It was painfully draining.
Not because of flowery language or paragraph-length sentences, but because the relationships depicted therein are exhaustingly toxic, and they repeat themselves, depressingly, over the generations. Swann’s self-loathing jealousy over the call-girl Odette finds itself mirrored pitifully in the grade-school crush of our narrator upon Swann’s daughter. After the hundreds of pages of deeply unhealthy obsession that characterizes the Swann In Love section, to see the same pattern beginning to play out in our previously fragile-but-charming child narrator is just shitty. Instructive, but shitty. Even if it is familiar — even if that’s what grade school crushes can feel like (I assume from observation only; I was stridently puritanical at the time and ruthlessly shunned the two boys who claimed to like me). It feels rotten to see its ￼parasitic nature laid out so clearly.
I had always wondered why Remembrances of Things Past, though hailed on every edition’s book jacket as the novel of the century (or one of them), never seemed to have acquired the One Day I’ll Read This veneer that other books have, in popular culture. For instance, in advertisements and jokes, both Ulysses and War and Peace are commonly used as shorthand for great literary endeavors that one intends to undertake but never does. Or at least never finishes. I remember a mattress ad, in particular, that begins with a close-up shot of a copy of Ulysses, which as we zoom out is clearly seen to have been abandoned by the besides of a snoring individual whose mattress was just too comfortable to let him finish the book. And War and Peace, while I can’t recall the phrasing exactly, is often written into jokes along the lines of “it’s not rocket science,” i.e. it’s not War and Peace, so whatever the addressee is attempting to read or process should be easier for them to read and process, i.e. they should be done by now.
But in my experience, Remembrances of Things Past, despite its literary clout, is never lumped into conversations with those others, and that strikes me as odd. Why not? Is it that Americans in particular don’t pursue the book, and prefer to turn to their own for the dissemination of the book’s chief sentiment, namely that:
“The places that we have known belong not 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 image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitives, alas! as the years.”
So, you know. You can’t go home again.
But obviously Joyce and Tolstoy aren’t Americans any more than Proust is, and you don’t see culture turning away from them to make their references to Big Books I Mean To Read But Never Will. Does it have to do with books assigned in school? Are people assigned Ulysses and War and Peace? I wasn’t — we only read Dubliners (whose title story both myself and a friend remembered at the same time the other day, in the same place, and we explained it to our partners, standing there in the sun, and managed to totally shatter a good mood with that somber-ass story, eerily reflective of the plot of the story itself, now that I think of it) and we never touched any Russian texts beyond Crime and Punishment.
I fixate on this because clearly, per Thomas Wolfe, the sentiments conveyed in this book are by no means foreign to anyone. “You can’t go home again,” or more broadly “you can’t go back, because what you’re trying to go back to never existed in the pure form in which your mind has convinced you it did” is pretty universally relatable. After a certain age, chastises the ghost of the only professor I ever heard mention Proust — he who advised us not to touch Remembrances until we were forty, elsewise we wouldn’t appreciate it. Grief makes you old, man. Also, maybe, joy, and the realization of its ephemeral nature, but still. I get it.
The relatability factor doesn’t change the fact that the whole endless “Swann In Love” section is a slog. It’s as bad as Mad Men — shitty people doing shitty things, the seven-season show. It goes on and on and things don’t get better. Swann is a womanizer, then he falls for this girl who wants to use him (in her defense, it’s how she gets by and she doesn’t exactly hide this fact? though she’s still petty and cruel so she’s no angel by a long shot), and she does, but then he becomes infatuated with her beyond all reason, alternately crying over the idea of her not loving him anymore and fantasizing, briefly, about killing her so he could be free of his obsession for her….then crying about his fantasy, etc. etc. See what I meant above? This shit is unhealthy. It’s gross to read about. If the very brief final section “Place-Names: The Name” at the end is there deliberately to mirror, for our previously-introduced child narrator, the disastrousness of the “Swann In Love” section prior, it seems a long, lonnnng way to go just to make the point that infatuation is damnably the same at any age.
There are obviously beautiful passages. Both descriptive:
Brief, fading ivy, climbing, fugitive flora, the most colourless, the most depressing, to many minds, of all that creep on walls or decorate windows; to me the dearest of them all, from the day when it appeared upon our balcony, like the very shadow of the presence of Gilberte, who was perhaps already in the Champs-Elysées, and as soon as I arrived there would greet me with: “Let’s begin at once. You are on my side.” Frail, swept away by a breath, but at the same time in harmony, not with the season, with the hour; a promise of that immediate pleasure which the day will deny or fulfill, and thereby of the one paramount immediate pleasure, the pleasure of loving and of being loved; more soft, more warm upon tie stone than even moss is; alive, a ray of sunshine sufficing for its birth, and for the birth of joy, even in the heart of winter.
“And while my love, incessantly waiting for the morrow to bring a confession of Gilberte’s love for me, destroyed, unravelled every evening, the ill-done work of the day, in some shadowed part of my being was an unknown weaver who would not leave where they lay the severed threads, but collected and rearranged them, without any thought of pleasing me, or of toiling for my advantage, in the different order which she gave to all her handiwork. Without any special interest in my love, not beginning by deciding that I was loved, she placed, side by side, those of Gilberte’s actions that had seemed to me inexplicable and her faults which I had excused. Then, one with another, they took on a meaning.
…It showed me finally, the new arrangement planned by my unseen weaver, that, if we find ourselves hoping that the actions of a person who has hitherto caused us anxiety may prove not to have been sincere, they shed in their wake a light which our hopes are powerless to extinguish, a light to which, rather than to our hopes, we must put the question, what will be that person’s actions on the morrow.”
But man is it a long way to go to get there.
I’ll read the rest of Remembrances, but first I’m going back to the Witcher books, because my next two came in the mail and because the written Geralt really is different than the cocksure jackass from the games. And anyway I need a break from Swann and his ilk. Given that, chronologically, our narrator is set next to enter puberty, I expect a great deal more of his resemblance to Swann — at least insofar as his deletrious affections go — to be front and center. And that is exhausting just to think about. Swann’s own interior monologues were already so similar to some of the crazier anti-women rants floating about the internet these days that to see the same stuff come out of a teenager hits a little too close to home.
Of note, I am aware that one could and perhaps should bring Foucault and Lacan into Swann’s Way. But the glory of not being twenty years old anymore is that I don’t have to spend 90 minutes showboating my bookcase in order to prove anything to myself…or to anyone else. Besides, the baby is in a growth spurt and I am exhausted. Good night.