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Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Way By Swann's, Marcel Proust

This is my second review of this book, completed after finishing reading it, but I suggest that you might realistically spend years writing about Proust's wonderful novel and never finish exploring the ways in which it reveals things about itself and about the constructed world in which we all live. I thought it appropriate to use a drawing of Charles Ephrussi with this post as he was it is said the model for Swann, Proust's hero in the novel. I have written about Ephrussi before in the context of Edmund de Waal's historical study of his own family, The Hare With Amber Eyes, which was published in 2010, and while Swann is a character of some interest in Proust's novel what is of more immediate interest is the way the author draws out the mystery surrounding the man, although to explicate this mystery completely here would equate to utterly traducing the reader's interests.

Yet there is a mystery in the book, which opens with a portrait of the narrator's family seen through the lens of his childhood, which is spent mainly in the countryside. In the second section of the book we learn about Swann's romance with Odette de Crecy, a love affair conducted on unequal terms due to Swann's elevated material lifestyle and to Odette's tendency to prey on rich men, and which terminates in the book at the point at which Swann finally rids himself of his obsession, an occurrence that happens in the blink of an eye, it seems.

But the mystery really emerges to the fore of the reader's imagination in the book's third part in which we are appraised of the narrator's own childhood obsession with Gilberte, Swann's daughter. Part of the mystery is linked to the fact that in the book's second part - which deals with Swann's love affair - Swann has no daughter and is not married. This part of the book takes place in Paris but most of the year it had seemed, from the novel's first part, that the narrator lived in the countryside; you also wonder how the narrator could have known so much about Swann's life if he - the narrator - was still a boy. If he's still a boy in the book's third part then he must have been a boy in the book's second part, when Swann was still unmarried. The mysteries proliferate. But the largest mystery is the identity of Swann's wife, and we do meet her near the very end of the book's third part although I am not going to tell you who she is.

Being able to see all the stages in the life of a man, as we do the stages of Swann's life - the visits to the narrator's family home in the countryside, the energetic pursuit of Odette through Paris's streets, the plangent expressions of frustrated desire when confronted by Odette's cruelty, the third-person accounts of the father's comments relayed through the daughter to the daughter's Champs Elysees playmate - is something that belongs to maturity, in this case the maturity of the writer planning his work of literature. To ensconce this sequence of relations within the ambit of the consciousness of a boy is to play a kind of trick, unless we are being invited to imagine the man the boy grew into, now thinking in retrospect about the events of his childhood.

For even as it peters out into oblivion - the oblivion that lies in the space created by the novel's final sentence - Proust's book turns its attention to the nature of this kind of retrospective regard, and to its colours, feelings, atmosphere and tones. The aerial blick - as in the German augenblick, or regard - that characterises Proust's novel - the lofty view, as though we are seeing things through a lens suspended high in the air - turns into a kind of sigh in the novel's final sentences as the author bids us adieu. While doing so he reminds us that there is something magical about the anterior regard - we might say the imaginative reconstruction of the past - because by its means we are able to learn something about ourselves and feel a complex of emotions that might reveal themselves as we walk down the street, head bowed somberly in contemplation, in a corporeal shiver. This frisson of recognition embedded in the final paragraphs of the novel is what, finally, determines the significance of the novel for us, and also reminds us that an equal sensation might be available to any one of us should we take the time to recount the past as it happened to us, as well.

There is for example the line of the Paul Simon song, "Losing love is like a window in your heart." But it is not true at all. This is because people may not, in fact, see you falling apart, and the effects of lost love might linger for years if not decades, a fact of which I was reminded yesterday when I was searching for some photographs of the 2009 Mardi Gras parade. As I was looking through my files in search of those photos I came across some photographs taken about 18 months after that event, and looking at myself in them, smiling for the camera, I remembered the moment that was thus captured and it became clear to me just what I have lost. The sensation is hardly comfortable, and translates into a hard ball settled in the pit of my stomach, but then again I can think of the things that I have gained in the years since, and I cherish the friendship.

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