The Way by Swann’s – Marcel Proust (translated by Lydia Davis)


As my followers on Twitter (@messy_tony) would know, I’m currently working my way through Marcel Proust’s masterwork.

Why Proust?

His massive book has sat hovering on my periphery for a number of years, frequent allusions, quotes and references have occasionally prompted me to start the seven book, six volume journey, however something more pressing, shiny and new has always distracted me.

The final push came the way of Matias Enard, and his latest novel “Compass”, where numerous Proust references were made. For the uninitiated his “masterpiece” is titled, “À la recherche du temps perdu”, translated as both “Remembrance of Things Past” or more recently as “In Search of Lost Time”. Finding Enard’s book a revelation I thought it was time to undertake my own personal Proustian journey.

I own the six volume Penguin Edition’s version, translated by six different translators, this collection alone has prompted many debates, with numerous detractors, as just as many supporters. I do not want to enter the debate about Scott Moncrieff vs others, as I have no intention of becoming a Proust scholar, nor an expert in French. As a reader of translated fiction, I thought the concept of six different translators would appeal, as I could pick up nuances between volumes that I may generally miss when reading a translated work. Maybe my appreciation of translation would improve through this exercise, an added bonus.

Given there are a plethora of reviews, opinions, and information about Proust, publicly available, I do not believe I will add anything credible to the material you can source elsewhere, however I thought I would highlight a little of my journey and present a few favourite quotes from each of the novels.

Starting with “The Way By Swann’s” (Translated by Lydia Davis), commencing with death, time…

I find the Celtic belief very reasonable, that the souls of those we have lost are held captive in come inferior creature, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate thing, effectively lost to us until the day, which for many never comes, when we happen to pass close to the tree, come into possession of the object that is their prison. Then they quiver, they call out to us, and as soon as we have recognized them, the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and they return to live with us.

It is the same with our past. It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it. (pg 47)

On reading…

After this central belief, which moved incessantly during my reading from inside to outside, towards the discovery of the truth, came the emotions aroused in me by the action in which I was taking part, for those afternoons contained more dramatic events than does, often, an entire lifetime. Those were the events taking place in the book I was reading; it is true that the people affected by them were not ‘real’, as Françiose said. But all the feelings we are made to experience by the joy or misfortune of a real person are produced in us only through the intermediary of an image of that joy or that misfortune; the ingeniousness of the first novelist consisted in understanding that in the apparatus of our emotions, the image of being the only essential element, the simplification that would consist in purely and simply abolishing real people would be a decisive improvement. A real human being, however profoundly we sympathize with him, in large part is perceived by our senses, that is to say, remains opaque to us, offers a dead weight that our sensibilities cannot lift. If a calamity should strike him, it is only in a small part of the total notion we have of him that we will be able to be moved by this, even more, it is only in a part of the total notion he has of himself that he will be able to be moved himself. The novelist’s happy discovery was to have the idea of replacing these parts, impenetrable to the soul, by an equal quantity of immaterial parts, that is to say, parts which our soul can assimilate. What does it matter, thenceforth, if the actions, the emotions of this new order of creatures seem to us true, since we have made them ours, since it is within us that they occur, that they hold sway, as we feverishly turn the pages of the book, over the rapidity of our breathing and the intensity of our gaze. And once the novelist has put us in that state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied tenfold, in which his book will disturb us as might a dream but a dream more lucid than those we have while sleeping and one whose memory will last longer, then see how, for the space of an hour, he sets loose in us all possible happiness and all possible unhappiness, just a few of which we would spend years of our lives coming to know and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slowness with which they occur prevents us from perceiving them; (thus our heart changes, in life, and it is the worst pain; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality it changes, as certain phenomena of nature occur, slowly enough so that, even if we are able to observe successively each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change). (pgs 86-87)

I have been peppering Twitter with the quotes, the format not ideal for Proust, where sentences can ramble for pages, here is one that didn’t fit the 140 character format:

For what we believe to be our love, our jealousy, is not one identical and continuous passion, indivisible. They are composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, which are ephemeral but by their uninterrupted multitude give the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity. (pgs 373-374)

Approaching the work with a little trepidation, I should not have been so fearful, thoroughly enjoyable, immensely readable and captivating, I jumped straight to Volume Two. My journey has begun…

Enough from Volume One of the 3,296-page work, I will return with a few favourite quotes from Volume Two, “In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, later in the week, along with my thoughts about the two different translators.


7 thoughts on “The Way by Swann’s – Marcel Proust (translated by Lydia Davis)

  1. Many times I have picked up Swann’s Way and read the first page or two. Being a short book person by nature I haven’t quite had the motivation for such a massive undertaking. I often enjoy writing described as “Proustian,” so I may yet find the right time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • And as I make my way through this I’m becoming inspired for others such as “Arabian Nights”, “Brothers Karamazov” I wonder if I will end up in a dark study surrounded by classics??


  2. I have his books À la recherche du temps perdu, in six volumes now for a few years, and read Swann’s Way, but still have to tackle the other five, I wonder if I will ever do,with so many other things to read..! 🙂


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