This is the first volume of three in the Remembrance of Things Past series by Marcel Proust published by Chatto & Windus including Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove and you cannot really start this book without making a commitment to reading the entire series. It is seen as one of those mice and men type dividing books that distinguishes the serious reader from the airport novel consumer. Maybe that’s too harsh but it certainly demands a lot because of the scope of the challenge and the dream like content that forces you to concentrate hard on the story.
This is very much an introduction to the world of a boy and his extended family including his mother, father, grandparents and aunts. The story is based for the most part at a family home in Combray, which is visited by a neighbour called Swann who comes alone even after he is married with a daughter because the family do not approve of his choice of wife. The family enjoy walking and one of the routes goes past Swann’s house and it is there that the narrator sees his daughter and falls in love with her. The book then moves focus and picks up the story of Swann and his love affair with an unfaithful woman Odette de Crecy and her social circle and it ends with him vowing never to see her again after he discovers she has been unfaithful to him.
Within a Budding Grove
Having ended the first volume with Swann appearing to split from Odette the second volume picks up the story with him married to her with a daughter. Marriage it seems finally changes Odette and also has an influence on Swann who as a result becomes socially ostracised. The narrator and his family are also living in Paris now after helping sort out the affairs of an aged aunt who dies. The narrator falls in love with Swann’s daughter Gilberte but when the relationship breaks down, partly because he overstays his welcome, he switches his friendship to her parents, in particular Odette. The location of the book shifts again with the narrator and his grandmother going to Balbec for a three month break. Part of the reason is that the narrator has serious health problems with asthma and a highly-strung nervous system. In Balbec he meets more friends of the Swann’s including an artist and a man he suspects of having an affair with Odette and replacing his affections after the Gilberte episode he falls in love with Albertine but fails to get very far with her because of a misunderstanding over a kiss. He then packs up, just as the hotel is shutting down for winter, and heads back to Paris inspired by love and the sea setting it up for Volume III.
Is it well written?
The style is a mixture of dense description and dialogue between characters and it feels as if you are stepping into someone’s dream. There are passages that quite simply take your breath away and there are other moments where he very simply moves the story on when there could have been an opportunity to stretch it out. The character of the narrator obviously has the advantage of looking back over many years so for instance he can talk about the motivation of Swann over his love affair with Odette in a way that he couldn’t have possibly known about at the time. The clever thing that Proust does, which doesn’t become apparent until you start to get into volume II is that the characters keep coming round again with his family, the Swann’s as well as locations like Combray and Balbec repeatedly coming round and influencing the development of the story.
Should it be read?
The name Proust echoes round the literature world and so if you are serious about literary name dropping it’s got to be on the lists. But that fails to appreciate just how beautiful this book is with writing style that inspires others as well as making the reader think of their own youth and family. There have been moments of comedy, the grandmother opening the window and letting the wind cause havoc, and moments of great pain, when Swann discovers his love in unfaithful, but what links it all is a sense of a greater story, which is quite simply of life and love and that makes it accessible to anyone. I am not sure I could have stayed with this book before my thirties but am enjoying it now and it has the ability to take me back to how I felt as a teenager as I tried to mix with adult company and develop my relationships with girls. In a nutshell so far (only two volumes) the verdict is that these books are wonderful.
It goes without saying that it leads to the next five volumes of Remembrance of Things Past but also there are other writers, some of which I will start in between volumes of Proust, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory and to some extent Ulysses by James Joyce that are all said to be influenced by a Proustian style
Version Read – Chatto & Windus hardback 1982