Wednesday, 24 April 2013

In Search of Lost Time (Swann's Way - Volume 1)

Having read Swann’s Way, clocking in at a mere 500 pages, I have finished only a seventh of this great behemoth of a novel (the longest novel ever written). I’m happy though. This book was such a joyful ride, that it is very exciting to have gallons of book left in the tank.

 In Search of Lost Time is largely told by a narrator who recounts his earliest memories (including the famous episode of the madeleine). The biggest chunk of Swann's Way, though, tells a deconstructed love-story that happens before the narrator is even born. 

Swann, a society man with brilliant connections, inexplicably falls in love with a girl that he is scarcely even attracted to. It starts with a Parisian social group that deliberately sets itself apart from the rest of high society, declaring them bores and demanding the slavish obedience of its members. Odette, a beautiful women who happens to be part of this set, pursues Swann, who, although repelled, feels he has to humour her advances. Somehow he falls in love with her. Almost as soon as this happens, she starts to pull away from him, which fuels a growing obsession. This withdrawal is vividly portrayed, and we learn about what is happening purely from a description of Swann’s changing feelings. Eventually it is revealed that she is a fallen women, and completely unsuitable for a man like Swann, but by this time, he is snared.

My thoughts

For me, the best part about reading is finishing a paragraph and thinking ‘Yes! That’s exactly how I feel, but before now I didn’t even know it’. In that moment, you learn something about yourself, but it also creates a joyful feeling of being at one with the human race. Suddenly you’re not some weirdo for having those kind of feelings, instead, you realise, everyone does! Often the things that people think are the most private are the most universal, and great literature lets you constantly discover this. My favourite books are full of these kind of moments. Tolstoy, for example, really sees the the little things that make up a life.

Just a quick related aside. I write all over my books. I underline, scribble, make notes, highlight and sometimes even doodle. To some people that’s sacrilegious, aren’t I ruining them? I don’t think so. I underline the parts that change my life, the sentences that give me that rush I just described. This means that my books are personalised to me; I’ve changed them, moulded them, made them mine. I find it really difficult not to. Say, for example, I buy a book that costs ten pounds, and a page of it changes my life, well to me that’s invaluable so I’m damn well going to underline it with a big red felt-tip pen.

I say all this for context, because Swann’s Way is my most ever underlined book. It is simply bursting at the seams with sparks of hidden truth. Every page, every sentence in Swann’s way shimmers with those 'Yes!' moments . I’m serious. I literally read this book going Yes! Yes! Exactly! Yes! and furiously underlining almost everything in it. Whilst the resale value of my copy has plummeted, I’m excited to read and underline the rest of the novel. It also led me to a lovely thought, perhaps this book is Proust’s annotation on real life. Maybe Proust looked at his world, and - like me reading his work -  wanted to underline *everything*. Well, In Search of Lost Time was him doing just that.

Life +

I learnt so much from Swann’s Way, that I think no other book could compare. It has to be the best novel to gain micro-understandings of how people think, and for seeing what other people’s inside worlds might look like.

One thing that stood out for me is the meta-lesson of obsession in Swann’s Way. The things we want, we want because of the context not the content. Actually the content of the things we desire is changeable, vapid and meaningless. Maybe it’s a flat-screen TV today, a new bike tomorrow, fame or a pretty girl. The thing that is driving our wants is not the thing itself, it is the surroundings - the peer pressure, the advertising and the methods they employ. There are troupes of people in our world who are quite cynically employed to manipulate our desires using all the techniques that Proust exposes.

A Reader's Guide

If reading Swann’s Way is challenging - and I’d argue that it isn’t - it’s worth it because it has really great return on investment. What you get back from this is so much more than you put in.

In reading it, I seem to remember a section of about 50 pages at the start of the third part which I found a little bit dull - the narrator goes through a list of place names and the association they trigger in his mind. There were also a couple of segments, perhaps 25 pages each, which were taken up with a description of random characters that hadn’t been previously introduced talking in a party. Other than those small sections, I found the whole of the rest just brimming with joy.

In Fewer Words

Swann’s Way puts you firmly behind the eyes and into the mind of its characters. And so completely will you borrow their thoughts, feelings, and passion, that they become entangled with your own. This isn’t just a good book. It’s hard to define, sublime and infinitely underlineable; but ultimately, Swann’s Way is nothing short of a walking tour for the human mind.


  1. An eloquent and heart-felt review. Glad you've enjoyed your read of Swann's Way. I'm reading Part 2 now, "Swann in Love". Will post May 15 to conclude our Read-Along. Thanks for your comments on my post at Ripple Effects.

  2. Adam, I agree wholeheartedly with this:

    For me, the best part about reading is finishing a paragraph and thinking ‘Yes! That’s exactly how I feel, but before now I didn’t even know it’. In that moment, you learn something about yourself, but it also creates a joyful feeling of being at one with the human race.

    That's one of the things I loved most about Swann's Way, and why I kept plodding through the slower parts - those little gems along the way were really worth it.

  3. One of the best reviews of Swann's Way I have ever read! Unfortunately I only had a library copy, otherwise I would have done some serious underlining!