One hundred years ago, French publishers were busy rejecting a wordy, novelistic treatise on childhood, memory and society by a Parisian dandy and dilettante named Marcel Proust. In November, 1913, the author paid for publication of Swann’s Way himself; the novelist André Gide, who was among those who had turned the book down, later told Proust he felt “a burning regret” for having rejected it.
By the time Proust died in 1922, Swann’s Way was enshrined as the first, genre-changing instalment in Proust’s seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. The complete work ran to more than a million words, describing in minute detail both the narrator’s interior life and the society around him. The novel’s length – and the complexity of sentences that sometimes sprawl over an entire page – have given it the reputation of a daunting read. Yet those who take the time often emerge committed enthusiasts. The narrator’s recovery of childhood memory through a cake dipped in tea has become a cultural touchstone; the novel has been translated into numerous languages and adapted several times for film, and even as a graphic novel, in an ongoing project by French cartoonist Stéphane Heuet.
Three Globe Arts writers, Robert Everett-Green, Rick Groen and Kate Taylor mark the centenary of Swann’s Way by discussing how they started reading Proust and why they enjoyed In Search of Lost Time.
Taylor: I was introduced to Proust in high-school French-lit class. We read only the famous passage in which the narrator dips the madeleine in his teacup and is transported back to his childhood holidays. The thing was, I had had that experience too, the experience of sensory memory. The smell of coal smoke always takes me back to holidays with my grandmother in Scotland. For me, it was this remarkable moment where this distant genius spoke to me at the most personal level, “Hey, that happens to you too!” It was a moment I fictionalized in my novel, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen – I was trying to talk about how we negotiate our relationship with towering historical figures. I didn’t actually read the novel until my 20s, and it took me almost a decade to get through it, but I persisted partly because of that initial reaction.
Everett-Green: I first tried reading Proust in my teens, in the old Chatto & Windus edition that sliced the novel into a dozen deceptively small volumes. I ran aground pretty quickly, on a famously long sentence in the first chapter.
Taylor: I remember that edition; my dad had it in the bookcase. But what possessed the teenage you to try it in the first place?
Everett-Green: Ambition, probably, and vanity – motives that Proust spends a lot of time analyzing, and sending up. I didn’t actually read the novel till after Penguin started publishing its new translations 10 years ago. It took me about three years, during which time my mother suffered through a long illness and died. I read much of the book while staying with her, taking care of her, while she was sleeping. That gave special resonance to the section in The Guermantes Way about the decline and death of Marcel’s grandmother. I still think those are the 50 greatest pages of any book I’ve ever read.
Groen: I bought the old three-volume Penguin edition, Terence Kilmartin’s brushing up of the C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, back when I was in school, and it sat unread on my bookshelf until I put the middle volume to good use propping up a wonky-legged chesterfield. A few years ago, I bought a new couch, and decided to stop name-checking Proust and his madeleines, and actually spend time with the guy. The experience was remarkable – it’s like no other novel I’ve ever read.
Everett-Green: I recently reread the section about the madeleine, and the narrator’s first reaction is actually confusion. He has a strong feeling, but he can’t trace it. He tries several times to force it to the surface, but it’s only when his subconscious mind has had some time to work on it that he connects the feeling to his childhood. That world suddenly becomes available to him, but he continues to be very deliberate about how he explores it. Proust’s father was a pathologist, and Proust often uses clinical metaphors, and always wants to know about precise cause and effect. The novel isn’t an impressionistic reverie, as many people think.