Groen: That’s what makes it unique. I’ve read sweeping social novels and intensely psychological novels, but never one that is so brilliantly both simultaneously. It transports you to the tastes and hypocrisies and sexual mores and the societal comedy of turn-of-the-century Paris. At the same time, it plunges you deep into interior forces like obsessive love and corrosive jealousy and, of course, memory itself.
Taylor: I always thought of it as transitional in that way. It looks back to the big social novels of the 19th century – Zola and Balzac and Tolstoy – and forward to the interior narratives of modernism. I started by making a connection with the interior stuff but, as I read on, I became more and more engrossed in the social aspect, the satire of Parisian society and the fortunes of the characters.
Everett-Green: The satire is really a big element. There’s a wonderful scene where some relatively common person approaches the Duc de Guermantes, and the Duc’s way of warding him off is to scowl and gesture and puff himself up without saying anything, because if he actually spoke, he would have acknowledged the other man’s social existence. Proust cleverly and artfully shows us how these cultured people spent their time warring over tiny increments of status. I think the book is an understated comic masterpiece.
Taylor: Yes, it can be very funny, and bitter too. Are any of the characters, other than the narrator, his mother, grandmother and old servant, sympathetic? Swann, perhaps, although he is deluded in his love for Odette.
Groen: Can I say a few words about his style, which seems as unique as the content? He’s prone to those serpentine sentences that pile clause upon clause, which are sometimes a twisting delight and sometimes just a tough slog, when I want to shout, “Marcel, get out of that cork-lined room and find yourself an editor.” But then he hits you with a short, eye-popping punch like this: “The oddities of charming people exasperate us, but there are few if any charming people who are not, at the same time, odd.” Proust, to me, is an exasperating charmer – enervating and enlightening all at once.
Everett-Green: Sometimes if you don’t keep the sentence structure in mind as you go along, it falls down around you at the end. I feel like I read most of this book twice the first time, because I had to keep doubling back. But in another way, Proust’s sentences follow the way we talk, especially when we tell stories. We start, and then remember something else, and digress, and keep adding things on. Apparently a reading of Proust was put on French radio some time ago, and a lot of people were amazed at how natural Proust’s sentences sounded when they were read aloud.
Groen: The same thing happened with Joyce’s Ulysses when Irish radio aired the whole book, and all the humour became gloriously apparent.
Taylor: That’s fascinating, the idea that the language actually reflects the circles and meanderings and repetitions of speech. I found you just lose yourself in the sentences and wind up reading a bit in a haze. I still feel like the novel exists a bit like a place I visited in a dream.
Everett-Green: I sometimes get the feeling of physical motion from those sentences, when they start in the summer house and go out into the garden, and settle down in a chair where Marcel can read and look around. It’s like a camera tracking through a scene.
Groen: It can seem so cinematic, shifting as it does from exterior to interior scenes, lavish costume parties to bed-bound angst. And yet, as several efforts have proven, it’s impossible to adapt into a film. Proust’s sentences are a roving camera but a prisoner of the page.
Taylor: One thing that I became fascinated with was the novel’s relationship to Proust’s own life. The first-person narrator is named Marcel but the story is not actually as autobiographical as it might seem. Proust was gay and half-Jewish; the narrator is a heterosexual and Catholic. Somebody once called it a novel disguised as an autobiography.