Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Reading Notes: Swann's Way, Part I

As a 16-year-old over-achiever aiming to read all the same books as Rory Gilmore, I must've checked out Proust's Swann's Way from the library about six times without ever having actually opened it to page one. It was always just too daunting, and somehow I knew back then that it was far over my analytical ability level. When my NYC book club chose it as the long holiday selection right before I moved, I decided to buy it anyway - a new motivator to pick up this long set-aside "masterpiece."

...And so it has sat for another three-and-a-half years until my fall reading of David Copperfield inspired me to pick up some other classics for my summer break reading. Thus with 6 weeks ahead of me with ample time and freedom, I decided to finally embark on the Proust journey.

For having held a position on my "to read" shelf for so long, I have known surprisingly little about Swann's Way. My skim through translator Lydia Davis' introduction ("skim" because, wow, she gets detailed) informed me that the novel's narrator is not, in fact, this titular Swann, and whomever he is is never named (though all the internet will call him Marcel, apparently after the author, assuming this is somewhat an autobiographical voice, according to a one-lined reference in a later volume of this anthology). This, along with Davis' further discourse on Proust's run-on writing style and references to this yet-unknown-to-me famous episode with a madeleine, immediately informed me that I may be in rather over my head. Some sort of reading guide seemed necessary, and I luckily found an informal one, a seeming personal reading project and journal called 182 Days of Marcel Proust in which the blog author simply records and reflects during the reading process, about 15 pages at a time. PERFECT.

Part 1, titled "Combray," involves mostly the narrator's reflections on his childhood spent at his grandparent's house in the northern French town of Combray. It starts out as a simple memory of how he often struggled with falling asleep as a child, and then experienced that sensation when you start awake and lose track of where you are and realize you were, in fact, actually asleep, but you have to piece together your surroundings of time and place. I mean, yes, it's a very real and common phenomenon, but pretty much the entire first section of this narration reflects on this idea that stemmed from this small memory. This gives you an indication of just how Proust structures his narration. [Basically, not at all. It's a lot of meandering, stream of consciousness, one thought leads to another idea sort of thing.]

Continuing on, the narrator recalls an incident when Monsieur Swann (a neighbor and friend to his grandparents) is visiting for dinner, thus preventing the narrator's mother from kissing him goodnight, which was apparently an anxiety-inducing tragedy worth reflecting upon years later. Other memories include those with Aunt Leonie, an ailing old codger who confines herself to her bed and constantly laments her state of health, whether real or imagined. [She's just like old Mrs. Harris in the Anne of Avonlea movie.] He recalls an innocent encounter with his Uncle and a prostitute that causes such embarrassment that Uncle is never seen by Narrator again. There are pedantic acquaintances that annoy the family but introduce the Narrator to a great deal of literature and culture. And there are ordinary townsfolk, like M. Vinteuil and daughter, whose small personal dramas cause great reflection on life, love, and humanity. Oh, and Narrator also meets Swann's daughter, Gilberte, with whom he apparently is essentially obsessed. [Supposedly there's more on that later.]

As I've followed along with summaries and notes during my own reading, I was somewhat surprised to realize that I was actually following what was happening. I haven't read an observation on a detail that I couldn't recall...which is a good sign; it means I am following the narration fairly well, at least. But I still haven't felt as though I really get it, that I get what Proust is saying and why. Yes, I can follow the plot points easily, but Proust is using so many words and there's such academic intellect surrounding him; surely there must be something deeper that I am missing. I mean, he's building this story, or rather, narrative, around an individual's memories and recollections and how these affect one's view and perception of the world - something that is very personally and, well, individualistic. It's like trying to put into words a complex cognitive process that happens without awareness or consciousness.

I guess it makes sense when you consider the overarching title of Proust's 7-volume anthology (of which Swann's Way is the first): "In Search of Lost Time." The Narrator here reflects a great deal on sensory experiences (dipping the madeleine into a cup of tea, observing church steeples from a moving carriage as the sun sets) and I guess Proust's p o i n t of this all is to consider how these small, perhaps insignificant moments of "lost time" actually inspire and contribute to our personal, intellectual development and experience.

But I'm still just very taken with the minor role Monsieur Swann has actually played in this first third of the book so far. Waiting to find out when (or even if) he becomes a lead.

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