Sunday, June 16, 2013
In Search of Lost Time, Vol. I: Swann's Way (Marcel Proust)
Read: 31 December 2012 to 11 February 2013
4 / 5 stars
I came into The Year of Proustifarian Delights accompanied by a vague dread, worried that I was embarking upon a seven-book voyage of joyless obligation that would ultimately prove I have too much dullard in me to chug along with anything other than the empty appearance of rapt literary euphoria. I feared that I'd be approaching these books like they were the kind of high-school required reading that sucks all the fun from the one pastime that's stuck with me ever since I learned how to unlock the English language's secret treasures more than two decades ago. Because one of my lifelong constants has also been unflagging self-doubt.
So imagine the flood of relief I felt when this book turned out to be the most pleasant surprise I've ever encountered in my literary travels.
By all rights, I should have hated this first volume of In Search of Lost Time. I don't really have it in me to care that much about a precocious child's mommy issues. I am not at all interested in the trifling concerns of society-obsessed folk. And I absolutely want nothing to do with a bitterly hostile love affair, especially when it comes to watching its ugliness unfold from an insider's vantage point (seriously, Swann, what the everlasting fuck).
But here I stand on the other end of a book that brought me such needless apprehension, thoroughly enchanted by the magic Proust worked with Swann's Way. His beautiful, seamless storytelling has proven that just about anything can make for a powerfully intoxicating reading experience when crafted by a master wordslinger. It's not just Proust's dazzling language that is the lone source of this novel's charms, though. That would be too easy. It's the ideas, the connections, the tangible humanity that proves our species' nature hasn't changed all that much in a century. That even with our nifty gadgets we're slaves to our lost pasts and need for love. That all anyone really wants is a little affirmation of our personal worth at the end of the day.
The emotions here are absolutely palpable. If I couldn't outright understand the rises and falls in a character's moods and luck, I sure could sympathize. Far from being banal, each moment of lowest woe and highest elation were the very stuff comprising the whole of the human experience. I wanted to reach across time (and, you know, the boundaries of fiction) to hug little Marcel when he was so thoroughly caught up in the tragedy of being denied his mother's nightly kiss just as much as I wanted to celebrate with Swann over the onset of a seemingly loving romance (before I wanted to kick him in the ass for mistaking obsession for affection, knowing from my own failed relationships how that unhealthy need for complete possession of another person ends).
The celebration of nature, music, food, books and human memory are all songs I know well. I found myself rereading passages not for a want of understanding but for the sheer joy of burrowing into some of the most achingly gorgeous prose I've ever had the joyful abandonment of losing myself in. Tell me more about thoroughly alien architecture! Describe in loving detail the perfumes and rainbow palate of spring to dull the pain of my American winter! Remind me that others have marveled over how a song that once embodied a love's rapturous early days can bring nothing but fresh heartache until the heart can distance itself from such pain to rediscover the melody's own merit as a living piece of art!
My only complaint? This book made me feel too much. Every stab of loss, every bad decision, every mawkish pity-party dragged me right along with the fictional person wallowing in such emotional dregs. It got exhausting.
Still. A round of hurrahs for the book that drove me to self-mastication and the discovery that, while I am sadly not as tasty as the teacakes of my shared appellation, this beautiful book sure is.