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Friday, 7 February 2014

Book review: The Way by Swann's, Marcel Proust (2002)

This is the first in a series of novels and it first came out in Proust's native language 100 years ago last year. I feel an obligation to say I'm still reading the final chapter in the book. You might ask why I didn't wait until I'd finished it before doing a review. The answer is I have other reading tasks that got in the way. I choose to write about the book now out of a feeling of compulsion.

Before reading this book, it might help some to know, I had never read anything by Proust, and it took one false start before I really got into the groove and settled down to enjoy. That false start involved a feeling of confusion, and having mulled over why I felt confused by the book I picked it up again, after a delay of many weeks, and found in it plenty to cherish, enjoy, celebrate, and master. I then became, in fact, a devotee.

One of the things devotees do is defend to the death the object of their devotion, so when I saw someone on Twitter lambast publicly the former New South Wales premier Bob Carr for having had the temerity to read out aloud, in Parliament, part of a book by Proust, I bridled like a draught horse who has just caught sight, in the road, of a snake, and I contented myself with regretting, as I had done so many times in the past, that hard-bitten and toadying anti-intellectualism that is the birthright of every Australian, who enjoys the evanescent joy of representative democracy with the overblown relish that a man who has survived adrift for two days on the ocean with the help of an upside-down Esky displays when he comes to shore and is handed a cold meat pie to assuage the burning hunger animating his miserable guts.

The length of the above sentence prompts me to want to reflect, momentarily, on Proust's language, because this is an author for whom no sentence can ever be long enough. His sentences are like the musical inventions of Wagner or Mahler or Liszt or Rachmaninoff where boors might regret the "longueurs" of the passages, but enthusiasts tremble with sensual delight at the weight that a single note is made to effortlessly convey across the gap between two tonic phrases. In Proust's case the method has its downsides; the section dealing with the party in the second part of the book suffers for this characteristic of the author's style because you simply lose track of who is talking, who is being talked about, or who is standing watching the other people mill about in the room. But granted the occasional shortcoming, I found much to celebrate in Proust's decision to take the sentence and draw out of its elastic stuff great plastic bridges on which sentiments and ideas travel as cars do across one of the high gorges in the national park north of Sydney.

Having dealt with these two problems - public reception and style - I will say a few things about the content. The first part takes us into the French countryside with our attention focused through the lens of a young boy, and the major point of interest in this part of the book is the boy's bourgeois family. We are also treated to the boy's emerging understanding of nature, and these passages are particularly delightful. The second part of the book is about a neighbour of the boy's family in the country - Monsieur Swann - and his love affair with a woman, in Paris, who is no better than she should be. We sense a mismatch between Swann and Odette - something to do with sophistication and class - but we would do well to reflect that Swann, himself, displays some of the characteristics of the dilettante or the amateur, and his occasional bit of attention accorded to the work of one painter or another is, if anything, rather more flighty than serious.

The last part of the book takes themes from the first two parts - youth and love - and deals with the boy himself, now in Paris, and a girl he falls in love with, Swann's daughter Gilberte. Swann's love for Odette and the boy's for Gilberte are perhaps phrases that belong in the lower register of love, and perhaps we are to come into contact, in the other books in the series, with other types of love, the more chastening and enduring types. I don't know yet. Those pleasures remain mine if I live long enough to read those books. Perhaps in the meantime a cyclone will bear down on my humble dwelling and wash away my library along with everything else, or a sudden bushfire will sweep through the town where I live, obliterating everything in its incandescence. Reading Proust in Queensland it is always possible that dangers such as these will interfere with your enjoyment of the text.

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