Occasionally we find books so beautifully written that it seems the style, not the plot, keeps us turning pages.
Though translated from its original French, Swann’s Way did not lose its beauty in the process: every sentence reads like a verse from an old, nostalgic poem. As an example:
Meanwhile the scenery of his dream-stage scattered in dust, he opened his eyes, heard for the last time the boom of a wave in the sea, grown very distant. He touched his cheek. It was dry. And yet he could feel the sting of the cold spray, and the taste of salt on his lips.
That’s not to say the plot was dull–I only mean that I was entranced by the scenes, described in such a way that they drifted before me like dreams. Of the plot, I can say it’s unique in its depth, two points of view cleverly blended.
The two points of view seem as though they shouldn’t have anything in common. In Swann’s Way, the first scenes focus on young Marcel, loosely based on the author himself. This fact adds another layer of mystery. We want to get to know the author, and we wonder what traits he shared with his characters.
Marcel, the character, opens the novel with flashbacks to powerful moments in his childhood. It’s a sad, anxiety-ridden childhood; his fears plague him to a point where he cannot sleep if his mother doesn’t go upstairs to give him a kiss good-night. These kisses become ritual, seldom broken except for when the wealthy Charles Swann comes to visit.
Swann is the second main character. He is a wealthy stockbroker, friends with many important figures in Parisian society, and also controversial because of his marriage to a woman named Odette. Their courtship is a mark on his name forever, a favorite topic of Marcel’s grandparents to discuss when he is not around. His passages in the novel follow that tumultuous time.
We see his admiration for Odette become an obsession, then morph into anguish when she doesn’t reciprocate his love. When Odette distances herself from Swann, he begins to hate her as much as he wants her. Though he once thought her beautiful, he now loathes even her appearance. He fantasizes of a life without her, yet sends friends to stalk her and report her daily activities.
This jealousy is a trap for him as well as for Odette. This is where the story ripples like a reflection on water: as a reader, I didn’t like Charles Swann, but couldn’t bring myself to hate him. I knew he would never be happy, and I read many scenes with a grimace.
Swann and Odette eventually marry and have a daughter named Gilberte. Young Marcel falls for Gilberte in a manner similar to Swann’s obsession with Odette; it is here that their two stories become linked in an intriguing parallel.
Proust wrote this book in a way that he managed to manipulate time, much in the way painters mix color blends that tell stories; if we allow ourselves to soak in the sentences, we feel each emotion until the end.
This book may not be for everyone, because it is a rather heavy read, and a long one. It requires great patience–I found that speed-reading would not do, and forced myself to slow down so I could taste each word. If we miss one phrase, the enchantment does not grip us.
It is ideal for readers who like heavier stories, and those who soak in poetic writing. Swann’s Way will leave marks with the characters’ strong conflicts; there are certain scenes in which my heart will lurk forever.
I know I will read this book again one day.
If you would like to read Swann’s Way, it’s available for download here at Gutenberg! Have you already read the book? What are your thoughts on it?