Thursday, 20 August 1998

Marcel Proust: Swann's Way (1913)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, 1981
Edition: Penguin, 1985
Review number: 106

Swann's Way (Au cote de chez Swann) is the first in Proust's monumental Remembrance of Things Past. This Penguin edition, of the whole novel in three volumes, is an updating of the famous English translation of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, rewritten to fit in with a new, greatly improved French edition prepared after Moncrieff's death.

The first part of Swann's Way, the introductory Overture, immediately immerses us in the intense, slightly strange (yet extremely French) world of the narrator. As the title of the sequence suggests, everything is couched as a reminiscence of the past, and is not presented in chronological order but as these memories occur to the narrator. We plunge into his adolescence, and then in the second part (Combray) his earlier childhood holidays are remembered (during the famous tea-soaked madeleine biscuit episode, where the taste prompts the memory). The title of the book comes from one of the two walks taken by the family, either towards the house of the Swanns, or toward Guermantes (The Guermantes Way being used for the title of a later volume).

The third part of this novel, Swann in Love, moves back again, to the time when Swann was a bachelor; the narrator couldn't possibly have known all of the feelings Swann had. It describes in great detail the infatuation Swann had for a young woman Odette of distinctly dubious reputation.

With Remembrance of Things Past, it's not the plot but the atmosphere which is important. The novel, in this translation, reads like a kind of gentle but sophisticated stream of consciousness; you are drawn into the world of the narrator and of Swann in the major section (though this is written in the third person). Proust uses a poetic desciptive method, where, in each small section of the text, words are used in a metaphical way all taken from a particular sensual art - music or painting for example. This is how the atmosphere is created; it's very clever, but also unobtrusive and effective.

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