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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard work but worth it, 16 Jan. 2011
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This review is from: Swann's Way: Remembrance of Things Past, book one (Remembrance of Things Past) (Mass Market Paperback)
A triple story of unrequited love, told with incredible emotional detail and brilliant evocation of each scene and moment. Extremely convoluted sentence construction and an extraordinary vocabulary make this a work that requires concentration. Read the gorgeous Montcrieff translation or better still read this in French.

Five hundred pages, four chapters, very few paragraphs and only about one full stop per page; this book requires the most intense concentration just to work out where you are in each sentence. Proust starts on one point and then, through sub-clauses, parenthesis, asides, recollections, similes, retrenchments, remembrances and speculations ends up at the punch line of a shaggy dog story or in jerking the plot forward almost exactly when you felt he had forgotten the point altogether. He never pauses for breath, so that this is not a book you can take to bed intending to read to the end of the chapter or next piece of the action because Proust simply rolls on and on, each thought connecting to the next like waves on a shore. It's perfectly possible to lose your place on a page, or to be distracted away from the text, and for it to make no difference to the connectedness of the narrative. But to skim along would be to miss the point, which is the unbelievable verve, panache, creativity and sheer gold-plated excellence of the writing - it is quite sublime and quite impossible for the lay man to describe accurately. The nearest I can get are the word paintings of the British Victorian art critic John Ruskin, which marvelously and concretely recreate the works of art or scenes Ruskin wished to bring to the reader's mind. Proust translated Ruskin into French - and may have absorbed his style - but Proust is looser, less stiffly British than Ruskin and brings emotional as well as descriptive colour to his prose.

Famously, Proust is said to be writing about memory and this is true but somewhat unhelpful to the new reader - I suspect that part of the reason people are put off reading Proust is the mystique and misdirection that surrounds his work ("ah, the Madeleine", you hear people in the know say, without enlightening the uninitiated). So, in brief then the plot concerns two (no, really three) love stories. The central plot is concerned with Charles Swann, a wealthy middle class socialite who falls in love with the courtesan Odette de Crécy. The reader knows her trade, everyone else in the story knows her trade but the story is told entirely from Swann's point of view and he does not want to know her trade; he is madly, hopelessly and inappropriately in love with Odette and the story follows their relationship. At first she appears to be infatuated with him but as the years pass she moves on and she treats him with contempt and disdain. His love never falters and, but we are not told how or when or what her motives are, he eventually marries her. This story is book-ended by the narrator's own tale of his love affair as a child with Charles and Odette's daughter, Gilberte. This story exactly reflects Swann's experience of unrequited love but the narrator, instead of marrying Gilberte to keep his memories of their relationship alive (which would be impossible as they are children), decides instead that it is better to have the memory than the person, so that he and Swann have the same experience but end up in different places. The third love affair is between the narrator as a boy and his mother, who is pulled away from her loving and sensitive son both by household and wifely duty and a sense that he should not be mollycoddled. The boy lives in hope for the slightest sign of affection from her, and so pre-cursing the later love affairs of both Swann and the boy.

It's no spoiler to have given you the plot outline, because what matters is how the stories unfold, which is entirely through sensation, sense, desire, experience, excitement, hope and disappointment. Proust does all the same things as other novelists, he has a cast of varied characters, he moves the plot through a sequence of key events, he provides moments of light and shade, of humour, anger, social commentary, poetry, ribaldry and sadness but he does it all with such a sensuous and lyrical world view that this is a work quite unlike any other I have read. It's not an easy read, I'm not even sure it's an enjoyable read, but it is absolutely remarkable and substantial.

Finally, I suspect that this book only really makes sense in French, because the vocabulary used and the complexity of the way sentences have been constructed must make translation nearly impossible. I read the original Montcrieff translation, which is quite beautiful. There is a newer Penguin Classics translation now entitled `The Way of Swann's" rather than "Swann's Way". But the title "Swann's Way" is a pun, being both the local name of a walk that goes past Swann's house and referring to Swann's journey or way through life; so I don't see how "The Way of Swann's", which is virtually meaningless in English, can be a better translation that the original Montcrieff. For that reason I stuck with the old School. (in French it's published as Du côté de chez Swann if you want to try your own translation)
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