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I've Heard Proust Can Change Your Life

For the past month I've been reading Swann's Way, the first book in the seven volume cycle that makes up Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, or the Remembrance of Things Past. Proust is a literary catch-word. If you toss a reference to Proust into a milieu, chances are your companions will either contest what you have (glibly) said, or agree for form's sake. A well-timed mention of this literateur elevates conversation, and endows one with the appearance of cosmopolitanism, erudition, and initiation into the Great Mysteries. (This is observation, not opinion.) Truthfully, I decided I must read Proust when Max Medina gave Lorelei Gilmore a copy of Swann's Way on Gilmore Girls. And I think Rory (my pace-setter, my bookly challenger)had already read it. The book has sat on my shelf for at least six months waiting for the exact hallowed moment when I felt sufficiently intelligent enough to read it. It seems that this was the fated week in which to finish Swann's Way, because there was Alex Ross' essay in the New Yorker about fictional composition in literature, using the piano leitmotif Swann associates with his love for Odette as a central example.

It was both more readable than I expected, and less so. Proust is not a codified author - he is not an Eliot or a Pound or Djuna Barnes, needing continuous referencing. But one does need to pay attention to his blocks of text and his endless verbosity. Swann's Way was more or less a stream of constantly cascading thoughts; not stream of consciousness, but a microscope which looks at an intricate and sometimes ornamental world and provides every noticeable motive, every angle, with a beautiful word or explanatory phrase. Take this beautiful description of rain beginning to fall: "A little tap on the window-pane, as though something had struck it, followed by a plentiful light falling sound, as of grains of sand being sprinkled from a window overhead, gradually spreading, intensifying, acquiring a regular rhythm, becoming fluid, sonorous, musical, immeasurable, universal: it was the rain."

Depending on your sensibilities, you might find Proust haunting, evocative and lush. If you prefer Hemingway's American "one true sentence" method, Proust will lead you through a labyrinth instead of down the main street. If he can explain it in fifty words instead of ten, he will. The author might tantalize you or frustrate you. (Both, in my case.)

It seems I am fated to arrive at opinions of authors that are not only obvious, but ubiquious. After reading Wodehouse, I acknowledged how funnily he wrote his delightful English comedies. Proust is known for his gilded prose and his rambling observations. Ironically, the narrator talks so much at length about beauty and the senses - especially when discussing the aesthetic thrills of reading Bergotte's ecstatic prose. The very process he describes is the one taking place for the reader - at least, for this reader: "...if he had hit upon some great truth, or upon the name of a historic cathedral, he would break off his narrative, and in an invocation, an apostrophe, a long prayer, would give free rein to those exhalations which, in the earlier volumes, had been immanent in his prose, discernible only in a rippling of its surface..." This is exactly Proust's method, light storytelling descending into rapture.

The plot is minimal. The narrator, unnamed in this novel but assumed to be Proust, recalls the landscape of his bedroom as he falls asleep, his mother's late night Freudian kisses, the town he lived in as a child, Combray. There are two paths leading away from his house, the Guermantes Way and Swann's Way, and is the namesake of the latter that forms the protagonist of the third segment of the book and the first segment to continuously engage one narrative, "Swann in Love."

Proust cannot stop making metaphors. His narrator is so entrenched in obsessive thinking that one wants to yell at him to get out of his own head. Yet, therein lies the beauty - take this example, the narrator is discussing being addressed by his first name...
"Recalling, some time later, what I have felt at the time, I distinguished the impression of having been held for a moment in her mouth, myself, naked, without any of the social attributes which belonged equally to her other playmates and, when she used my surname, to my parents, accessories of which her lips - by the effort she made, a little after her father's manner, to articulate the words to which she wished to give a special emphasis - had the air of stripping, of divesting me, like the skin from a fruit of which one can swallow only the pulp..."

I showed Kristin and Patrick the pages, demonstrating the difficulty of reading Proust's Saramago-like blocks of text, the run-on sentences and plentiful commas. Patrick, looking at the text, exclaimed "Oh! He writes in Patrick sentences!"

August is slipping away and soon we will be in autumn, and as much as I'd like to hang onto these long hours of Northwestern sunlight, the idea of cool, sharp air and back-to-school enthusiasm and bright fall foliage appeals to me; it must be the enjoyable feeling of inevitable change. Despite the book's constant references to the ending of winter and cold early spring, this is a wonderful book to read in the autumn, as the smell of damp, decaying leaves fill us with a sense of wistfulness and memory, and the cool air drives us indoors to sip hot beverages. Join Proust's narrator as he sips his tea and dips his madeleine biscuit in the brew (Kristin says that one is able to buy these cookies at Trader Joe's), and ruminate in the sensuous invocation of memory.


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