When I say meaningless, I mean it in a practical sense. I thought I knew a bit about the novel, but trivia and surrounding theory are no substitute for direct engagement. In fact, reading The Way by Swann’s reminded me of visiting New York for the first time: I’d seen the city so often in films that I experienced a sense of absolute familiarity repeatedly pricked by the reality of my not knowing where the hell I was. Upon sitting down with Proust I soon found that the cliches about his writing (a man who detested cliches so much he claimed they made his teeth ache), while basically accurate only describe the surface without ever – those sensitive of tooth should look away now – getting to the heart of the matter.
So, here are a neophyte’s brief impressions of where the truth might lie between what I knew already and what I know now.
I’d heard that the opening 30 pages are about the narrator, Marcel, trying to get to sleep. In fact it’s closer to 50, but in any case this tidbit is so reductive as to be nonsensical. It’s like saying The Odyssey is about Greek island-hopping. The novel’s core mechanism of the interplay of past and present, and in particular the way the latter is so constantly penetrated by the former as to make the two essentially indivisible, is presented in miniature here.
I’d heard that things really kick off when Marcel dips a cake in his tea. Spot on. I’d also heard, often in almost horrified tones, that Proust writes extremely long sentences. That was bang on the money too, but less clear to me was the artistic reasoning behind their length. Proust’s prose seems the best literary approximation of the way thoughts unfurl – one triggering another, triggering another and so on, in necessarily contiguous fashion – that I’ve ever encountered (and if you think anything tops it then please, let me know). It’s true to say I sometimes, owing to an attention span more ephemeral than a soap bubble, found myself lost in the middle of a vast sentence with no idea how it started or when it might finish, surrounded by inscrutable dependent clauses. However, such problems were easily remedied, and while Proust is undeniably wordy he’s rarely prolix.
Leaving preconceptions aside, here’s something I was totally unaware of and that newcomers should know: Proust is funny. Modernism isn’t an artistic tendency particularly known for its rib-tickling qualities, Joyce and early Eliot aside. Proust, however, can crack wise, as shown by Marcel’s boyhood friend Albert Bloch’s excuses for arriving at dinner over an hour late and covered in mud:
“I never allow myself to be influenced either by atmospheric perturbations or by the conventional divisions of time. I would happily instate the use of the opium pipe and the Malay kris, but I know nothing about the use of these infinitely more pernicious and also insipidly bourgeois implements, the watch and the umbrella.”
It could be Withnail speaking.
To return, finally, to more traditionally Proustian ground, he shows himself to be a masterful observer of relationships, particularly when they’re going pear-shaped. His analysis of obsessive jealousy alone would be enough to mark this volume out as something special, but combine it with pages that leap from the reasons why crown princes needn’t be lookers and women love firemen, to rhapsodic nature writing and the profligate seeding of themes and events that will (I presume) be developed in later volumes, and it’s fair to say that, thus far, this seems a read well worth the rather extreme demands it makes on one’s time. Still, Marcel remains in short trousers and there’s a long way to go yet.
Spend any length of time reading about Proust and you’ll hear that his writing is addictive. In fact, the ubiquity of this claim was something I found off-putting. Novels aren’t heroin or peanut M&Ms, after all. To me it sounded like so much hyperbole, and as a book reviewer I’ve sprayed around too much of that myself to fall for anyone else’s. But after reading The Guermantes Way I’m beginning to see some sense in the claim; I got so lost in it that a new Harry Potter book could have been published and I wouldn’t even have noticed. And now the fact that various commitments are going to keep me from Sodom and Gomorrah for a week is as frustrating as having to break off from a good thriller at a cliffhanger moment.
That The Guermantes Way should prove so compelling isn’t obvious from a summary. An account of Marcel’s entry into the Belle Époque salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, Paris’s most fashionable district, the book largely consists of two visits to the theatre, followed by two extended accounts – comprising half of the 2002 Penguin edition’s 600 pages – of society parties.
In the space of those 600 pages, however, Proust brilliantly subverts Marcel’s snobbishness – which pervaded the previous volume – by artfully switching the novel’s perspective from that of Marcel as narrator (older, wiser, alive to the swarming absurdities of the Faubourg Saint-Germain scene) and Marcel as protagonist (a young man suspicious at the difference between his preconceptions and his actual experiences of the social elite, but unwilling to recognise its banalities). Proust wrote about this in a 1914 letter to Jacques Rivière: “I did not want to abstractly analyse this evolution of a thought, but rather recreate it, make the reader live it. I am therefore forced to paint errors, without feeling obliged to indicate that I think they are errors. Too bad if the reader believes that I think they are true.”
This method gives Proust scope to flex his stylistic muscles fully. He leaps between satire, political debate (the Dreyfus affair looms large, with its polarising alliances and poisonous anti-semitism), sexuality, and the brutally frank description of a family member’s death, while larding the whole thing with enough one-liners that you could trim it all down into a more than decent comic novella. And through all of this the viewpoint changes unannounced, leaving the reader – as if they themselves were a guest at one of these parties – to determine from conversation to conversation how best to interpret it.
It’s exhilarating to be immersed in such a fully realised world, and even more so to be left to navigate it under your own steam. The humour is the final ingredient that cements the book’s greatness, making it as easy to love as it is to admire. As for being addicted, I’d like to claim I’m not, but I will own up to a serious dose of literary dipsomania. But so much for my own incipient habit. Are there any fully paid-up Proust junkies out there?