Marcel Proust is a hell of a writer. This summer I decided to reread Swann’s Way, the first book of Proust’s seven volume magnum opus In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past depending on your translation), for the first time since I originally read it back in high school. What has this revisiting of a modernist classic shown me after the no doubt transformative experience of college? Well for starters, Marcel Proust really is a hell of a writer.
But first, in deference to Proust, a quick glance back at the first time I wandered down this solipsistic rabbit hole.
When I was in high school, as a result of a heady mixture of adolescent hubris and affection for the film Little Miss Sunshine, I decided to pick up Swann’s Way before a long trip. Considering that I had no idea what the novel was about and that the closest I had ever come to high modernism was The Great Gatsby, I wasn’t really prepared for the wildly diffuse, digressive, allusive, and intimate piece of literature I had purchased. Despite all this, I was almost immediately infatuated. Swann’s Way was this strange, intricate world of its own, all mapped out in the labyrinth of the narrator’s memory. I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand most of the allusions Proust made to poets, authors, actors, plays, theaters, or even places (still don’t as long as I’m being completely honest), but that wasn’t really the point. In fact, lacking that established frame of historical figures and works allowed my own mind to create those people and the world they inhabited in the same way Proust’s narrator did, making the process of allusion less a system of reference and more an act of creation. It was remarkable, like a real-life Borgesian encyclopedia of a nonexistent planet. Despite that, there were these countless little human moments where that odd parallel world, the narrator’s painstakingly recreated solipsism, overlapped with my own experience. As such, what I was really taken in by was this contradictory combination of the idiosyncratic psychology of one young man refracted through memory and the transcendent nature of that psychology.
As I reread it now, Swann’s Way has taken another shape for me, dealing with a wider range of ideas that I wasn’t equipped to fully appreciate when I first worked through it. What strikes me now is Proust’s treatment of memory and identity as his narrator traces the outline of his former self. The whole novel is a meditation on the fragile nature of the world in which we live, how our mind shapes and defines our experience of our surroundings. Places, books, names, even people take on the characteristics we give them, completely separate from their physical, objective selves. The question is then how to understand or interact with a world that is ever changing, being successively defined by the progression of the self throughout life. Proust’s answer seems to be art. He captures this succession of selves and the worlds they inhabit through his novel.
From the first page of Swann’s Way, Proust is addressing the transformative nature of literature as his narrator feels himself becoming a part of his novels as he falls asleep, comparing the process to metempsychosis, the process of a soul’s migration following rebirth. For Proust, literature is a means to capture the world that he created as he experienced it, cementing the self of that moment in the process of recording the world in its myriad psychological nuances. What’s so staggeringly brilliant is then the feeling of rereading the novel and experiencing that precise sensation as you read it, realizing that your initial response to the novel is as inaccessible to you now as the Combray of the narrator’s childhood is to his adult self, now only existing in the momentary reflections inspired by a madeleine or a church spire or waking up in an unfamiliar bed. Swann’s Way twists, turns, glances forward and back through time, deconstructing and reconstructing memory all towards the end of capturing the insubstantial and ephemeral sense of self, while at the same time creating its own experience as vulnerable to perspective as the world it seeks to capture.
Like I said, Proust is a hell of a writer.