My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1: The Way by Swann’s is a densely descriptive, prose-heavy analysis of social mores, veiled human frailty, familial and romantic love, anxiety, jealousy and the relationship between memory, place and time. It is told through the eyes of a tortuously sensitive boy and, later, through the amorous encounters of a socially mobile man within the fickle, pretentious and stifling world of the Parisian bourgeoisie during La Belle Epoque, a period in French society that lasted from 1871 to 1914.
I must be honest and reveal myself a heathen. It took me two months to plough through this novel with pen poised in hand and an intense furrowing of the brow. After the first fifty pages, I shelved Proust for a month, in favour of Hilary Mantel. À la recherche du temps perdu was not a natural pleasure for me by any stretch. I have little interest in the tribulations of well-to-do people deeply aware of and concerned with social class. The turgidity of Proust’s lengthy descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of characters at a dinner party, are somewhat exhausting after ten pages of facial tics and acted laughter, the hidden meanings of which, in the end, do not seem of any particular consequence.
Yet, I persisted. The exquisite, descriptive vocabulary retains a nowness; a timeless quality. And Proust’s meticulous, academic social observations reveal profound insights into the relationship between outward human behaviour and inner thought. He reveals a tender cynicism about the contrivances of his characters and a witty self-awareness about the inherent sense of superiority and associated cruelties that are a by-product of his social standing.
The central theme of lost time encapsulated in the spongy joys of a tea-soaked madeleine is touched so lightly that it lingers delicately in the back of the mind soothing numerous angst-ridden tussles between social constraint and individual complexity. And Proust maintains a deeply personal and confiding tone that leaves you feeling you know a part of him, you have seen a glimmer of his inner world and most intimate worries. It is odd but true that I even think the author’s vulnerability triggered my well-buried maternal instincts.
Within the novel, Proust considers his relationship to the inner sanctum of books and exterior reality that presents a concreteness which ‘dissipates’ when he tries to make contact with it. He writes: ‘…as an incandescent body brought near a damp object never touches its wetness because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation.’ The pages are bubbling over with this type of sumptuously visceral analogy that enables you to see and feel the intended sentiment.
Proust describes an assimilation of a book into a reader’s consciousness as he or she constructs characters from pieces of the writer’s creation; a meeting of minds, an exchange across time and space. His rigorous examination of the nature of literature reminds me that the written word is a living thing to be altered and interpreted differently by each and every reader within their own location and from their own construction of reality so that you might see through thine eyes what I have seen through mine.
I read In Search of Lost Time, despite my initial hurdles with the density of the text and disinterest in the staging of the novel, because I thought I could learn something from one of the most revered authors of the 20th century and I hoped it might make me a better writer. I leave the book on the shelf in the study/laundry/guest room, feeling enlightened, inspired and grateful that I didn’t give in.
So after all, as you read Proust and absorb a character, such as Swann’s lover, Odette de Crecy, and your mind shifts between the nuances of her elusive personality, remember you are sitting beneath a virtual blossoming chestnut tree with a French novelist, one of the greatest literary figures of our time, creating lives and building worlds.