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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

He would be greeted by the little phrase from the sonata, played in the garden on the restaurant piano.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1 -- Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

NB: Advance warning: this post is substantial. Meaty, some might say. I am reading Proust, after all - you should expect nothing less! To be fair, there's hardly a page in my 606-page copy without a note or an underline, so I did a great deal of trimming to get it down to this. Now don't say I didn't warn you! Trust me, it's worth it.

NB2: I literally had to dig my copy of this volume out from under my bed and brush off the dust. It seems that when I was interrupted flipping through to take notes for my blog, it made a run for it! Don't think you'll get away so easily, Swann's Way!

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This first volume centers on three main stories: the first takes place in Combray, a young boy's country home there, and his relationship with his parents, his aunts and uncles, and his boyhood obsession with his mother's goodnight kiss. It introduces us to the quirky cast of characters that is his family, and brings us in touch tangentially to M. Swann, the subject of the second story. Swann lives next to the young boy's family, but while Swann is permitted to visit them, they do not visit Swann at his home, because he has made what is seen socially as an 'unfit' marriage. The family goes on two walks in the countryside: "the Méséglise way", which they sometimes call "Swann's way", because it passes onto the outskirts of Swann's property, and "the Guermantes way", which leads toward the ancestral home of the aristocratic Guermantes family. The second story focuses on Swann's courtship and obsession with Odette de Crécy, who we find out in the third story does, in fact, become his wife and the mother of his child, a daughter named Gilberte. Swann falls in and out of favor in various circles (particularly the nouveau-riches Verdurins, at whose home he first met Odette), and his feelings for Odette take him on a wild roller coaster ride of love, hatred, indifference, feigned indifference, and downright stalkerness. By the end of the section, he decides he's over her, but the evidence in the third story seems to nullify that assertion. The third story brings us back to the young boy narrator (I'd give him a name IF HE HAD ONE; ahem. pet peeve. from here on, let's call him YBN for short.) and his... SURPRISE! obsession with Gilberte, Swann's daughter. He had spent a great deal of time thinking about her and imagining her at Combray, but in Paris he meets her FOR REALZ and pulls a total Swann. We find out that Odette is in fact Mme Swann, and then the YBN morphs into a wistful older version of himself, looking back and wishing he could hold onto those moments and memories. (Get it? in search of lost time?)
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I decided to blog on each of these volumes separately (there are 6 - or 7 - depending on who you ask) both because (a) I didn't think anyone but my TRULY DEVOTED readers would read a post on the entire novel all at once and (b) I have far too much to say to keep it bottled until I finish the other 6 volumes (and who KNOWS when that will be?) So here goes!!

-- YBN's great-aunt, to YBN, whose nose is happily stuck in a book whenever possible:
"What! still amusing yourself with a book? It isn't Sunday, you know!" Tee hee. It would take me YEARS to get through Proust if I could only read him on Sundays!

-- YBN's grandfather was friends with Swann's father (aka "old Swann") and in discussing old Swann's late wife, old Swann tells YBN's grandfather that he can only think of her in brief bits, because it hurts too much otherwise. YBN's grandfather starts saying the phrase, "Often, but a little at a time, like poor old Swann." I thought this was a perfect metaphor for how I'm going to read Proust -- Often, but a little at a time.

-- Narrator on reading/writing:
"After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, as we feverishly turn over the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes.  And once the novelist has brought us to this state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid and more abiding than those which come to us in sleep, why then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development prevents us from perceiving them."

I couldn't ask for a better affirmation for this blog, or a better testament to the benefits of reading.

-- My favorite line in the book, from the early days of Swann and Odette's courtship:
"Swann had left his cigarette-case at her house. 'If only', she wrote, 'you had also forgotten your heart! I should never have let you have that back.'"

-- Did you know that Proust originated air-quotes? Seriously. Tell me if that isn't what you think this sounds like:
"'I see no objection to its being old,' the Princess answered dryly, 'but whatever else it is it's not euphonious,' she went on, isolating the word euphonious as though between inverted commas, a little affectation to which the Guermantes set were addicted."

-- Fabulous description of the inequality of days:
"And besides, even from the point of view of mere quantity, in our lives the days are not all equal.  To get through each day, natures that are at all highly strung, as was mine, are equipped, like motor-cars, with different gears. There are mountainous, arduous days, up which one takes an infinite time to climb, and downward-sloping days which one can descend at full tilt, singing as one goes."

Today was a mountainous day. Let's hope tomorrow I can descend at full tilt, singing as I go!

-- YBN to his beloved Gilberte, when she arrives extremely late to the Champs-Élysées where they play together:
"'I had so many things to ask you,' I said to her. 'I thought that today was going to mean so much in our friendship. And no sooner have you come than you go away! Try to come early tomorrow, so that I can talk to you.'"

Tee hee hee. Little lovestruck boys are so cute. :)

Favorite passages/sentences:
-- "Its memory, the composite memory of its ribs, its knees, its shoulder-blades, offered it a series of rooms in which it had at one time or another slept, while the unseen walls, shifting and adapting themselves to the shape of each successive room that it remembered, whirled round it in the dark." -- YBN, on waking up in the night and his body remembering where he is

-- "I was convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there."

-- "But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection." -- this is the lead-in to the classic madeleines passage

-- "a smile of joy, of pious thanksgiving to God who is pleased to grant that life shall be less cruel than our dreams." -- on waking from a nightmare

-- "In my heart of hearts I care for nothing in the world now but a few churches, two or three books and pictures, and the light of the moon when the fresh breeze of your youth wafts to my nostrils the scent of gardens whose flowers my old eyes can no longer distinguish."

-- "From time to time, oppressed by boredom, a carp would heave itself out of the water with an anxious gasp." -- particularly amusing since I recently had "red-neck fishing" described to me by some friends from Kentucky ;)

-- "When, on a summer evening, the melodious sky growls like a tawny lion, and everyone is complaining of the storm, it is the memory of the Méséglise way that makes me stand alone in ecstasy, inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the lingering scent of invisible lilacs." -- I remember when we used to pick lilacs at the house next door when we lived at 419 E. Pine Street. I used to love crawling through the hedge to clip at the lilac bushes wildly, bringing fistfuls back to the house to stuff into vases. Mom, do you remember?

-- Mme Verdurin, asserting herself:
"'I say, aren't you going to do any work this evening?' she screamed suddenly to the young pianist, seeing an opportunity for displaying, before a newcomer of Forcheville's importance, at once her unfailing wit and her despotic power over the 'faithful'."

-- "Beneath the restless tremolos of the violin part which protected it with their throbbing sostenuto two octaves above it - and as in a mountainous country, behind the seeming immobility of a vertiginous waterfall, one descries, two hundred feet below, the tiny form of a woman walking in the valley - the little phrase had just appeared, distant, graceful, protected by the long, gradual unfurling of its transparent, incessant, and sonorous curtain."

-- It's too long to detail here, but the scene with the Marquise de Cambremer and the Vicomtesse de Franquetot is absolutely fantastic. If you want to read it, you can go to this link: http://www.freefictionbooks.org/books/s/2734-swanns-way-by-marcel-proust?start=220

-- "She had learned in her girlhood to fondle and cherish those long sinuous phrases of Chopin, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by reaching out and exploring far outside and away from the direction in which they started, far beyond the point which one might have expected their notes to reach, and which divert themselves in those byways of fantasy only to return more deliberately - with a more premeditated reprise, with more precision, as on a crystal bowl that reverberates to the point of making you cry out - to strike at your heart."-- I don't think I've ever read anyone who writes about music more beautifully than Proust does.

-- "I longed for nothing more than to behold a stormy sea." -- YBN, a somewhat sickly child, who gets so excited about the prospect of traveling to Italy that he gets sick and is banned from traveling for a year. Poor dear!

-- "Now, don't start whispering! How would you like to come into a house and find everyone muttering to themselves?" -- YBN's great-aunt, on why whispering is impolite

-- "I hear that things worked out badly again today, Léonie; you had all your friends here at once." -- YBN's mother commiserating with his great-aunt, who detested having her priest and her gossip informant/friend Eulalie arrive at the same time on the ONLY day she deigned to accept visitors from her self-appointed sick room.

-- "But it is preeminently as the deepest layer of my mental soil, as the firm ground on which I still stand, that I regard the Méséglise and Guermantes ways. It is because I believed in things and in people while I walked along those paths that the things and the people they made known to me are the only ones that I still take seriously and that still bring me joy."

-- "And this malady which Swann's love had become had so proliferated, was so closely interwoven with all his habits, with all his actions, with his thoughts, his health, his sleep, his life, even with what he hoped for after his death, was so utterly inseparable from him, that it would have been impossible to eradicate it without almost entirely destroying him; as surgeons say, his love was no longer operable."

Félicitations if you've made it this far! By the by, the title is in reference to a theme from a sonata that becomes Odette and Swann's love motif.

Onwards to the second installment, the Guermantes way. Wish me luck!

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