Sunday, 25 July 2010

Swann's Way (Marcel Proust)

--The blurb--
"In this opening volume of Proust's great novel, the narrator seems at first to be launching a fairly traditional life-story. But after the prelude the narrator travels backwards rather than forwards in time, in order to tell the story of a love affair that had taken place before his own birth. Swann's jealous love for Odette, together with the comic antics of the Verdurins and the adoring members of their 'little clan', provide a prophetic model of the narrator's own love-relationships and peregrinations in salon society."

--The review--
Choosing whether to read this in translation or in the original French will be personal to everyone. When it comes to fluency in a language, it's my belief that there exists a fine line between understanding and appreciation: you can know the meaning of the words (or the parts) without being fully able to appreciate their beauty (or the whole). It was in fact my French fiancé, who has read the entire series of In Search of Lost Time, in French, on the grounds that he (whose English is better than my French) would not feel able to fully enjoy it in English, who recommended that I read the opus in my own mother tongue, English. Taking him at his word (for now at least; I may choose to read parts of it in French later), I therefore embarked on it in English. So far, no regrets.

The translation (by Moncrieff, with Enright as editor) is beautifully rendered and very poetic (although part of this quality may be an accident of the translation itself). Almost Biblical in its timeless principles of life, it contains many comforting and useful words of life in a way that may be more recognised today by readers of Charlotte Brontë. However, less accessible to the modern reader are the relationships contained therein: the relationship between the narrator and his mother is highly Oedipal, and the relationship between Swann and Odette is just one long series of mind games. The meaning of this latter relationship is continually unclear: we are not sure if he wants to sleep with her (despite his statement that he does not find her attractive - although this too changes later on), or if he is just using her to further his own integration into the Verdurins' prestigious social circle. Swann's own insecurity in his relationship, and the fact that he can never seem to decide whether he likes her or not, keeps readers in suspense with great success.

The beauty inherent in this novel does not mean that weaknesses are nonexistent. The style may be offputting to some: think a combination of James Joyce's Ulysses, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which has then been aged quite a bit. It rambles considerably and at times often does not seem to be about very much. None of the characters are especially likeable and there also exists a narrative flaw of which Philip Roth and others are often guilty - the narrator has access to information about Swann and Odette that he could not possibly have been privy to, which casts doubt on his reliability. However, this being a seven-volume epic, it is possible that this will be resolved later, and simultaneously, it is precisely this ambiguity of motive and feeling which so perfectly encapsulates the madness of the kind of love or lust being experienced.

Odette and Swann's relationship, while weird, is a constant source of interest: she is playing mind games with him just as much as he is playing them with her, and the evolution of her character proves extraordinary, with her being portrayed as innocent and infatuated initially, before it is then implied that she puts her own self-interest above any positive qualities that Swann may have. Further to this, the language used by Proust is highly sexual and sensual, although we are not told explicitly about the relationship's physical status.

The first volume's poetry, complexity and highly synaesthetic approach all serves to hook the reader totally and utterly, despite the faults in the novel's construction, leaving readers awaiting the next instalment with bated breath.

In Search of Lost Time - list of instalments
volume 1 - Swann's Way
volume 2 - Within A Budding Grove
volume 3 - Guermantes' Way
volume 4 - Sodom and Gomorrah
volume 5/6 - The Captive and the Fugitive
volume 7 - Time Regained

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