This book took me three years and three attempts to finish. On my first attempt at Volume One of Marcel Proust’s epic masterwork, À la recherche du temps perdu, I failed to get past page three. The writing was difficult and bland, so I gave up. Later I tried again, this time with an English translation. This was a vast improvement; I could pronounce the words, and even understand most of them. Still, I couldn’t progress more than twelve pages. The third time was a charm though, and I made it all the way through. I’m glad I persisted.
Swann’s Way explores themes of memory, love, heartbreak, and the irretrievability of time. The narrator begins by recalling some childhood memories, then tells the story of how family friend Charles Swann fell in love, and finally wraps up with memories of a young love of his own. All in all, not much happens. To give you an idea, the most exciting event in the first chapter is someone having cake and tea. That chapter lasts fifty-five pages. This book is more about style than plot: contemplative and picturesque, it takes the slow, scenic route to its destination. Proust is something of Eddie Van Halen: an unrivalled genius whose unique manner is mesmerising to behold if you’re in the mood, but difficult to endure if you’re not (this is a guy who thinks nothing of putting two hundred and fifty-three words in a single sentence). In fact, I had to change my reading style to get through this book. I gave up hope of any plot development, and just enjoyed the writing. I was amazed by Proust’s descriptions and metaphors, and his insightful gift for illuminating human characteristics and passions. With the story’s lack of action, I feared it would fizzle out, but it reached a satisfying conclusion, evoking the sort of emotions I felt after watching The Breakfast Club.
Swann’s Way is reputedly one of the greatest novels ever written, yet not widely read. I was drawn to it because I wanted to see what the fuss was about, I thought I might learn a thing or two from this great writer, but mostly (I confess) I just wanted to be able to say that I’ve read it. One day I might be invited, as a perceived act of charity, to some posh gala. A snooty lady will turn up at her nose at me and my one hundred and fifty dollar suit. “Humph,” she will say. “How did this uncouth vagrant find his way in here?” Her friends will giggle and her husband will look down on me from behind his monocle. “I say,” the woman will continue, “this Dom Pérignon and caviar really is wasted on his unrefined palate. Surely he would prefer an ale and a kebab. I bet he hasn’t even read Swann’s Way.”
Then I will reply, “Actually, I have read Swann’s Way. I found it esoteric and maudlin.” (I learned those words for the occasion; I hope I am using them correctly.)
Silence. Perhaps someone will gasp, or drop a glass. The snooty woman will stand with mouth agape, and watch in shame as the duke invites me to play polo with him at his estate.
You may think that unlikely, but if it does happen, I’m prepared.
Swann’s Way is unlike any other book I’ve read. At times it is slow and difficult, but then there are awestruck moments when it’s like watching a master at work. If you’re up for five hundred pages with minimal action, I’d say give it a go; otherwise, just watch The Breakfast Club. 8/10
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