How do you deal with Proust? Where there’s a will, there’s Swann’s way

I’ve wanted to read for a long time In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, and it only took a pandemic and two years of intermittent lockdowns to do so. That is not completly correct. It took three years.

I had tried many times going back to the early 1990’s. But at every opportunity I opened Swann’s way, after about a dozen pages my eyes closed. While the frightened child Marcel waited alone for his mother to come and kiss him goodnight, I fell asleep. The world I was led into seemed like, I don’t know, airless, static, distant. And so it went back onto the shelf for decades.

But in late January 2020 I bought a used copy that didn’t seem as daunting. The pale green spine was slightly frayed and creased, and its modest number of pages made it look like any other novel. And so… I went to bed a long time early.

Credit:Getty Images

I see reports from people saying they’ve read In Search of Lost Time, its 1,250,000 words, its 4000 pages, in three months. “Fifty pages a day, just do it,” they say. But I’m not a method guy.

Shortly after I brought home the tattered paperback, Melbourne was in lockdown. Although the pandemic is blamed for so many things, it didn’t just give me time. Something happened to me while Charles Swann (salon regular, Vermeer enthusiast, acquaintance of the Prince of Wales) fell in love with the courtesan Odette de Crecy: I fell in love with the novel. Melbourne closed while Combray and Balbec and Paris opened.

I went through 10 pages, 20, then 50. And I felt like maybe I could just finish it now Swann’s way. And finally, dear reader, in January 2023 I completed the whole thing: not only Swann’s way but done to the point where I could say I’ve “read Proust”. Not perfect, not brilliant, but patient and to the end.

Is there an ideal age to read Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time?

Is there an ideal age to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time?Credit:Getty Images

Writing was like a tide that carried me forward with all its sensitivity. The narrator is philosophical, snarky, snobbish, funny, foolish, scholarly, and wise. He knows everything about his characters. What he doesn’t know is a great deal about himself. If the novel is “in search of lost time”, in its long, discursive way it is also a search for self-knowledge, for real identity.

The vivid landscape scenes familiar from childhood, the society portraits and Proust’s transcendent writing about music all captivated me. I have never read a better expression of the effect – physical, psychological, aesthetic – that music can have on a listener. Swann is enchanted by a five-note melody, ‘Vinteuil’s Little Movement’, which becomes the gateway and signature of his passion for Odette. How do you deal with Proust? Where there’s a will, there’s Swann’s way

Jaclyn Diaz

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