Re-Reading Proust

I recently assigned Swann’s Way, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s multi-voluminous work, In Search of Lost Time, to my students in a modern European literature class. I hadn’t read the text in almost twenty years and I was unsure about how well the class would receive it, even going so far as to consider the possibility that most students might not even finish the text. Nevertheless, I had never taught Proust and I thought that it might be a good time to try something new. I usually have my students read Madam Bovary by Gustav Flaubert, but after using that text several times in the past I was in need of a change and up for the challenge.

I recall very little of my first reading, so in fact, re-reading it this semester with my class is actually like reading it for the first time. There are, however, certain distinct scenes from the text that have stayed with me throughout the years. I remember a profound sense of longing on the part of Swann. I remember the boy narrator’s attempt to fall asleep while his mother was downstairs entertaining with the rest of the family. I remember chrysanthemums. In the scene that stands out most I can recall Swann going from house to house looking in the windows for his love, Odette. As I remember this, the houses are all in a geometrical pattern much like the pattern of houses in the suburbs of the United States. I can remember that all of the houses have what I take to be front porches and are sitting across from vacant lots, yet to be developed.

As I navigated my way through the text this time around I came away with a very different impression of what those houses look like. It’s funny how scenes from a book can change in our minds over time, even scenes we think of as solidified for good. During this reading the same scene appeared to me as much more urban, more developed and populated. Moreover, I see Swann walking down Parisian streets looking for Odette in townhouses and buildings whose design is much more indigenous to Paris. This difference is more complicated than reading the same novel by two different translators. In each translation the design of the houses along Swann’s nocturnal hunt for Odette is never mentioned with any certainty. When I first read Swann’s Way I was a young undergraduate who had yet to travel abroad. Since that first reading I have been to Paris and walked its streets. I’ve taken in the way people walk and talk, the way they eat and drink, and most important, the way they interact with one another. I think it’s this experience of travel that has actually brought me closer to the text. This time around the scene presented itself to me like an old friend I had not seen for years and is much changed. I also had more of a sense of Swann’s urgency in his efforts to find Odette. In one particularly illuminating passage Proust writes: “Now and the then the ghost of a woman glided up to Swann, murmured a few words in his ear, asked him to take her home, and left him shuddering. Anxiously he explored every one of these vaguely seen shapes, as though among the phantoms of the dead, in the realms of darkness, he had been searching for his lost Eurydice.” The translation is by Proust’s first translator into English C. K. Scott Moncrieff, and a more beautiful and haunting passage in all of western literature would be hard to locate.

In my memory Swann’s Way is a “summer book” full of heat and sun, of night filled with fireflies and soft rain. It’s a quiet book one should read to oneself, preferably in summer. Perhaps my own memories of Combray and Paris hearken back to the season in which I first read the text. The truth is, however, I cannot recall at what time of the year I first read Swann’s Way. I do recall that I read it entirely on my own and that it was not assigned in any class I was taking at the time. I decided to read it for the simple reason that I had not read Proust and if I wanted to make myself into a “serious” reader, I had better read him.

Fast forward to spring 2014. Now that the semester is over and we have “survived” the text, what did my students think of reading Proust? For the most part our class discussions tended to become obsessively preoccupied with Proust’s writing style. Many of the students found it too dense and claustrophobic. They liked the sparse, comparatively simplistic prose of Camus’ The Stranger much more. A few students did manage to finish the text, and I believe that they felt a real sense of accomplishment for having finished it. For them, reading Swann’s Way was like climbing an incredibly difficult mountain whose terrain was totally lacking in reference points or clearly marked paths. In my experience most students want to be told how to read a text, to be told what it means. It’s those few who actually take up the challenge and stick with it by submerging themselves into the deep forest of a text, struggling to discover their own interpretations and come away richer for the experience. In order to help the process along I brought in a few dozen madeleines for us while we discussed that famous scene in which Marcel dips his own madeleine into the tea. This may have been a cheap tactic on my part, but then, is it any different from traveling? Eating the madeleine was, for Marcel as well as the class, as much a part of the experience of the text as anything else. I wanted to provide my students with a reference point so that they could perhaps identify with the text in a more concrete fashion.

Reading Proust is not easy. Re-reading him may be even more challenging. Yet, the beauty of the writing is something that can perhaps only be appreciated from a distance, after the fact. For me, re-reading Proust led me to wonder about my own experiences while reading texts. It’s precisely this kind of reflection that I strive to get my students to practice. I doubt that I will delve into the other volumes in Proust’s work. There are simply too many books to read. Yet, readers of Proust do seem to be a bit smarter than the average reader. I find a quiet sophistication attached to those who have read his work. I admire those who have been able to read the entire In Search of Lost Time narrative. Re-reading Proust has given me a little knowledge of Proust and a passable understanding of his writing style. I do feel smarter for having read him, but even now, after having read through Swann’s Way a second time, and very recently, I find I cannot recall most of what happens in the text. But perhaps what I do remember is enough. Proust ends Swann’s Way with the following:

“The reality that I had know no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”

There is witchcraft in those words.

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