former prostitute, for whom he conceives an exhaustingly intense (“intense”--that word tends to come up a lot when talking about Proust, I notice. “Exhausting,” also.) and anguished passion, which is what the section is mostly about (though there's also, relatedly, some quite withering scorn heaped on the stifling triteness and artificiality of insular social in-groups). It makes Swann look kind of insane, but in a relatable way (well, relatable to me, anyway), which frequent moments when you think, ouch—that is altogether too accurate. At the end of the section, their relationship (such as it is) appears to be dead, leaving open the question of how the hell they ended up married. No doubt we will learn the answer to that question at a later point, in very great detail!

The short concluding section, “Place Names-The Name,” returns us to the narrator's childhood, and particularly the way that hearing the names of places conjures certain images of them that the places themselves can never match. He also becomes friends with a young girl named Gilberte, who, we later learn, is Swann's and Odette's daughter. His passion for her, though basically presexual, still has that feel about it, and mirror's Swann's feelings for Odette in a number of ways—though when we're talking about children, it's more endearing than disturbing.

So anyway, okay! Swann's Way! Look, it must be admitted: Proust's merits are obvious, but he's also pretty doggone exhausting. One would not call him a disciplined writer. Still, in for a penny, in for a whole shitload of penetrating social and psychological analysis! Stick around to see if I make it all the way through!


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