Friday, August 13, 2010

"Swann's Way: Volume One of In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust: A Review

Have you ever read a book, or had a friend who read a book, where the sentences were full of commas, and the author never really got to a point, indeed, there may not have been a point, and searching for a strong verb is like searching for a grain of sugar in a lot of other grains of sugar, and eventually you forget the subject of the sentence, though, honestly, you don't really care anymore, and you don't think the author does either; however, you believe he should care because it's his effing book, however, he just rambles for pages and pages about napping, and maybe cookies, and nothing ever happens; indeed, he may talk about hawthorn flowers for exactly 16 pages because they may or may not remind him of a little girl, even though he's never introduced this character before, and you don't understand why she has anything to do with flowers, and eventually you find yourself literally sleeping through the book? Cause I have.

The whole book is like that. Hundreds of pages of no period. I. Love. Declarative sentences. Therefore, I. Hate. Proust. (Look at all the periods! A VERITABLE BOUQUET!)

Ok, so a pro: the sentences are beautiful and very rhythmic. You can tell that Proust agonized over every word to get them to flow so nicely. They put me to sleep on more than one occasion- maybe that was also because nothing happens? But seriously, the image I had in my mind the whole time was of laying at the beach in silence and feeling the soft waves lap at my feet. The whole book is that calm, steady, relaxing sort of thing. It's sort of a marvel.

The cons: Everything else? Nothing happens. NOTHING. The book is about a guy who likes naps, and then he eats a cookie and it reminds him of how he used to eat cookies with his grouchy aunt in her old house, and how his family took walks places sometimes and wasn't that nice? It's nice to be French and take walks and eat cookies and nap. All of that is true, but do I need 375 pages to come to that conclusion? No. I need one sentence. One sentence without an EFFING COMMA.

So yeah, it's genius. The writing is awe-inspiring (not kidding) and the structure/style of the book is purposefully reminiscent of dreams and memory and blah blah blah it's bloody boring. Proust is so good at minutely describing how awful it is to be bored on a Sunday in your aunt's house and listen to the clock tick every minute away. The problem is, who wants to read about that? I avoid DOING it as much as possible, so why would I care about READING about it?

 HOWEVER. One of my good friends says that Volume 2 is much better- like Proust figured out what exactly he was trying to do, and so I'll give it a try one day. One distant, faraway, accursed day.

Two stars out of your mom. One star for awe-inspiration, and one star for making me think about the beach because. You know. That's always a nice thought.


  1. Yeah, you can't really hate on Proust for Swann's Way. I mean, it counts as a "book", as it has been bound separately from other books, but really is part of the much larger work. Think of it as a really fucking long chapter (in a book of seven really fucking long chapters).

    I felt similarly to you at first, but as it wore on, the rhythm caught up to me (or, rather, I to the rhythm). By the time I had finished it, I was immediately ready for the next volume in the novel.

  2. I love the review...straight up and honest (like I like my liquor). And this, "a veritable bouquet" - that cracked me up.

  3. Great review! I actually have an idea what reading the book would be like, instead of having someone tell me the plot. I can get that anywhere, that's not helpful.

    I LOVE your love of declarative sentences.

  4. Great review, as always. I've never read Proust (I say looking shamefully toward the floor), but I can definitely get into language as rhythm. I've always found that punctuation is a key to rhythm, and periods are like the base percussion in a nice piece of music. I'm interested to get your take on the next book--if you like it, I'll pick it up.

  5. I felt the same way reading Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March". Periods were definitely at a premium in that book too, but nowhere near to the extent of your book. I think I'll stay away from Proust. :)

  6. Schnei- I'm not ready for the next volume. I have to read a lot of books with dialogue and punctuation variety before I will be. Or I might lose my mind.

    Mayowa- muchas gracias! Just call me your vodka shot!

    Red- For rizzle. Not a fan of the plot summaries. Isn't that what the back of the book is for?

    Patrick- No percussion here, just floaty violin-ness. There's actually a really interesting bit about Swann being obsessed with this one piece of a sonata, and he keeps making his friend play it on the piano. SYMBOLISM, I think. ;)

    SocrMom78- Yes, stay away. Please, Lord.

  7. You made me laugh out loud with this post.

    I like wildflowers and I love napping. But I also love sentences that end within a reasonable amount of wordage. I shall avoid Proust. Thank you for the warning.

  8. Ooh, wow, ouch. I was surprised by this review! I've been reading Swann's Way too, and I had a completely different opinion of it. Although, I've been reading it very slowly ... I kind of see it as a rich dessert that I know I couldn't eat all at once. But I thought his ideas where so incredible and so articulate ... they drew me in so much that I didn't pay much notice to the long sentences.
    I'll be interested to see what you think of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. My husband just finished reading it yesterday and said it was better than Swann's Way.

  9. I read Portrait of the mother as a young woman by Friedrich Delius recently and thats 125 pages without one full stop. Not one. It wasnt that annoying when reading it but it was annoying when I kept having to put the book down in the middle of a sentence.

  10. wait ... "pay much notice" ? Is that correct? Or should I have said "pay much attention" ? Oh well.

  11. Sharilyn- No problem! I read weird books so you don't have to ;)

    IngridLola-Yes, that's what I've heard, that the second book is better. I'll definitely try it someday. Maybe it was the translation I read?

    Jessica- YES! I was also annoyed that I could pick up the book, flip ahead 20 pages, and it never mattered..

    IngridLola- I dunno, I understood you just fine :)

  12. Hey I saw what you did there in your opening paragraph :)

  13. I almost never respond to your blog (though I read it) but this one merits response.

    Simply this:
    Perhaps, as you encourage all those who don't read classics to engage in a "new kind of reading" when reading classics for the first time and to "embrace the different sort of effort they require" (i don't know why those are in quotes, I paraphrased you), you also should consider that Proust requires a different reading mentality, and a different effort, and has different rewards than the traditional narrative.

    Obviously he's not after the standard dilemma creates rising action culminates in climax then settles structure. However, I think there's much more than just napping and reflection. There's absolutely a kind of a desire, narrative, and multiple levels of revelation going on. Namely, that which is over-stated by the original series title: "In Search of Lost Time." Marcel's search after it, every character's seeking after different sorts of immortality and youth, this major life struggle captured in the way of speaking Odette adopts in a salon, or Swann's struggling over whether or not to knock on Odette's door and recognize he's a cuckold, or the sad moment when a boy is no longer allowed to cry for his mother and has to seek comfort and care in larger society.

    He just demands a different kind of eye, and he takes a long time (as it's a monstrous task) to shape the reader's eye to that work.

    Just a thought.

    your friend James

    PS: Though James Joyce didn't find Proust anything worthwhile, aside from the other brilliant and talented people who LOVE Proust (J.D. Salinger, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov), here's a quote
    from Virginia Woolf after reading Swann's Way:

    “My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished—My martyrdom is over.”

  14. Sean- haha, oh good! I was hoping someone would..

    James- Hey, I never said there wasn't anything more than napping. I said there were cookies, and hawthorn flowers! At any rate, I understand what you're saying. There has to be a reason it's seven volumes- I'm assuming it's because it takes that long to let the rhythm of the prose really capture you. Reading this is like jet lag- your circadian rhythms are all thrown off, and it takes awhile to get accustomed to the new way of doing things.

    Of COURSE Virginia Woolf loves this. At any rate, I do plan to continue it (at least give it another try with volume 2) but I just can't do it immediately.

  15. HAHA! This is wild--I just listened to YOU reading the last three chapters of book three of Anna Karenina. YOU'RE THE BEST!!

    Hey, looks like part of book 6 needs readers . . . and apparently all of book 7 . . . I'm just sayin'. *blink blink*

    Oh, and . . . pet bird?

  16. Kathy- NO WAY! From Librivox? That's nuts! I loved doing that reading. I must have practiced Russian names for ABOUT a million years. I'm doing a solo reading of "Jacob's Room" by Woolf right now. That should take until the end of time.

  17. Middlemarch. Get to the frickin point, George.

  18. This book is on my shortlist of "shoulds," where you can also find Infinite Jest and War and Peace. Somehow hearing it broken down as nostalgia about a cookie makes it sound more interesting.

    I usually try to have one mighty tome going along with my other books but haven't picked one up for a while. Pillars of the Earth might be it; I am feeling pressure since the tv series is out and I never watch anything without reading it first!

  19. There are scenes in Swann's Way that are burned into my mind, mostly because of the (overly) descriptive sentences he wrote. I hate using lofty language, but he sure did have a "swimmingly swift" way of structuring sentences. And it would appear I am good at alliteration. Good post.

  20. This post and it's comments made me laugh! And then I realized that I am just like Proust when I conversate. Sigh...

  21. Just stopping by to let you know that I've given you the Versatile Blogger Award; stop by my blog to see. :)

  22. oh no. i recently bought a copy of swann's way and was looking forward to reading it.

    how did i not know that it was volume ONE...and that there were six more?

    i think i might save it until i'm 60.

  23. WAY!! You did a great job.

    Apparently I will finish reading AK (silently to myself) about the time you finish with Jacob's Room.

  24. I wonder what Proust's intention was. The author's intention in a classic is a key to unlocking its relevance.

  25. Yep. Pretty much exactly my experience. I hear, too, that future volumes are much better. I suppose I'll finish it someday.

  26. I read this book in my late teens & unconditionally loved it, in fact adored remembrance of things past ?(recherche du temps perdu) in all its word blown glory. Still enjoyed your review tho.