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Book Review: Swann’s Way

June 14, 2022
Swann's way by Marcel Proust

This is just the first book in the 7 volumes that makes up “In Search of Lost Time”

Swann’s Way is by Marcel Proust. If you are like me, that didn’t mean much. To certain people it means a lot.

Swann’s Way is the first book in the “In Search of Lost Time” seven book series. Although, technically, I think they are all one book. Just published in separate volumes. And that makes sense because the most noticeable trait in Proust’s writing is that it’s long. His words are long. His sentences are long. His paragraphs are long. It makes perfect sense that his book is long.

As a writer it’s important to me to know at what level I’m writing. This post is written at a 7th grade reading level and has 9.9 words per sentence. That’s pretty much what I aim for. Editors will tell you that 5th to 7th grade reading level is where you should be aiming for.

Proust’s editor must have missed that lesson because Proust is written an advanced collegiate reading level. In fact, the Flesch Kincaid Calculator puts it at College Graduate (Very difficult to read.)

I read Swann’s Way because I’m working my way through the greatest novels ever written. “In Search of Lost Time” is considered by the web site I’m using to be the greatest novel ever written.

I would be lying if I told you I understood very much of Swann’s Way. I do know who Swann’s was. And his love interest is Odette. And I understand who the narrator is. I think I could also identify a few other of the characters if I met them.

And I got a lot of exposure to the rooms that these people were in.

But, other than that? I’m not sure I understand the themes. I struggled to hold the narrative. Some of Proust’s paragraphs run to several pages. His longest sentence is

But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold—or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam—or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling.

That sentence is 599 words long. And while it’s the longest in the book, it had plenty of company.

What I Liked

Proust wrote in French, so naturally I was reading a translation. But even in a translation, Proust’s command of language comes through. At times I ignored the story and simply enjoyed the way that Proust was using the language. And at times, the story did come shining through, and I followed eagerly the actions and plotting of the various characters.

What I Didn’t

If you fell into an impressionist painting, your description might be written like Swann’s Way was written. The language, while beautiful was overpowering. It was nearly impossible to follow the story for much of the book. And the plot was nothing earthshaking. It was a fairly pedestrian plot about French elites and their endless series of parties and conversations.

What It Means To You

Do you enjoy laboring over books? Spending an hour of a single chapter as you peal back the layers of prose? Then, Swann’s Way will absolutely appeal to you. But, if you are interested in reading a story and seeing the action move from one scene to the next, Swann’s Way is going to be frustrating.

My Rating

Three out of four stars

Stay safe

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. Order Miscellany II, an anthology including his latest short story, “The Mercy System” here

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