Monday, April 15, 2013

A Rambling Riff on Remembrance in Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust

It’s been a year since I read my first bit of Proust and started putting down a few random thoughts that came out of the experience, so it’s hard to remember exactly what I expected as I prepared for my first real excursion into his work. I suppose I expected to be daunted and discouraged- maybe even defeated before finishing. But I was hardly prepared to be so totally swept away as I was by Swann’s Way , the first novel in his 7-volume masterwork, In Search of Lost Time .

After all, what could a modern reader possibly have in common with Proust, his narrator, or Charles Swann, that monocled dandy of the Belle Epoque whose story takes up the bulk of the novel? As it turns out, a helluva lot more than I thought.

It wasn’t the plot that knocked my socks off, or even the wonderful prose, but Proust’s thoughtful plunge into memory. I found that some of my own memories flickered to life again as Proust worked the billows on the embers of his own forgotten past. He writes with such precise detail, that the reader is almost forced to participate in his narrative and his memories, rather than play the role of mere spectator.

As someone whose childhood home has recently been gutted by new owners, and whose elementary, junior high, and high schools were all razed and rebuilt before it even occurred to me to go back in search of memories, I found myself deeply moved by the narrator who wanders the Champs-Elysee in search of old haunts, and who closes his book with the following agonizing lines:

“…how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. …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.”

It’s been exactly one hundred years since he first published those lines, and they are as true today as they must have been in his time. Almost from the outset, Proust introduces us to the concept of Involuntary Memory, the possibility of an unbidden reminiscence triggered by unexpected sensations that carry some magic of our former years. The most famous of these experiences is the episode of the Madaleine:

“And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory- this new sensation having had me on the effect which love has of filling me with a  precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?...
“And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of Madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.”

This first involuntary memory, conjured by a few drops of tea, soon gushes into a torrent of childhood memories that come flooding back to the narrator. He spends entire sections of the book detailing the most minute episodes of his boyhood. In doing so, he reminds us that for the child who experiences them, they are anything but minute and insignificant.

In one early example he recounts the angst of being sent to bed without his routine kiss goodnight and the anguish that follows as he waits for his mother to leave the party downstairs and come up to correct the injustice. (Spoiler alert: she never comes!) This small vignette stretches for pages and pages, but never becomes boring. Before the reader knows it, he is no longer a spectator, but a participant. He feels the same angst as the kiss-deprived narrator, because he can no doubt remember certain similar childhood agonies that seemed, at the time, to stretch out forever.

For me, there’s a memory of being inadvertently locked out in the snow by a housesitter/babysitter who didn’t realize that ‘kindergarten me’ couldn’t reach our doorbell or produce a decent knocking on our massive oak front door. How long was I left out in the cold? It’s impossible for me to say. But it can’t have been a short time, since my repentant baby-sitter made reparations by way of a paint-dot coloring book that you transformed with a wet paintbrush- a childhood wonder I don’t think I’ve seen since that trauma. What I do  know, is how long it felt . And that is what Proust makes you feel again.

There’s a mathematical explanation for all of this, of course. A five-year-old has only lived 1,825 days, so each day he experiences makes up .055% of his young life, whereas a thirty-five-year-old has lived 12,775 days, and each of his days only comprises .0078% of his ever-lengthening existence. But whether you put stock in that theory or not hardly matters. Proust doesn’t concoct explanations or posit theories, he simply plumbs the depths of his memories and invites you to do the same, reminding you what it was really like to think with a five-year-old brain.

When he seizes on a memory he wrings from it every last drop of life for the reader. And just when you think he’s ready to move on, he picks up the carcass and helps you suck the marrow right out of the bones. It’s fascinating, fascinating stuff.

Yet some of the memories are fleeting, and still pack all the punch of his lengthier diversions. He describes a memory of watching the play of sunlight on distant bell-towers that seemed to slide from one side of the road to the other as his carriage wound its way along a crooked country path. I couldn’t help recalling my own sense of wonder, gazing through the windows of my family’s station wagon and watching the world zip by on an endless reel. For Proust the magic lived in the ever-shifting church steeples; for me it lived in the telephone wires that dipped and jumped between the poles like the live current they carried.

Later on in the book he writes beautifully about Swann’s coming across a brief musical phrase that gave him no end of pleasure— as if it had been written specifically for him. He explains Swann’s almost frantic search for the name of the piece and the composer, and his aggravating inability to dig up the source and have it played again for him:

“Swann could learn nothing further. He had, of course, a number of musical friends, but, vividly as he could recall the exquisite and inexpressible pleasure with which the little phrase had given him, and could see, still, before his eyes the forms that it had traced in outline, he was quite incapable of humming over to them the air. And so, at last, he ceased to think of it.”

Who can’t relate to the nagging itch of a half-remembered tune? If you can call up some lyrics, sure- even a couple measly words can lead you to paydirt in the age of search engines and YouTube videos. There are a handful of songs, overheard in European grocery stores 15 years ago, that I’ve been able to track down in this way; artists like Scooter or DarioG, that I never would have heard replayed on American radio stations in a lifetime of listening. But what if there are no lyrics? What if all you can do is hum incoherent pieces stupidly to the few people who might miraculously know the answer, and do this for years at a time with no success?

Here again, Swann’s experience called to memory one of my own. My mystery phrase was hidden in the middle of the the Intermezzo Sinfonico from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. For me, the section from 1:28 to 2:30 is about the most sublime and moving piece of music ever written. And I say that knowing full well how ridiculous it is for a thirty-five-year old of my generation to use the word sublime. Have a listen:

Years of fruitlessly checking “best of” classical music compilations and trying to whistle people into some vague recognition of my mystery tune had prepared me to never hear it again. And then one day I did  hear it again. And my relief at finding it again, at putting a name to it, and being able to play it at will was mirrored exactly by the character of Swann:

“But tonight, at Mme. Verdurin’s, scarcely had the little pianist begun to play when, suddenly, after a high note held on through two whole bars, Swann saw it approaching, stealing forth from underneath that resonance, which was prolonged and stretched out over it, like a curtain of sound, to veil the mystery of its birth—and recognized, secret, whispering, articulate, the airy and fragrant phrase that he had loved.”

I could go on, but this is already the longest “review” I’ve ever posted. I haven’t even touched on the story, or the pinpoint perfection of some of the prose. But those aren’t the reasons I would recommend this book in the first place. Swann’s Way  may have a certified “yawner” of a plot, but it’s an absolute thrill-ride for the memory. I’d recommend it to anyone with a past. It’s no wonder Proust is mentioned again and again as an influence by writers from Virginia Woolf to Jennifer Egan.

Take it for a whirl:


  1. Well, I just had a Proustian memory of my own, thanks to this essay. Those paint-dot coloring books were my favorites! Where did they go?

    1. I hear you. Mine was a Woody Woodpecker book. A little further research tells me they were called "Paint with Water" books or something like that. There are a few of them still out there:

      Try this one, for example

  2. Beautiful review. My memory was also stirred by yours and by the same melody.

  3. I should add that if you've ever had the music recognition problem described above, there's a great app for that called 'Sound Hound'. It listens to whatever's playing, and returns the artist, title and even lyrics. Pretty cool.