How to start about a novel like Swann’s Way? How to articulate the feeling of reading Proust? That’s a touch challenge for me even on a second reading. It is definitely easier to dwell on the physical book itself, in this case the wonderful 1954 Limited Editions Club edition illustrated by Bernard Lamotte. And obtaining a copy of the LEC edition prompted me to jump into that second read much before the other two editions waiting on my shelf: the new Lydia Davis translation published in 2003 and the even more intimidating Pléiade edition en française. Eventually I’ll get to the Davis translation but I’m not sure my French will ever be up to the Pléiade.
So both my readings of Swann’s Way have been in the Scott Moncrieff translation, the first in the Folio Society trade edition of In Search of Lost Time, in which the Scott Moncrieff translation was reworked to account for the corrections in the Pléiade editions. Then I guess I stepped backwards for the LEC. But nonetheless, both readings were quite enjoyable. In the Folio edition, Terence Kilmartin sums up Scott Moncrieff thus: “…his prose tends to the purple and the precious—or that is how he interpreted the tone of the original: whereas the truth is that, complicated, dense, overloaded though it often is, Proust’s style is essentially natural and unaffected, quite free of preciosity, archaism or self-conscious elegance.”
Here is Proust writing sublimely about his fears that he would ever be a great writer:
How often, after that day, in the course of my walks along the ‘Guermantes way,’ and with what an intensified melancholy did I reflect on my lack of qualification for a literary career, and that I must abandon all hope of ever becoming a famous author. The regret that I felt for this, while I lingered alone to dream for a little by myself, made me suffer so acutely that, in order not to fell it, my mind of its own accord, by a sort of inhibition in the instant of pain, ceased entirely to think of verse-making, of fiction, of the poetic future on which my want of talent precluded me from counting. Then, quite apart from all those literary preoccupations, and without definite attachment to anything, suddenly a roof, a gleam of sunlight reflected from a stone, the smell of a road would make me stop still, to enjoy the special pleasure that each of them gave me, and also because they appeared to be concealing, beneath what my eyes could see, something which they invited me to approach and seize from them, but which, despite all my efforts, I never managed to discover. As I felt that the mysterious object was to be found in them, I would stand there in front of them, motionless, gazing, breathing, endeavouring to penetrate with my mind beyond the thing seen or smelt. And if I had then to hasten after my grandfather, to proceed on my way, I would still seek to recover my sense of them by closing my eyes; I would concentrate upon recalling exactly the line of the roof, the colour of the stone, which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me to be teeming, ready to open, to yield up to me the secret treasure of which they were themselves no more than the outer coverings. It was certainly not any impression of this kind that could or would restore the hope I had lost of succeeding one day in becoming an author and poet, for each of them was associated with some material object devoid of any intellectual value, and suggesting no abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity of mind; and in that way distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt whenever I had sought a philosophic theme for some great literary work. So urgent was the task imposed on my conscience by these impressions of form or perfume or colour—to strive for a perception of what lay hidden beneath them, that I was never long in seeking an excuse which would allow me to relax so strenuous an effort and to spare myself the fatigue that it involved. As good luck would have it, my parents called me; I felt that I had not, for the moment, the calm environment necessary for a successful pursuit of my researches, and that it would be better to think no more of the matter until I reached home, and not to exhaust myself in the meantime to no purpose. And so I concerned myself no longer with the mystery that lay hidden in a form or a perfume, quite at ease in my mind, since I was taking it home with me, protected by its visible and tangible covering, beneath which I should find it still alive, like the fish which, on days when I had been allowed to go out fishing, I used to carry back in my basket, buried in a couch of grass which kept them cool and fresh. Once in the house again I would begin to think of something else, and so my mind would become littered (as my room was with the flowers that I had gathered on my walks, or the odds and ends that people had given me) with a stone from the surface of which the sunlight was reflected, a roof, the sound of a bell, the smell of fallen leaves, a confused mass of different images, under which must have perished long ago the reality of which I used to have some foreboding, but which I never had the energy to discover and bring to light.
For me, Proust can write from the perspective of perception and time better than anyone. As one reads through his novel, the perspective of time shifts from his remembrances of Combray as a child, then pushes even further back in time to Swann’s love affair with Odette, and then forward again to the narrator’s love for Swann’s daughter Gilberte. In the first and third parts, he is pulling from his own memory of events; in the second part, he is pulling from other’s memories of events before he was born. His ability to describe his memories of his grandmother and aunts resonate with my memories of my own family from long ago. And his use of the ability of objects, music (the little phrase!), smells, and tastes (that Madeleine!) to conjure up those memories throughout the book totally parallels my experiences with memory.
And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect mush prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.
…and the famous madeleine sequence. Here’s the act that created the memory:
Presently my aunt was able to dip in the boiling infusion, in which she would relish the savour of dead or faded blossom, a little madeleine, of which she would hold out a piece to me when it was sufficiently soft.
…and here’s where the memory springs into life:
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short,, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of Madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
These are experiences that I cherish as well when I run across a smell, a taste, or an object that reminds me of times gone by. Like when the cutting I have from my Nana’s Christmas cactus blooms 30 years after I lost here or when I run across the old copy of Jurgen she gave me from her books. Or that feeling of déjà vu when we hear a phrase or a song. We may all have these triggers in our memories but Proust is the master of capturing the process in words.
All of this brings me back to the whole book experience. While anything can trigger memories and transport us to other times and places, a finely wrought book provides a multitude of said triggers. The LEC edition is beautiful and a pleasure to read. My copy smells a bit of dust, which bothers my eyes and nose but also triggers more bookish memories of the bookshelves of my relatives and of trips into used bookstores around the country. But it’s not too bad for a book published over 50 years ago. The slipcase is a bit torn and frayed from doing its job over those years. The cloth used for the cover, the paper, and the typework all come together marvelously. But the highlight is the illustrations by Bernard Lamotte. These are perfect imaginings of the characters and scenes from the book in amazing colors. I can
only wish that the LEC had decided to publish more of the books from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. That being impossible at this point, it would be nice to see another fine press attempt it. Alas, I don’t think a press exists that would take the risk to produce the whole work. It would be a monumental task on the level of the Arion Press Don Quixote or the upcoming Bowler Press Pride and Prejudice. So for now I’ll have to be content with my LEC Swann’s Way, supplemented by the Folio Society set and the trade editions of the new translations. But that still makes for a nice shelf of Proust.
For your information, here are a couple more images from the Folio Society edition of Swann’s Way: