Alison's Reviews > Swann's Way

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust
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's review
Jul 04, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: revisiting-books
Recommended to Alison by: Rebecca Leece
Recommended for: writers who look slightly askance at their own childhoods

What excites me most about this book is the combination of two apparently incompatible aspects: first, the quality of poignancy, wit, comedy, and, like, realism, in the observations; second, the constant questioning of what observation and reality are. The book is a novel that satisfies all our expectations of memoir/autobiography, yet foils any attempt to ask the questions that most irritate novelists: is what happens in your book true? Did it happen to you this way? Did you make it up? Is it real?

The narrator of Swann’s Way states outright that true reality is to be found only in memory. But the chapter/novella “Swann in Love” contained within this volume, which at first appears to have been summoned into literary and emotional reality by the bite of tilleul-soaked madeleine, is described by our narrator as the cribbing of another person’s memories, narrated long after the events, and perhaps even secondhand–and bearing a suspicious resemblance to other events experienced by the narrator himself. Can we trust the narrator’s description of Swann’s unrequited longing for Odette, when that longing looks so similar to the narrator’s own longing for his mother’s bedtime kiss? Whose memory are we talking about anyway? Whose reality? Are we seeing a universality of feeling, the means by which the narrator (or the reader) can empathize with Swann’s wildly different experience, the empathy that supposedly proves the honesty or truth of a scene? (It is honest because it feels real to me; it is honest because it’s exactly like the time that I….) Or are we seeing an outlandishly stretched analogy that has been planted to highlight the artificiality of connection, of empathy? Is Proust tricking us into exposing just how limited our imaginations are in apprehending existences separate from ours? (If that which is honest is so only because it appears so to me, does that mean that nothing is honest which is outside my own experience and my own ability to analogize? Am I really that egocentric?
MANY more thoughts here:

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Reading Progress

July 4, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
August 4, 2008 – Finished Reading
November 23, 2016 – Shelved as: revisiting-books

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Bryan (new)

Bryan This is a fantastic modernist reading of Proust ... You may be the first reviewer to call Odette a ho, which may be your effort to lift Proust out of 'le haut brouillard' that you describe so well. I doubt that Proust ever wished to doubt his own 'egotism', as there is never a world outside of his own sense-impressions ... "Delicious descriptions" and confusion --- that is all. I waant to read your review of <> with its outrageous, repressed pollination in the insect world. Is Proust powerful because he exists at a historical moment where reflection, in the Wordsworth sense of 'emotion recollected in tranquility' becomes perversity? Where is the camp for camp's sake? Do you ever get the sense that with a mouthful of cotton candy you've been cheated?

message 2: by Bryan (new)

Bryan Sorry if that sounds belligerent, but that's the way I respond to Proust, and I feel cheated by him, in a way that I don't by others ... there's a cruelty there that's not conveyed in your review, which is superb.

Alison Thanks for reading and commenting! I don't feel cheated by Proust, at least not so far, because I feel as though the narrator is intentionally unreliable. I think that, though the narrator's, er, umwelt is very small and necessarily limited, Proust does constantly remind us of its fallibility, its inadequacy, and the lengths it has to go to try to apprehend somebody else's. In a way it's less cruel than an attempt at empathy would be--there's nothing more hateful than somebody who says, "I know exactly how you feel," because who can? But Proust says, "Well, this is how I imagine you feel, but that doesn't really mean anything outside my own head, does it?" Re: Wordsworth, I can't help recalling the daffodils poem, and how the daffodils he describes are daffodils he never even saw--Dorothy Wordsworth went out to see them, wrote about them in her journal, and told William about them--and so the emotions he "recollected" about them were emotions he'd never had--they were definitely appropriated. Now, there's no consciousness of this appropriation in his work, but I think that Proust is very conscious of appropriation--and even, of simulating appropriation, with all its consequences, even where the events he's supposedly appropriating came out of his own head in the first place. Is this perverse? I'm not sure--that's a place I haven't gone to yet in my reading.

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