By Brian Morton
May 3, 2013
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Swann’s Way,” The Times asked writers and critics to share their experience of reading the book and the other volumes of “In Search of Lost Time.”
When “Remembrance of Things Past” first reached American and English readers, everybody was blown away. Edith Wharton said it deserved to be ranked alongside the work of Tolstoy and Shakespeare. E.M. Forster called it “our second greatest novel,” after “War and Peace.” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.” She continued: “One has to put the book down and gasp.”
About 50 years later, when Proust reached Teaneck High School, we were blown away, too. After a friend who’d spent his junior year in France came back with news about a novel that was different from anything we’d read before, I embarked on “Swann’s Way.” I loved everything about it: the patience with which the narrator, Marcel, investigates his perceptions; the evocation of the sorrow to which a child can be reduced by disturbances so apparently slight that the adults around him don’t even notice them; and, of course, the passage my friend had been especially excited about, in which a pastry dipped in tea opens up Marcel’s entire past (a passage that never gets old, no matter how many times you read it, and that proves for all time that a novel can bring worlds to life in a way that makes movies look lumbering and confined).
And I loved the humor, which is far from the delicate indirectness that comes to mind when many people think of Proust: the socialite so fond of showing off her big loud laugh that she dislocates her jaw; the aunts who’ve received a gift from Swann, and whose fear of vulgarity leads them to thank him in such a subtle way that he doesn’t realize he’s being thanked; Swann himself, who, after spending years in a state of such obsession for a woman that he neglected everything else in his life, comes to the conclusion that she “wasn’t even my type.”
But finally I got bogged down. It might have been in the second volume, during the analysis of Marcel’s love of Gilberte, which recapitulates many of the features of Swann’s love of Odette, but at a lower level of dramatic and intellectual intensity. Or maybe it was in the third, during the account of a Guermantes dinner party, which, now that I check, is only about a hundred pages long, but which seems to go on forever . . . would it be philistine to suggest that it would be a service to literature if someone were to put together an Abridged Proust?
I’ve gone back to Proust many times since then, and never reached the end. I blame this on a tic that has led me, every time, to start over from the beginning. I read a thousand pages, two thousand, and then, yet again, I stop. I feel like a suburban Sisyphus, pushing the seven volumes of “Remembrance of Things Past” up the hill.
Not quite Proust-worthy though I may be, I like to teach the first volume to writing students. I begin in a spirit of full disclosure, telling my class that I haven’t finished the damned thing. (As a teacher you’re often tempted to pretend to be more literate than you are, but everything goes better if you don’t.) One of the pleasures of reading Proust with writing students is that he breaks every one of the silly “rules” that have come to be enshrined in many writing programs. Conventional wisdom holds that we should “show, not tell,” but Proust tells and tells and tells. Conventional wisdom holds that point of view in fiction should always be consistent and logical, but Proust (like Melville, like Dickens) does what he pleases with point of view. Very early in “Swann’s Way,” Marcel tells us that he often used to lie awake remembering “all the places and people I had known, what I had actually seen of them, and what others had told me,” and with that slim phrase he gives himself license to tell us exactly what other people were thinking in their most intimate moments, during episodes that took place before he was born.
Many of my students have gone on to read the whole thing, disproving the idea that today’s young people are too distracted to read anything but tweets. One old student likes to e-mail me snippets from the last two volumes, magnificent passages about art and time and memory that I haven’t gotten to yet. I’m not sure if this is meant to inspire me or tease me. It doesn’t matter. I know I’ll get to the end someday. I will. I will. I will.