With yesterday’s completion of Finding Time Again, the seventh and final book in Proust’s series, I’ve finally finished a quest that I began way back in February, when I checked out Swann’s Way from the Oakland Library just because I had to check out to two books before my lending privileges would be fully activated and the library’s attractive-looking copy of the Lydia Davis translation was one of the first things to catch my eye in my hurried glance through the stacks (the other being The General In His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which was also pretty good).
I can’t tell whether the final book is actually better than all of the previous books or if I only enjoyed it more because the previous books had taught me how to read Proust, but I think this book contains three of the most delightful set-pieces in the whole septology.
Firstly, roughly the first third of the book contains a discussion of Paris during war-time (and the activities of some of the characters during the war). I’ve always thought of Proust as being a very domestic sort of novelist, but he’s surprised me time and again. Throughout the series, he devotes considerable attention to political matters (such as the Dreyfus affairs) and technological ones (such as lengthy meditations on first the telephone and then the airplane). But, considering that he began the novel during peace-time, in 1907, I think it showed a lot of courage for him to incorporate the war into the work, and I think he does a really good job of using it to start wrapping up a lot of his threads about patriotism, nationalism, and masculinity.
The next fourth of the book balloons outward from when the narrator steps on an uneven pair of cobblestones and immediately remembers another uneven pair of cobblestones mentioned earlier in the novel (I know that this kind of seems like a joke about navel-gazing French novels, but that’s really how it goes down) and realizes that in the circumscribed span of time between the two events—the present moment and the event he’s remembering—he’s found the grand theme of the literary work that he’s been thinking about writing for the past 3500 pages (the narrator is an aspiring writer).
The next sixty pages basically contain Proust’s guide to the themes and aims of the book that you’re holding in your hand. I’m sure I’m going to garble this, but he basically writes about how we live primarily in our own memories, and how, in remembering, we resurrect the past, but we also fill it with a kind of goldenness that didn’t exist at the time. He writes about how he can be filled with exhilaration by the memory of his childhood, even though it was actually filled with boredom and anxiety. That’s because the moment is kind of a mishmash of sensory perception, but in our memory, we craft a sort of more idealized, more artistic moment. We select the stimuli we will remember, and we create something beautiful out of our raw impressions. He thinks that the purpose of his literary work will be to capture these intervals of time and allow the reader to not only live within them, but also teach the reader how to recapture his (or her) own past and own memories and reanimate those as well.
The rest of the book is given over to a description of a dinner party where Proust highlights how everyone has aged by describing them as if they are actors who are wearing makeup. It’s one of the best 100 page dinner parties of a book that has at least six or seven 100 page dinner parties. You get to see what everyone is doing and how they ended up. You get to see characters whom you met as youths and see how they’ve been transformed into old women.
For me, the prime joy of this series was always in its characterization. Proust doesn’t pay attention to any of the normal ways of making a character arcs. His characters don’t progress from one goal to another, from one personality quirk to another. Instead, his characters are discontinuous. He spends fifty pages sketching a static portrait of a character, and then, two books later, he’ll spend another fifty pages sketching a portrait of that character is mostly, though not entirely, different.
Proust is the only novelist who shows people from multiple angles. Like, you know how when serial killers get caught, their wives and neighbors will often describe them as alright guys? Well, that’s not just because they’re putting up a façade. It’s also because we are simply different people at different times and places. That’s why Proust can show someone like his maid Francoise as being devoted to correcting anything that might even slightly inconvenience him, and then later show her as being selfish and bitter and cruel. Even though they can be contradictory, his portraits retain enough overlap, and resonate strongly enough with each other, that they never seem arbitrary.
I don’t think any other novelist has yet done anything like Proust. In a way, it’s kind of demoralizing, because it exposes how much of ordinary novel format is a kind of consensus fiction. We know that humans are really much more complicated than the way they’re shown in novels, but we accept that as “reality” just because we’ve been taught to.
Still, his work is not something that can be followed up or built upon. It’s hard to imagine imitating its structure. Actually, I’m surprised that even Proust managed to do it. This is the kind of work that seems like it ought to be forever unfinished. However, even though he never managed to edit the last four volumes, I think that the series comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Part of me would like to see someone try to give the Proustian treatment to something other than fin de siècle French high society, but I don’t think that anyone else can or will try.
Anyways, when I started reading Swann’s Way, I was like, “Holy shit, I am going to have to read all the rest of these now, aren’t I?” and when I read the next book In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower and saw how interconnected it was with Swann’s Way, I realized that I was going to have to read the whole series in a pretty short timespan, if I wasn’t going to forget who everyone was. So I did, and it was pretty decent. If anyone wants my tips on reading the series, I offer them as follows:
· I have absolutely no opinion on which translation is the right one to read. I chose the more recent Penguin translations because I had a suspicion that the Moncrieff translations (from the 30s) might bowdlerize the homosexual content (which I was particularly interested in). The last two volumes of the Penguin translation are not available (due to copyright issues) in the U.S. I ordered them from amazon.co.uk because I figured that I might as well.
- If you’re not sure whether you’ll like the series, then I recommend that you read the middle section of Swann’s Way (entitled Swann In Love) first. It’s about 200 pages long. If you like it, you’ll probably like the rest. It’s kind of the whole series in miniature.
- You can’t really skim Proust, since it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no point rushing to reach a destination that won’t give you any satisfaction when you reach it, since the main pleasures of the book don’t arise from resolution of plot threads or character development. Whatever pleasure you derive from each page is pretty much it. The sum is not much greater than the parts. However, I do recommend that you don’t read too closely (unless that kind of reading comes naturally to you, of course). The writing is very dense, and it’s easy to read and reread the same passage, but I didn’t find that very rewarding. I found that whatever I didn’t quite get on my first read-through of a page was unlikely to reveal itself on a subsequent read-through of the same page. I tried, as much as possible, to read it like a regular book, and to keep going through it at a reasonable clip, finishing each book in a week, at most.
- Read the books in rapid succession. Even ten months between the first and last book was almost too much. There were allusions in the final book to events that I didn’t remember from previous books.
- Don’t worry if you get bored sometimes. Sometimes I’d be reading the book and I’d start thinking about something else, and I’d read several pages without retaining a word of them. I don’t think the solution to boredom is to keep re-reading the boring part until you remember it; I think the solution is to read onwards until you reach an interesting part.