Book Review on Proust and Swann’s Way — The Love of My Grandmother
Spoiler Warning: Not really any spoilers. Some discussion of symbolism that exists later in the book. I quote the last paragraph as well — but this does not really provide a spoiler. Indeed, it is very difficult to provide any spoilers about this book. Even reading a “Wikipedia” summary of the book would not spoil it, per se. Like the cliche, it’s the journey that counts
The purpose of this review is not to provide a summary of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. It is an attempt to recollect memories of my life that are distant from each other, but rather memories that coincide “like a map which, after being folded up, is spread out upon the ground.” I think this is likely a common experience for many and it is one of the main attractions of Proust’s writing. However, the thing that connects me most to this book is the long conversations I had with my Grandmother in college under trees in University Yard. I think a love for this book symbolizes one of the best gifts my Grandmother shared with me.
The initial impetus to read this book was personal.
Many of the handwritten and type-writer written letters that I have from my Grandmother discuss her love of Proust and Swann’s Way — À la recherche du temps perdu.
In some way, I always wanted to return to this book. I had some general understanding of the beginning synopsis and I found myself reading the beginning from time to time in bookstores. However, it was a long book.
Finally, in January of 2020, I decided it would be my first book to read in 2020.
Sleep and Dreams:
“For a long time I used to go to bed early.” Such a beginning could not have been more prescient. Sleep has always been a unique experience in my life. I think it relates to us all and in some sense is a great equalizer whether we sleep 45 minutes a night or sleep 10 hours a night.
The symbolism steeples are unclear to me. The discovery and description of “true nature” regarding the steeples in the sunset are one of the most beautiful passages in literature. I understand they represent a motif of art. But the book becomes more personal. In a sense, we likely all have steeples and memories we can only access in bed when we are sleeping — or in that in-between place of sleep and wakefulness. For me, such places are my childhood home or the valleys, creeks, and nature around that home.
Some could say that Proust is displaying how art can represent a key part of our life. At the same time, nature and art can likely play parallel roles in our lives. But the admiring aspect of art and nature can only exist in memory.
The passages of the steeples are worth repeating in two sections:
By the time the reader reaches the word “pink”, life and conception of Proust’s vision become clear.
“From a long way off one could distinguish and identify the steeple of Saint-Hilaire inscribing its unforgettable form upon a horizon beneath which Combray had not yet appeared; when from the train which brought us down from Paris at Easter-time my father caught sight of it, as it slipped into every fold of the sky in turn, its little iron cock veering continually in all directions, he would say: “Come, get your wraps together, we are there.” And on one of the longest walks we ever took from Combray there was a spot where the narrow road emerged suddenly on to an immense plain, closed at the horizon by strips of forest over which rose and stood alone the fine point of Saint-Hilaire’s steeple, but so sharpened and so pink that it seemed to be no more than sketched on the sky by the finger-nail of a painter anxious to give to such a landscape, to so pure a piece of ‘nature,’ this little sign of art, this single indication of human existence. As one drew near it and could make out the remains of the square tower, half in ruins, which still stood by its side, though without rivalling it in height, one was struck, first of all, by the tone, reddish and sombre, of its stones; and on a misty morning in autumn one would have called it, to see it rising above the violet thunder-cloud of the vineyards, a ruin of purple, almost the colour of the wild vine.”
The other passage:
“The steeples appeared so distant, and we ourselves seemed to come so little nearer them, that I was astonished when, a few minutes later, we drew up outside the church of Martinville. I did not know the reason for the pleasure which I had found in seeing them upon the horizon, and the business of trying to find out what that reason was seemed to me irksome; I wished only to keep in reserve in my brain those converging lines, moving in the sunshine, and, for the time being, to think of them no more. And it is probable that, had I done so, those two steeples would have vanished for ever, in a great medley of trees and roofs and scents and sounds which I had noticed and set apart on account of the obscure sense of pleasure which they gave me, but without ever exploring them more fully. I got down from the box to talk to my parents while we were waiting for the Doctor to reappear. Then it was time to start; I climbed up again to my place, turning my head to look back, once more, at my steeples, of which, a little later, I caught a farewell glimpse at a turn in the road. The coachman, who seemed little inclined for conversation, having barely acknowledged my remarks, I was obliged, in default of other society, to fall back on my own, and to attempt to recapture the vision of my steeples. And presently their outlines and their sunlit surface, as though they had been a sort of rind, were stripped apart; a little of what they had concealed from me became apparent; an idea came into my mind which had not existed for me a moment earlier, framed itself in words in my head; and the pleasure with which the first sight of them, just now, had filled me was so much enhanced that, overpowered by a sort of intoxication, I could no longer think of anything but them. At this point, although we had now travelled a long way from Martinville, I turned my head and caught sight of them again, quite black this time, for the sun had meanwhile set. Every few minutes a turn in the road would sweep them out of sight; then they shewed themselves for the last time, and so I saw them no more.”
Guermantes Way and Méséglise’s Way:
The nature and art of the book exist in the beginning. Guermantes Way is the symbol of the family in the area — the nobility of the area. On the other hand, the way past where Swann lives is the Méséglise way. This is where the narrator views others and symbolic events of the story occur. In a sense, this is the two-fold path of life. We can see the nature with hardly any events — that is a sense of nobility (and if I daresay conservativism) — and the other way is the way of events both good and bad — the things that happen to us and change us. The second way, if the political metaphor is acceptable, is liberalism. In a sense, we have choices and at times in our lives can travel both. Or at least, this is how I interpret the story.
However, both ways are gone in the end. The natural sites of Guermante’s way are gone and the events and sights of the Méséglise are gone as well. Likewise, many of the sites of a human’s youth disappear — not through malice — but merely the passage of time. Thus, they exist in memory in dreams.
To me, the ending symbolizes the change exceptionally well:
“The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme. Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”
Jungian Psychoanalysis and Politics:
Regarding the cross-section of Jungian psychoanalysis and politics, it seems fair to say that one of the most dramatic changes in human history was the life of those born in the late 1800s and going into the 1900s. The world went from candle-lit streets to gas-lit to finally electricity. Life in the industrial age changed social functions. And, in the late industrial age changed the basic lives of individuals. This in addition to the writings of Marx, Darwin, and Wagner’s music, society evolved into something else completely.
Literature must have taken a similar route. Such ideas have existed for some time. However, in my sense and the love I have for my Grandmother that connects me to this book, I think this book represents the late industrial age change of society.
Memory and Love of my Grandmother:
After my Grandmother passed away, her best friend from college at Chicago wrote, “[d]uring those first two years, Alice and I shared a love of classical music, ballet, and literature (we admired Marcel Proust–probably excessively– after reading Swann’s Way in our favorite Humanities class).”
When my Grandmother passed away, I wrote, “[m]y Grandmother changed my life and shared with me the love of the classics and convinced the course of study to take in college. Throughout college and most of college I shared handwritten letters with her on almost a weekly basis. The result is an overflowing shoebox of letters discussing everything from Marcel Proust to her academic lectures on Dante’s Inferno as well as clippings from the New Yorker and The New York Review of Book.” That shoebox with her letters is one my most emotionally charged treasures of my life.
Ultimately, I think her letters to me were somewhat unfinished always. I feel we lived a parallel life to the fate of Prout’s books for Remembrance of Things Past. In the same way that Proust never finished his books, my Grandmother never finished all the letters and wisdom she could impart.
That wisdom, I have later interpreted as her fulfillment in my mind as the Jungian archetypal form of a “wise old woman” who could share more with me than the “wise old men” of my life. Her studies of the humanities, specifically of Proust and Dante brought her more in contact with the human psyche.
The second part of this review is personal and has to do with my self-identification with Swann’s and Jewish identity. I have preferred to keep this section private.
— Note on thought development: Versions of this story have started as texts and emails to friends about my thoughts on the book. Moreover, it’s origins are from my journal entries and blog ideas I’ve put together.
© Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV