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.
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.
Everett-Green: Yes, the narrator is heterosexual, but he’s extremely curious about everything to do with homosexuality – or as he calls it, “inversion.” This is where Proust gives himself away, when you see how he held up a screen of conventional sexuality, so that he could write openly about gay activity. That’s a distortion he felt obliged to make. He was obviously very keen to write about sex, and did so in ways that sometimes veil what he’s talking about. In Swann’s Way , there’s a scene that it took me a minute to recognize as an incredibly elegant and indirect description of Marcel masturbating while looking out at the Combray steeple. Proust writes it so that a prudish mind might glide over the surface beauty, and not really grasp the picture.
Groen: An elegant take on a mundane activity. That’s one of the many intriguing paradoxes about the novel. It’s so concrete, with vivid descriptions of flowers and salons and social climbers, and yet it’s also abstract, a profound meditation on time and morality and shifting perceptions.
Taylor: Yes, paradox is a good way to describe it. There is a kind of ambivalence about the way he describes anything beautiful or desirable. As a boy, the narrator is so enamoured of the mere name Guermantes, and he so wants to meet the beautiful Duchess of Guermantes. But as an adult, he is also capable of exposing her meanness, and the superficiality of the social jockeying in her circle. That actually is rather close to his real life. He was both an unctuous social climber who gained access to the most elevated Parisian circles, and later an astute and sometimes cruel observer of their foibles. He exposed them, yet he was still enthralled.
Everett-Green: We think of Proust as a memory artist, but he was also very good at describing the changing scene. The First World War began eight months after Swann’s Way was published, and its effects on Paris filter into the later books. At one point, the society ladies stop wearing fancy clothes, because it seems unpatriotic to be flashy while men are being machine-gunned at the front. Some of the ladies get very militant about it. Then people start dressing up again, and the same ladies criticize those who cling to a “faddish” austerity. So there’s modernity mixed up with memory, and up-to-date people in there with Marcel’s old servant Françoise, who he says is a medieval peasant born centuries late.
Groen: For me, this novel is a feast, where I ate voraciously one day, nibbled the next, sometimes suffered from indigestion. Yet I always felt nourished and privileged. I’m afraid I read it in too much of a hurry, maybe over eight or 10 months, wrapped around other books. But I have no patience for today’s fad of treating long classics as marathons and taking an excessive pride in just getting to the finish line. If there’s “work” in reading these million words, it’s like the work of tending a newborn child – patches of tedium, sure, but pierced by moments of pure joy.
Taylor: I was so touched, Robert, by your description of how you read the death of the grandmother while your own mother was ill, and how amazing those pages were. I was trying to think of my equivalent. My teenage self was totally struck by the madeleine and the tea but by the time – aged almost 30, I guess – that I got to the end, I was very moved by the scene where the narrator goes to a party after years away from the social scene, and everyone has aged, and he can’t quite believe it. That leads to his moment of revelation, that art can transcend time. The sense that the novel had captured the very experience of time passing will always remain with me. There are a few artists to whom I feel a profound sense of personal gratitude: Proust is one of them.