Surrender to Proust

100 years since Swann’s Way was first published, the work still baffles us. Maybe the best way to enjoy it is to relinquish our usual sensibilities.


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It is a hundred years since Marcel Proust finished his novel Swann’s Way. The novel became the first volume of Proust’s seven-volume work Remembrance of Things Past. Remembrance of Things Past is now one of the accepted masterpieces of 20th century literature. But that greatness was not so easy to see a hundred years ago. Publishers initially rejected Swann’s Way.

By the virtues of critical hindsight, we like to make fun of the supposed misjudgments of the past. Van Gogh could never sell a painting. Moby Dick was barely read during Melville’s lifetime. Proust’s writing was met with initial disregard. But all that changes when an artist is recognized as a master. We now approach a painting by Van Gogh as something holy, something preordained to be great. It is likewise nearly impossible, today, to pick up Proust without preconceptions, without already knowing that you are holding a “great work of literature” in your hands. Knowing that you are reading a work of genius, it is difficult to recognize that Swann’s Way is strange.

The opening line of Swann’s Way is about falling asleep. Proust writes, “For a long time I used to go to bed early” (C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s 1922 translation). There follow many pages about Proust sleeping, about the ease and difficulty of falling asleep, about snatches of dreams and brief bouts of wakefulness, about how his mother used to tuck him into bed, about sleep in ancient man and in the more recent past, about the philosophical essence of sleep as the temporary loss of ego, and finally, memories of M. Swann, “poor old Swann” a friend of Proust’s family and the ostensible subject of the novel.

Early readers of the novel can be forgiven for not immediately liking Swann’s Way. In a recent article for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein quotes an evaluation of Swann’s Way from the publishers who first rejected the book. The evaluator complains, “I cannot understand how a man can take 30 pages to describe how he turns round in his bed before he finally falls asleep.”

Many readers of Proust have noticed that he was a writer who took his time. Walter Benjamin once observed that Proust, as a man and writer, loved to multiply complications. Benjamin compares Proust’s love of complication to an anonymous letter that goes: “My dear Madam, I just noticed that I forgot my cane at your house yesterday; please be good enough to give it to the bearer of this letter. P.S. Kindly pardon me for disturbing you; I just found my cane.”

Proust wrote literature with the same sensibility as the man who composed that letter. This can make it difficult to read Proust unless you are attuned to that sensibility. “Attunement” is a good word for what it takes to learn to read Proust — music played a significant role in Proust’s life and writing. The critic Edmund Wilson was one of the first writers to notice the importance of music in understanding Proust. Wilson wrote an essay about Remembrance of Things Past for The New Republic back in 1928. In the essay, Wilson argued that, “Like so many other important modern writers, Proust had been reared in the school of symbolism and had all the symbolist’s preoccupation with musical effects. Like many of his generation, he was probably as deeply influenced by Wagner as by any writer of books.” Wilson goes on to note that the opening chapter of Remembrance of Things Past is titled “Overture.” Proust was structuring his giant work of literature like a symphony. Over the last few generations of literary scholarship there have been countless attempts to explain just how to interpret each chapter and volume of Remembrance of Things Past along musical lines. You can read, for instance, that Swann’s Way can be broken down into the exposition, development, and capitulation of the sonata-allegro form of musical composition.

But these works of scholarship probably take the musical influence too literally. Wilson is right that Proust was heavily influenced by Symbolism and that he loved music. All this means is that Proust listened to the music of his time, particularly works from composers like Saint-Saens and Gabriel Fauré. He liked the way this music made him feel and he wanted to write literature that evoked the same feeling. What is that feeling? I’d recommend listening to works like Fauré’s First Violin Sonata and Saint-Saens’ Sonata No. 1 for Piano and Violin. Either of those works (there are other candidates) may have been the inspiration for the famous “little phrase” of music by the fictional composer Vinteul in Swann’s Way. In the novel, M. Swann becomes obsessed with this piece of music and asks his beloved, Odette, to play it for him over and over again.

The little phrase of music becomes important to Swann because it reminds him that his love for Odette is not a “digression without importance,” but something, “on the contrary, so far superior to everyday life as to be alone worthy of the trouble of expressing it.” Proust goes on to explain that, “Swann had regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadows, unknown, impenetrable by the human mind, which none the less were perfectly distinct one from another, unequal among themselves in value and in significance.”

The subject of Swann and the little musical phrase by Vinteul inspired Proust into one of his rhapsodies of language. Such rhapsodies break out every few chapters in Remembrance of Things Past. Swann, wrote Proust, “knew that his memory of the piano falsified still further the perspective in which he saw the music, that the field open to the musician is not a miserable stave of seven notes, but an immeasurable keyboard (still, almost all of it, unknown), on which, here and there only, separated by the gross darkness of its unexplored tracts, some few among the millions of keys, keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by certain great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion corresponding to the theme which they have found, of shewing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night, discouraging exploration, of our soul, which we have been content to regard as valueless and waste and void.”

The passage does not stop there. The discussion of music and the “little phrase” goes on for several more pages of equally breathless prose. When Proust writes like this, when he breaks into his rhapsodies, the sentences get longer. He uses more (and lengthier) subordinate clauses. The sentences are like great piles of words with all the folds and layers of an unspooled bolt of fabric spilling onto the floor. Those sentences, those great unspooling sentences, are the “little phrases” of Proust’s novel. Proust figured out how to write in a way that could create the same emotions that he felt when listening to the contemporary composers he loved. Proust was experimenting with sentences just as the composers were experimenting with musical phrases. Fauré, for instance, was messing around with whole tone scales and various early techniques of polytonality to create a specific emotional feel in his music. Just listen to this clip of Michelangeli playing Debussy’s Danseuses de Delphes (Debussy was a student of Fauré) to hear the dreamy effect of whole tone scales.

The point is that composers in Proust’s time were experimenting with the “syntax” of music in order to capture a specific feeling. That feeling is dreamy and indistinct by nature. So, it is hard to talk about. Just listen to the Debussy again. Proust has his own words to describe the feeling that this music evokes. He lays it out in the passage quoted above. He says this music awakens in us, “the emotion … of … richness … [that] lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night … of our soul.”

It is not that Proust wanted to structure his novel exactly like a symphony or that he was looking for a one-to-one correspondence between music and writing. Proust was simply looking for a way to get that same feeling that would wash over him as he listened to certain kinds of music. Proust says that the “little phrase” of music existed latent in Swann’s mind, “in the same way as certain other conceptions without material equivalent, such as our notions of light, of sound, of perspective, of bodily desire, the rich possessions wherewith our inner temple is diversified and adorned. Perhaps we shall lose them, perhaps they will be obliterated, if we return to nothing in the dust. But so long as we are alive, we can no more bring ourselves to a state in which we shall not have known them than we can with regard to any material object, than we can, for example, doubt the luminosity of a lamp that has just been lighted, in view of the changed aspect of everything in the room, from which has vanished even the memory of the darkness.”

The entire structure of Remembrance of Things Past, insofar as it has a structure, is meant to create a loose scaffolding for these incredible sentences, for these moments when Proust burrows his prose deepest into the murky core of his own existence and shines a light on aspects of his being, and thus our own experience, that we rarely get to see. For this reason, reading Swann’s Way can feel like falling into a dream. Pages will drift by light as ether. You sometimes forget you are reading. You get lost in the stories, the memories. Is Proust still unfolding that memory of his grandmother in Combray or have we moved back to the present tense again? You have to re-read Proust more than you do other authors. You have to move back and forth in the text, finding your place again. The dream world puts you to sleep. That’s okay. Let it do that. Let yourself fall away into the sleepy prose and then you will have the experience of snapping awake, suddenly, when Proust goes into one of his rhapsodies. The prose itself will shake you awake. “Now,” Proust will say, “now, I really have something to tell you.”

You cannot have an entire book of luminous sentences, just as you cannot have an entire musical composition made of poignant “little phrases.” The endless trivial babble of Proust’s various great-aunts provides necessary resting places, stretches of boredom from which extraordinary moments of Being can finally be plucked. But that is how experience is. Proust found a way to make his prose as numbing as the emptiest of conversations. And then, when you’ve started to lose the thread of the narrative completely, the urgency of his writing will start to jump and tremble on the page again and you’ll feel yourself convulsed “in one of those sobs which a fine line of poetry or a piece of alarming news will wring from us.”

This makes for strange reading, dreamy reading, reading that ebbs and flows, never submitting to anything definite. It is reading that demands surrender. It is reading that obliterates preconceptions. Swann’s Way is still as disconcerting as it must have been one hundred years ago. And it is still beautiful, still unique, still as precious as when Proust first delivered it to his baffled publishers one day in 1913 on a street in Paris, in an age that is as remote to us, now, as the pyramids of Egypt, but that can come rushing back to us in streams of vivid and hallucinatory memories from the mind of one of the strangest, most delicate, most relentlessly reflective men of his, or any, time. • 5 June 2013