Thursday, February 22, 2007


After a year or more of lugging it through airports and struggling with it, I finished Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. HALLELUJAH! I feel like I deserve a medal. I'm so very proud of myself that I stuck to this book, making my other reading come to a grinding halt, while I patiently (not really) tried to get through Swann's Way and like it. Sometimes I loved it, particularly when he was catty, incredibly insightful and mischievous about the social circles that Swann frequents, or about the family of the narrator. And sometimes it worked my last nerve with his endlessly complicated sentences and his impossibly meandering train of thought. There are passages in this book that are absolutely incredible. Then there are many passages about trees and branches and flowers and leaves and the baroque pain in the heart of Swann that drove me crazy. Sometimes I felt like screaming: Get a life, Marcel! But sometimes he made my jaw drop in wonder.
Basically Marcel (after a year I feel I am on intimate terms with him) has taken upon himself the not inconsiderable task of revealing the nature of time and memory. Even when one is wanting to strangle him, one is in awe of his almost scientific approach to exposing how exactly we feel pain, nostalgia, regret, love, how time works upon our memories and feelings, how it defines us and changes us. His investigation is so thorough that I kept thinking about Einstein and the scientists that attempt to do the same but with mathematical formulas.
There are some fabulous passages, but these two come to mind. Not the madeleine, which is deservedly famous. There is a passage about asparagus that goes on for pages, from where it grows and how it gets to his table, and why it reminds him of his aunt, and ends on how he loved the smell of the asparagus in his pee.
Then towards the end of the book, one of the most perverse things I've ever read: He goes on and on and on and on about how excited he is about an imminent trip to Italy with his parents. In his imagination, he has already built Florence and Venice completely in his mind, with full descriptions generously provided. He shares his excitement and anticipation and what he feels and thinks and how he's going to react when he gets there, and the reader is so ecstatic at the thought that this poor sequestered kid is actually going somewhere other than Paris and Combray, that he is going to take us on his journey, you are almost packing your bags to get on the coach next to him, and then one day before the trip, he is so excited he falls ill with fever and the doctor bans his parents from taking him on the trip. So they don't. Just like that. Does he scream and beg and cajole and revolt? No. He stays in Paris, resigned to visiting the Champs Elysees everyday. I can't get over this passage. Seriously, I can't get over it. But then it is at the Champs where he encounters and falls in love with little Gilberte Swann, and that's how he ends the book, the motherfucker, joining probably the most amazing instance of foreshadowing (or is it the opposite?) in world literature, with his recollection of those days of his youth and the realization that time changes everything.
Yesterday, as I closed the tome that soothed my fears on airplanes, lulled me to sleep when restless, and annoyed me rather consistently with its descriptive minutiae and its lengthy digressions, I felt a pang of sadness. I had thought "no more Proust ever again". Now I'm afraid I want to read the next one. But I can't give myself to him and forget everyone else, as he demands. I don't know if I have the mental stamina. I don't know if I have the intelligence. The man requires concentration. He requires abnegation and devotion. I don't know if I have it in me.

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