Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way & À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs

Hojotoho! Heiaha! This post is a resuscitation of a 2013 review: I just finished reading À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, as some translators would have it, or In a Budding Grove: anyway, the second volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu/In Search of Lost Time) yesterday [in 2013!] on the subway. How do we take an impression of experience, when experience is as fleeting as light–and we’re trying to capture it at the remove of distance and time?

I remember that I read Swann’s Way in English in 2008. By the time I’d decided to tackle Jeunes filles en fleurs in the original language (ha!), I found I had virtually no recollection of the previous volume, which I’d thought I’d loved but couldn’t recognize now at all (kind of like when the narrator wonders whether or not it’s even POSSIBLE to tell a young girl you’re in love with apart from any other girl at the beach) (which, sustained over two hundred pages, becomes increasingly amusing) (SPOILER ALERT: the answer is, finally, “kind of.” But for some reason, it’s really super easy to pin down every single detail of the face, clothing, voice, manner, and genealogy of your best guy friend). My memory of French is a similarly broken and shifting thing (my web browser tells me that I’ve looked up the word “ôter” oh, about fifty times, without ever remembering it from the previous encounters. It would seem that it, and the French language in general, just ôtent themselves out of my head. It took me over a year to finish Jeunes filles, though I should say in my defense that during much of that year I was too busy eating French candy and having fights with customer service reps in French department stores to actually learn French. So I just keep on keepin on, like a baby monkey on a pig, but nowhere as speedy. Or cute). My next language project will be rereading Swann’s Way, but in French this time, which will provide funny memory echoes and yet be entirely new at the same time, which is appropriate.

In the meantime, here’s my 2008 review of Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way, which also makes me ask: who was the person who wrote this review? I may find, upon re-/reading, that I’m not that person at all anymore, and that I don’t agree with anything she said.

This review contains spoilers, but nothing gets spoiled that you wouldn’t figure out from the jacket flap.

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?)

Even were we to succeed in establishing the narrative perspectives as memory/reality on one hand, and fiction/analogy/empathy on the other, both the novella and the framing story show us that memory and the experience of reality are tenuous: our apprehension is limited and unreliable, and so much more so must be our memory of what we’ve apprehended. Swann learns that his most cherished memories of Odette, accepted by him as truth, were–had always been–only later became–not what he thought they were. When did they become lies–when they were happening, or when he found out–if they have indeed become lies at all? So, if the narrator recognizes this in Swann, is he not suggesting to us that we should read the life at Combray, the remembered childhood, and in particular the incident of the madeleine with a gram of, if not skepticism, then of pity, and regret, and, yes, empathy, because all of us are made fools by our memories? Because none of us has a better mastery of her own reality? Maybe our narrator isn’t savvy enough to have figured this out, but Proust certainly knows, that while Swann abjects himself before the slippery, elusive Odette, those of us trying to grasp the truth of literature, of other people, and even of our own lives, experience a similar thralldom.

So, is it possible at all to answer all of these questions with a Yes? Can one reconcile the experience of reality with the knowledge of its artificiality, the feeling of connection with the awareness of its limitation? Can we appreciate all Proust’s literary hijinks at our expense, while admitting that yes, we were convinced by his descriptions of the pink hawthorns in bloom, of Francoise’s munificence at the market, of the aunts’ vulgarity (among the most delicious descriptions), of the terrible need to confess to love and desire even if one knows that the object of our affection will be repulsed by our confession? Can truth be found anywhere at all?

Why, yes! The big Yes is Art. The art of the fictive imagination, in making truth happen on the fly and where one doesn’t expect it, in the wondrously absurd and therefore, somehow, convincing analogy of a jaded sophisticate’s doomed love for a courtesan to a child’s waiting for his favorite playmate to arrive at the park. It is the artist’s job to show us that the cake isn’t real, but to make us taste it at the same time.

Read: in 2008 and 2013 and again and again