All the way back in the ancient days of 2016, I read de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. That put famed author Marcel Proust on my radar. Last year I read about Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) reading Proust when recovering from a traumatic open heart surgery, and how Proust reconnected him to his love of reading.
After that, I finally took the plunge! I spent four months reading through the 600+ pages of Swann’s Way, volume one (of six) of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. At this rate, it will be a full two years’ worth of reading to finish the whole Search. Am I going to do it? Of course I am! Just not all at once.
In Swann’s Way, the narrator takes the reader on a meandering walk through Paris and Combray, and takes plenty of detours on the walk. Sometimes the narrator is a child, sometimes an adult looking back, sometimes he’s living through Mr Swann – a gentlemanly cad of sorts, a member of Society, a man in love. (“Swann’s Way” is both a walking path and a way of obsessive love, I suppose.)
In terms of literary criticism and historical context, I am not the right person to offer up anything meaningful about the book. All I can do is say what it meant to me. What stood out the most, to me, is Proust exploring how at any given time, multiple meanings and experiences are being lived out at the same time, and in the same place. Not only do our unique perceptions make up our unique experiences and meanings of events and places, but our perceptions change over time. In some ways it’s a novel about time travel and perception. In other ways, it’s basically the plot of The Killers’ Mr. Brightside, as Swann in love tries to make sense of whether he loves or despises the controversial Odette. That’s a sizable portion of the novel; almost its own novella. But I think it’s less about Swann & Odette, and more about the narrator. Time will tell as I make my way through the series.
Here’s a passage that stood out to me, on aging and nostalgia:
When a belief vanishes, there survives it, more and more vigorously so as to cloak the absence of power, now lost to us, of imparting reality to new things – a fetishistic attachment to the old things which it did once animate, as if it was in them and not in ourselves that the divine spark resided, and as if our present incredulity had a contingent cause – the death of the gods.