A few weeks ago, I found myself going to a wedding in Brittany, which was a delight in part for the chance to spend rather a lot of time on a train. Trains are probably my third favourite place to read (after in the bath and in bed), as they offer such long stretches of book time, punctuated with lovely views out of the window. They are also free from the many problems that plague other modes of transport, such as feeling sick, overcoming irrational fears of death, or having to mapread.
I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to at last get around to reading some Proust. Swann’s Way – the first volume of In Search of Lost Time – has been sitting on my shelf for years now, tempting me with the treats that so many say lie inside, yet also keeping me at arm’s length, knowing that this isn’t a book to be attempt when jammed on the tube, or when otherwise distracted with London life. To be honest, I felt more than a little daunted by it. It’s massive. It’s seminal. It’s one of those books you’re forever being told you’re not old enough to read, and wouldn’t it be awful to read it too early and so not enjoy one of the great works!
It took me a little while to settle in to Swann’s Way. As I sat on the Eurostar, I kept peeking over the husband’s shoulder at the glossy magazine he was reading and wondering if I was a glutton for punishment. Why Proust, when I could just read the Proust Questionnaire at the end of Vanity Fair?
I felt impossibly self-conscious with my Proust. I could barely get through a sentence without thinking about everyone else who’d read that sentence. I kept wondering what Virginia Woolf would have made of it, or E.M. Forster, or even Jane Gardam. I am reading Proust, I kept telling myself. This is the real deal. If I am anything like Alain de Botton, it will change my life.
So it was a shaky start. I think it always takes a little while to settle in to the classics, to adjust to their slower pace, their long serpentine sentences. But by the time I got off the train at Paris, I was hooked.
I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to be sitting on a TGV the next morning, reading about Combray while looking out at exactly that landscape! It is such a sensuous book, I could almost smell the ‘bitter-sweet scent of almonds emanating from the hawthorn-blossom’ and the myriad other scents that perfume the pages as I looked at their real-life counterparts flashing past the window.
What struck me above all is how clever Proust is with his long winding sentences. They twist and turn, wrongfooting you with every comma, until you come to the end and it all falls perfectly into place. Here is one of my favourites, from ‘Swann in Love’, the second part of the book, which explores Swann’s love affair with Odette:
He would go and join her, and when he opened the door, on Odette’s rosy face, as soon as she caught sight of Swann, would appear – changing the curve of her lips, the look in her eyes, the moulding of her cheeks – an all-absorbing smile.
When I first read this I was jolted after ‘face’, feeling there must be some mistake, you don’t open a door on someone’s face. I began again and realised what he does with that comma after ‘door’ is allow a sudden shift in agency from the action of Swann opening the door to Odette’s change in expression as she catches sight of Swann. Then there is another shift as the description of Odette’s smile – ‘changing the curve of her lips…’ is relayed as witnessed by Swann. It is though this smile is as intensely felt by each of them – Odette as she moves and Swann as he observes it. How perfectly intimate for two lovers to share such a flirtatious sentence. How impossibly clever of Proust to convey an emotion even in his syntax.
So many of Proust’s sentences are every bit as good as this one. It is such luxurious prose, so rich. As it happened, when I got back to London after the wedding, still in the middle of Swann’s Way, I quickly re-read Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington for this Spectator article. I alighted upon a wonderful anecdotal description of Proust, from Spark’s Mrs Hawkins:
It’s about everything in particular.
She’s exactly right. Proust pays particular, minute attention to every little detail, resulting in these wonderful long sentences that perfectly capture each tiny gradation of everything.
Everyone goes on about the famous madeleine moment as being the epitome of wonderful writing about memory. (By the way, two things you might not know about that moment: 1. It’s dipped in lime-blossom tea; 2. It’s 50 pages in, not right at the beginning.) For sure it is good, but I thought just as good was the way Proust writes about music. This is also from ‘Swann in Love’:
The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin. At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. . . . But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony—he did not know which—that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one’s nostrils. . . . This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had at once suggested to him a world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him, and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire.
What a long quotation – and this is just picking out key bits from two whole pages – but I hope that from here you can see how well he writes about that inexpressible, tantalising power of music. He captures, perfectly, the way a certain exquisite phrase can get under your skin and lift you out of yourself, and how hard it is to pin it down, or conjure the same feeling in any other way. (Incidentally, for more on the actual phrase of music that inspired Proust, see this intriguing blog.)
Who am I to write about Proust? All I can say is that I loved it more than I’d anticipated and would thoroughly recommend it for a holiday or a long train journey. I finished it when I went to Andalucia last week for some villa relaxation with friends – many of whom were reading Laurie Lee, to my intense delight! I lay by the swimming pool in the hot Spanish sun and was utterly absorbed in Proust’s luxurious, endless sentences.
It was only once I’d finished Swann’s Way that I was struck with flu. Literally, no sooner had I put it down than my throat started to ache. The last few days of the holiday were Proustless and snot-filled, and my husky snottiness continues now I am back in London.
I worry that the only cure is to read more Proust. While Swann’s Way was heavenly, I fear that the remaining six volumes might have to wait until I spend rather a lot more time in France than a weekend’s train journey. Until then, I shall stick to hot lemon and honey, into which I might just dip a madeleine.
Proust is, of course, Daphne’s cup of tea. She particularly loves the slow pace and long sentences.