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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The molecular structure of memory, 16 April 2010
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This review is from: In Search of Lost Time: The Way by Swann's: The Way by Swann's Vol 1 (In Search of Lost Time 1) (Paperback)
Having started this book maybe four or five times over the last three years or so, and indeed having firmly concluded that it was not for me, I let myself be persuaded by Clive James' to make one last effort to get past the point at which I usually stalled. That being where the young Marcel is waiting in anguish for his mother to come and kiss him a last goodnight. My difficulty was not just the immense effort required to unpack and assimilate each rambling, labyrinthine sentence. No one enjoys an exquisitely deconstructed stream of consciousness novel more than I do. But when the inner life of the subject is so constrained by the prurient, bourgeois conventions of Proust's times I find that a cloying sense of claustrophobia accumulates in my chest and throat as I read, such that I must put the book aside every few paragraphs to breathe freely again. Even having built up sufficient momentum to break through into the main body of the book and complete it, I cannot say that these sensations have dissipated. I have rather had to accept that this neurotic unease is one of the defining parameters of the reading experience, but one whose discomfort I now recognise is compensated for by Proust's extraordinary power to evoke a corresponding stream of resonant recollection within the reader. Reading Proust there are times when one finds ones locus of awareness suddenly split. One is simultaneously the reader of Proust, and also the reader of the meta-novel, which is the stream of conscious recollection of a fabulously dense associative network of episodes from the reader's own life, that has been activated by his reading of Proust.

One may read some novels to take pleasure in the author's facility with language, or one might admire an author for their psychological perspicacity and wisdom. But I would say that the highest expression of the novelistic art is in the conjunction of these dimensions. But there can be few examples of their being so perfectly fused as the scalpel like prose with which Proust dissects the flux of human consciousness with near atomic precision. I would observe that this is not true stream of consciousness, where thoughts are typically left incomplete, and some measure of randomness inevitably pervades their association. Efforts to pin down this kind of realistic consciousness have been notably made by the likes of Joyce or Pynchon. But Proust's stream of consciousness is that of an ideally beautiful mind, where each lapidary thought is completed, tied off and labelled with an exquisitely apt metaphor or simile, and successive thoughts are assembled into a genuinely coherent stream. The difference is somewhat akin to that between rough, fractured granite and pebbles washed smooth by millennia upon a beach.

This first instalment breaks broadly into two halves; the first an examination of the childhood recollections of Marcel himself, while the second describes the falling in love of Swann, an adult acquaintance of Marcel's, and its barely perceptible souring into jealousy and finally indifference. Both are poignant; the first for its charming innocence, the second for its unflinchingly meticulous examination of the capacity for self-deception in even the most assured and capable of people. Both will evoke unavoidable resonances in the readers own life, the latter perhaps less comfortably than the former. Proust's humanistic wisdom is demonstrated in the fact that, despite his unerring eye for the frailty and weaknesses to which we are all prone, he casts no blame and invites only sympathy from the reader.

The next book in the sequence In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (In Search of Lost Time Vol. 2): In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower Vol 2 has arrived today and sits beside me on the desk while I write. I cannot say that I am looking forward to it with entirely unalloyed pleasure. The hint of stifling pressure builds in my throat just to contemplate it. But alongside it, and slightly more compelling is the electrical tingle in the roof of my mouth that is the sublimated appetite to return once more into Marcel's gentle and luminous world. A world that for both better and worse is gone forever, but which thanks to Proust we can experience in our own day, with the same vividness as when we slow our thoughts and open our senses to our own.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 20 Jul 2010 21:03:03 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 21 Jul 2010 16:06:00 BDT]

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Jul 2010 01:54:11 BDT
Hmmm. The reference to the recommendation by Clive James is intended as anecdotal and says nothing as to the centrality of Proust within 20th Century literature.

As to C.J. being a right wing crank that's something I find hard to countenance. He is a man who has made my laugh with his cultured wit, and indeed cry with the depth of his compassion for all human beings in numerous contexts, written, broadcast and musical (his work as lyricist for Pete Aitkin is still what I most love him for). I saw his appearance on Question Time and was struck by how much he had aged, and how he no longer seemed able, in that environment, to express himself with the lapidary clarity that has always been his great gift. But I cannot recall him as coming across as a rotter or right wing crank. I of course viewed that broadcast in the context of my familiarity with Clive's work of over four decades. As such, it is impossible for me to conceive how he might have created such a poor impression on someone perhaps encountering him for the first time. It's sad to think that he could have left such an impression in the rather chaotic jumble that is Q.T. on people who didn't know him otherwise. The man has written loads in his time, and I would just say in his defence that you don't have to read far to discover a man of wonderful civility, humour and compassion. I hope an opportunity will emerge at some future time that will allow you to reassess him and hear him for the deeply wise guy I know him to be. It would be a shame to let this impression he left you with on Q.T. shape your final judgement of him.

Still, Clive aside, Proust is a monument of modern literature. He's serously hard work and it might take, as it did with me, several attempts, perhaps only at the right stage of life, to actually connect with him and embrace him. The last thing anyone should allow themselves to deflect them from tackling him is a recommendation by Clive James.

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Jul 2010 16:08:12 BDT
ALVARO says:
Blimey,i was only having a giggle matey.Your a very good writer:-)

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Nov 2010 16:04:45 GMT
I was impressed by your first use of the word "lapidary" -- less so by your second ...

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Nov 2010 16:30:43 GMT
Cripes! Well spotted! Unforgivable! An unconscious slip probably based on the fact that it was Clive James that introduced me to the word about age 14, as used in his lovely song, 'You can't expect to be Remembered', written for Pete Atkin's, 'Beautiful Stranger' album, c.1970.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Nov 2010 11:32:58 GMT
I too was having a giggle, but your excuse is surprisingly interesting and convincing.

Posted on 2 May 2011 15:56:16 BDT
Last edited by the author on 2 May 2011 15:57:30 BDT
M. Lee says:
Thank you for this thorough and beautifully written review; it's one of the very best I've read on Amazon ever. I do wonder if you could kindly comment on the language in this particular edition of Proust's work, since I'm struggling to decide going for the Moncrieff version or this version by Lydia Davis. And I read Prendergast's editorial notes comparing the different translations and still come to no better conclusion as to which one I should pick. I'm very tempted to plump for the Moncrieff one because the first pages flow naturally; the same cannot be said of Davis's first sentences. But that said apparently Moncrieff had seriously mistranslated parts of Proust's text even if he apparently managed to retain the musicality and feel of Proust's prose and rendering them in naturally-flowing English. And given the fact that this work would absorb huge amounts of one's reading time, it would be unlikely that I would get the chance to read this book again in a different translation. In short, I'm in a quandary. What would you kindly suggest?

Posted on 16 Mar 2012 22:47:37 GMT
This is one of the loveliest reviews I've ever read. The highest compliment I can make is that you've clearly been influenced by Proust's style - in a good way. Beautiful.
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John Ferngrove
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Location: Hants UK

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