Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

It's been nearly 3 weeks since I finished the first book of Marcel Proust's masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. I enjoyed Swann's Way, but I did not love it. The first 100 pages or so were a slog.

When I rail against the Victorians, I often forget that the early 20th century was still chock full of Victorian values and ideals... and ideas about what makes good writing.

I suppose what separates the great works of the 19th century from those of the 21st century revolves around immediacy. The Victorian ideal was the slow build to the big reveal. Think about Scrooge standing over his own grave, the remorse of Frankenstein's monster, and the mad wife in Mr. Rochester's attic. Proust's novel might be the ultimate in Victorian fiction.

It takes nearly 150 pages for the novel's arc to come into view: the unnamed child narrator's adoration for his mother, and his facination with Swann (interesting that the narrator has no interest in his father- this book is a Freudian's fieldday); Swann's failed romance with Odette; the narrator's infatuation with Gilberte, and the revelation that Gilberte is the daughter of Swann and Odette (who is now somehow Mme. Swann).

Although I expected Proust to take his time unfurling his plot, I was still surprised at just how slowly it appeared through the narrator's web of recollections. I was left repeatedly asking, "just how do you know that?," especially about the chapter "Swann in Love." I trust that how certain things came to be known to the narrator will become clear in the later installments.

The thing that surprised me about Swann's Way is just how funny it is. The family soap opera, especially the infirmed aunt was pleasant beach reading. When we say "masterpiece" we often mean old and dry and boring. Finishing Swann's Way left me excited to begin Within a Budding Grove.

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