You may remember that at the weekend I posted a link to a bookshop that was reading Proust on the 19th, in store, for 24 hours, each person reading a 20 minute segment of Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. This was taking place to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the book’s publication and had inspired me to take a day off work and pick up my own copy which had been languishing on my shelf for years.
Well, I did indeed spend Wednesday reading Swann’s Way and it was one of the oddest reading experiences I’ve ever had, pleasurable but very, very disorientating.
It’s rather difficult to summarise what actually *happens* in the book but I wrote this in my notebook and it seems a decent enough attempt so I’ll share it: M, the narrator opens the novel by describing the process of waking up in beautifully precise, yet wildly excessive, detail and then goes on to reminisce about his childhood, madeleines, a family friend Swann, loving a woman who is not right for you and memory itself.
It takes 500 or so pages to do this but I’m not begrudging him a single one so far. :)
Partly this is because I’m loving the translation I’m reading. Proust’s original work was mangled by the publication process and it was only decades later that a definitive edition of the text corrected errors and omissions for French readers. The English editions all had to be revised and amended in light of the definitive edition so the Vintage Classics edition I’m reading is actually the Enright revision of the Kilmartin revision of the Moncrieff translation. It sounds so complicated when you describe it that way… but actually I rather like the way that what I am reading is the result of almost a century’s worth of collaboration, editing and discussion. :)
This edition keeps the longer French sentences with all their commas, parentheses and semi-colons which is perfect for keeping the flow of the text and allowing Proust to digress and reminisce and describe madeleines to his heart’s content. It’s a little jarring at first to be confronted with a paragraph consisting of just one or two very long, intricate sentences but I rather like this feature of French literature, it gives a sense of space and consideration that pithier, statement-focused English sentences sometimes struggle to convey. But it’s been a while since I read a French classic so I was a little rusty for the first dozen pages or so!
‘It was hardly light enough for me to read, and my sense of the day’s brightness and splendour was derived solely from the blows struck down below, in the Rue de la Cure, by Camus (whom Françoise had assured that my aunt was not “resting” and that he might therefore make a noise) upon some dusty packing-cases which, reverberating in the sonorous atmosphere that accompanies hot weather, seemed to scatter broadcast a rain of blood-red stars; and also from the flies who performed for my benefit, in their tiny chorus, as it were the chamber music of summer, evoking it quite differently from a snatch of human music which, heard by chance in high summer, will remind you of it later, whereas the music of the flies is bound to the season by a more compelling tie – born of the sunny days, and not to be reborn but with them, containing something of their essential nature, it not merely calls up their image in our memory, but guarantees their return, their actual, circumjacent, immediately accessible presence.’
(One sentence from page 97-98)
What’s making the book difficult for me though is not plot or sentence structure or unusual words (to be honest it’s actually fairly straightforward if you consider the mechanics of it) but the overwhelming nostalgia that tinges every page. I honestly got no further than page two-hundred-and-something on Wednesday because every two pages or so I would find myself so lulled by the heady sense of atmosphere and polished feel of the words that I’d suddenly realise halfway through a sentence I had switched from active reading to passive – and was reading the words but not absorbing a single thing. It was really, really frustrating. It’s like being in a very enjoyable bath, perfect temperature, glass of wine in hand, enjoying the relaxation… and then feeling it suck you down into quicksand. Very, very peculiar.
So yes, perhaps trying to read it in a day was rather foolish as plans go but I am still reading it, enjoying it, savouring it, trying to relax into the flow of the text but not let it lull me into such passive captivity. :)