Truly Bad Films

Friday, August 19, 2005

Book Review

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

This is the book.

I would take In Search of Lost Time – the book that used to be called Remembrance of Things Past - with me on that hypothetical trip which allows you only one book for the rest of your life. Swann’s Way is the first book of the book. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but ISoLT is four volumes long, and the first volume is two books.

Ok – now that that is perfectly clear, I have to say the only thing wrong with my plan to read only this book for the rest of my life is this: in order to deeply understand it I need to learn French, and French folklore and I need a collection of various dictionaries and French histories. So, counting all the associated tomes I’d need to fully understand ISoLT, I’d have a moderate library I’d have to take with me, and in that case I might as well stay home.

I can’t even begin to relate to you how astounding this writing is, especially to the ear accustomed to “sound bites.” Marcel’s sentences go on for miles, accumulating meaning and beauty with every comma delimited section. Take a taste:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Sentences like that blow me out: Nirvana.

And he has this sharply detailed ability to reconstruct moments so fully and exactly that you find yourself recalling similar moments you haven’t thought of for years, and never would have thought of them again if you had not read this book. This book is a full-body sensory experience – he offers up moments filled with physical and emotional nuance so excruciatingly focused that I marvel the man never went insane.

He keenly observed people interacting with other people, especially at parties. The result is almost soap operatic in effect. Marcel was a merciless gossip, but even so, Swann’s Way indulges in humor only sparingly. The dominant emotions seem to be jealousy, regret, and wistfulness. In my every day life I don’t trade much in those feelings, so living them through Marcel’s characters is, more or less, a vacation from happiness, for me. Welcome to his world!


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