Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

It seems rather presumptuous of me to write about Proust’s Swann’s Way in a few paragraphs when it takes him four pages to describe waiting for his mother’s goodnight kiss. Or, the lushness of the hawthorn blossoms. Or, the shades of colour found in a bunch of asparagus, or the way the afternoon sunlight cast its gaze upon his Aunt Leonie’s lemon wood furniture. But all of this was in the first part of this novel, entitled Combray. For that is when he reminisces about being a child, leaving Paris for the country, and describes for us in such great detail the peaceful way of life he encounters there that it makes me remember a similar simplicity from my own youth.
How well I remember trying to find hiding places in which to read:
“But my grandmother, even if the weather, after growing too hot, had broken, and a storm, or just a shower, had burst over us, would come up and beg me to go outside. And as I did not wish to leave off my book, I would go on with it in the garden, under the chestnut-tree, in a little sentry-box of canvas and matting. In the farthest recesses of which I used to sit and feel that I was hidden from the eyes of anyone who might be coming to call upon my family.”
Or picnics my mother had prepared for us:
“It was time for us to feed. Before starting homewards we would sit for a long time there, eating fruit and bread and chocolate, on the grass over which came to our ears, horizontal, faint but solid  still and metallic, the sound of the bells of Saint-Hillaire, which had melted not at all in the atmosphere it was so well accustomed to traverse, but broken piecemeal by the successive palpitation of all their sonorous strokes, throbbed as it brushed the flowers at our feet.”
Rather abruptly, as Combray ends, we then find ourselves immersed in Swann in Love, which details Swann’s relationship with Odette. She is neither bright nor sophisticated; she does not even attract him very much at all when they first meet at the banal gatherings of the ‘faithful’ held in the Verdurin’s home. What is it, then, that makes Swann fall in love with her? The possibility that she might not be there, of course, and missing her one evening when he actually arrives and she is gone.
“As a matter of fact, she had never given him a thought. And such moments as these, in which she forgot Swann’s very existence, were of more value to Odette, did more to attach him to her, than all her infidelities. For in this way Swann was kept in that state of painful agitation which had once before been effective in making his interest blossom into love, on the night when he had failed to find Odette at the Verdurins’ and had hunted for her all evening. And he did not have (as I had, afterwards, at Combray in my childhood) happy days in which to forget the suffering that would return with the night.”
How tragic it was, to me, to learn that though he longed “to escape not so much from the keenness of his sufferings as from the monotony of his struggle” concerning Odette, he did in fact make her his wife. We discover this unhappy fact in the final portion of the book, which comes back to our young narrator and the affection he feels for Swann’s daughter, Gilberte. It is, perhaps like her mother’s lack of affection for Swann, a one-sided relationship. All the times that he plans to meet her at the park, hoping that she will arrive when he is there, or saving a special marble which reminds him of her eyes, are for naught. She cares for him with nothing more than a simple friendship.
Proust ends his first volume of the Remembrance of Things Past with rather melancholy thoughts, ones which often echo my own. It is easy for us romantics to look at the past as if it was better than the present. Perhaps it was. Perhaps it isn’t. Regardless, we cannot go back. We can remember with great fondness the days of our youth, accompanied by our hopes. But we must bravely face the future, for those days gone by are only the thinnest slice of our long lives.
“The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places that we have known belong not only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the continuous impressions that composed our life at that time, remembrance of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive alas! as the years.”
Proust’s recollections cause me to reflect on my own life in the same manner, and I found myself slowing down my thoughts to match the pace of his narrator.
It was a lovely feeling.
(Inspired to read with Arti of Ripple Effects at her suggestion; her latest post is here.)

23 thoughts on “Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

  1. I think it's a book for which you have to abandon the idea of a thrilling plot, and dwell instead on the narrator's memories as well as one's own. It is so interesting to see what his recollections from his childhood trigger in my own mind. The second part, Swann in Love, was a look at the social strata of his time which again, I can still connect to our own; there are always the fashionable, popular ones, which often make me scratch my head in befuddlement as to their purposes or manners or morals. When my life slows down a little, I.e. when school is over for the year, I would like to continue with volume 2 of Remembrance of Things Past. But first? The Japanese Literature Challenge 7, and all the books in my sidebar to be reviewed for publishers. 🙂


  2. I can't decide if it's best to keep on going once started, or to take breaks in between the volumes. I must say that I loved this book the farther I read, so I can see myself completing all seven at some point. Thanks, as always, for visiting, Stu.


  3. stu, you have read the best part twice! So that's not bad. The next best part is all the way at the end.

    Strictly speaking, the “Swann in Love” section is not of the narrator's or Proust's time, but before their time, before either one was born.

    “Combray” is magnificent. I have called the narrator's farewell to the hawthorn the most pathetic scene in all of literature – pathetic in the sense of creating pathos, not in the sense of “dude, that's pathetic!”


  4. Lovely post, Bellezza.
    I have never returned to Proust after the first two volumes, the time didn't seem right but I absolutely loved the first part. It resonated deeply with me, I wonder how this would be now.


  5. I read this volume twice, while in high school and then in college and every time I did that, I really felt how special it is and what a talent Marcel Proust had. Wonderful piece of French literature 🙂


  6. Tom, I'm glad you clarified the Swann in Love section. It seemed to rather stand alone, and you can imagine how distressed I was to find that he'd actually married Odette! But, I smiled at the way that Proust protrayed the triteness of the 'fashionable ones' at the Verdurin's gatherings.

    Combray is indeed magnificent. The description of the foods, and hawthorne trees, will alwasy be in my mind. But, just as poignant is the description of Aunt Leonie, loving martyr that she is, and the faithful Francoise. Even the grandfather's observations on the women he's surrounded by are a treat!


  7. Caroline, I know what you mean about needing the time to just 'seem right'. Perhaps it will be enough to have read the first book, and keep it a treasure in one's mind.


  8. Ally, our high school required nothing so sophisticated as Proust…they were all preoccupied with Salinger and Hemingway and whoever wrote Arsenic and Old Lace. I doubt the high school students would have appreciated it, though. My crowd was more interested in smoking in the parking lot and trying on new lip gloss. Not exactly an intellectual bunch. 😉


  9. Bellezza,

    Glad you've made it through and enjoyed it as well. It's a great read, isn't it? Thanks for reading it along with me. If not for your support I'd never have made it on my own. Thanks too for this heartfelt post. Now are you curious enough to move on to the next Vol.? No, I'm not planning for a read-along, just personal interest. I just might read on for one more Vol.


  10. i'm part of the goodreads group that's planning on reading ALL of A la recherche du temps perdu in this anniversary year. it's neat, there's a calendar, that shows you what you are supposed to read every week to make it, plus a continuous discussion going on , with very smart people. fascinating


  11. Bellezza,
    I have to catch up. You and Arti are way ahead of me. I have to put more effort.

    I often recall another reason for reading Proust: Alain de Botton's book: How Proust Can Change Your Life.



  12. Edgar, this is not a fast read (nor should it be read quickly in my opinion). Arti began reading it in April, and that's when I began listening to it on audio. However, it's harder for me to listen to a book than to read it myself; I can't visualize the names properly spelled (especially in French) unless I see them, and I can't mark quotes I like when someone is speaking. Plus, I have to listen all day with teaching, so by the end of the day? I'm out of words.

    Anyway, thank you for telling me about Alain de Botton's book. I'll have to look it up to see what he says about Proust changing my life.

    And, when you do have it read, and perhaps your review posted, I'd love to know your thoughts.


  13. Hi Arti, thank you for the encouragement to even begin this famous work! I am curious to move on to Volume 2, but I have many pieces of literature to 'attack' first (namely for review and for my JLC7 coming in a week or so). Shall we look at Volume 2 toward the end of summer? I do loving reading with you, and your beautiful, in-depth posts add so much to the experience. xo


  14. I didn't even know goodreads sponsored read alongs! (Does Amazon approve? 🙂 I wonder if you can read it in French as you have so much knowledge of that country…it would be a wonderful set to read along with a group while gleaning other thoughts to add to one's own.


  15. O if you're motivated to give it a go, I'll read with you then. I've got it here alrady. Will have to be slow though, and it's 730 pages. Maybe the 3 months in the fall? We'll see.


  16. What a beautiful post – I agree that Proust's style slows you down, and that actually it's a lovely, calming experience. I read this when I was living in France, and it couldn't have been more atmospheric!


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