A great read, though there were plenty of parts I skimmed. Swann’s Way,” A Proust initiate’s reactions so far….Streaming syntactical parades loaded with the narrator’s sentiment. Dozens of sensory images. The first section involves the recollections of his sleeplessness as a boy, and his persistent attachment to his mother in order to sleep. Raised rich and privileged, boy Marcel’s stuck in his bedroom with a sort of childhood Brian Wilson syndrome. There are lots of food smells and tastes and lots of plants meticulously described. Of course the big deal is the infamous memory-provoking madeleine cake with tea made by the house cook-servant Francoise (cf. old theme of hired help and the dominant power thereof). When boy Marcel turns to fiction, Proust includes some interesting digressions about novels. The comments are erudite and expressed by the author. On returning more specifically to boy Marcel, the author describes the unaffected joy of reading books in one’s youth. It’s Part I in Combray. Towards section’s end, about 150 pages deep, the writing picks up pace and is more engaging. Our narrator has emerged and is an observer of the people around him now, outside his bedroom. There is a lot of content about Legrandin who is emblematic of effeminate and pompous bores. Proust may have set him there to make the appearance of Swann look even better by contrast. The young narrator (I imagine him now as being ten to twelve) expands his horizons and takes long walks away from his aunt Leonie’s property. We learn that there are two walking routes, one of which is the more scenic and interesting – “Swann’s Way.” As he roams, he begins to think of nymphs and women’s bodies. He meets a love object, the strawberry blond daughter of Swann, Gilberte. Mlle Swann is contemptuous of him at this point and gives him an obscene Paris street gesture (which begs for research). Further firing the adolescent fantasies of our narrator is the by-chance sighting of Mlle Viileul meeting with her lesbian lover. Strong stuff for a novel dating back so far. But this is the rich and luxuriant canvas Proust paints of decadent bourgeois France. Near the end of Part 1 we see young Marcel the narrator present us with his first serious attempt at writing, the famous “Three Steeples” scene. When Part 1 ends, he is awakened by the rosy finger of dawn (right out of Homer), and the Combray section ends as if it had been a long night’s sleep ever since the insomnia and Mom’s kiss and the smells of tea and madeleine. Apparently, M. Swann himself has a bad rap for marrying beneath his station to the demimonde Odette, and this is the central story of Marcel’s more omniscient voice narrating Part 2.
At this point, before starting “Swann in Love,” I turned back pages to read the intro by the translator Lydia Davis. It confirmed some things — it let me know I was getting it. My reading had not been that haphazard. Proust is very readable. Brilliant and digressing, with layers of symbology (e.g. plants and flowers, hawthorn for one). At times I skim over passages of the narrator’s vagaries, then a section comes along that pins me word by word to the pages. Davis says to be patient. Everyone has a different reaction to the book. But I’d say anyone who has not read at least 200 pages deep would never understand her intro, much less what Proust is gifting us with.
In Part 2, the superficial relationship between Swann the Dope and Odette the Sponge is grating my nerves. The pretentiously unpretentious circle of friends has set the chapter’s tone, which is flippant and slightly sour. Proust goes metafictional or at least self-author-referential in one passage that describes how one character in the inner circle (the artist) is such a talker and can go on and on and riff on any topic. Really? Meanwhile, the Verdurin crowd’s patience is wearing thin with the Teflon nature of M. Swann who is dodgy and attends not to join the group as a kindred soul but only to play his absurdly transparent love games with Odette. The group sees her as a shapely bundle and a male agitator, and Swann as a stick man with no point of view, and both as lacking keen wit or conversational vigor. We’re told rich Swann’s funds are sinking low as he pays out to “keep” her. It is not clear if he is fucking her, but he is johnny-on-the-spot to both appease and manipulate her. When she goes her own way he falls apart at the seams and sinks into a juvenile state of insecure curiosity and exaggerated concern over losing her. It’s pathetic, of course, but the beauty is in Proust’s command of words to depict Swann’s sorry condition. The section title is now dripping with irony. Swann is in love only with the game of behaving like he’s in love. The reader soon sees Swann’s “cattleya” goo-goo sexual approach and his piano sonata heart-throbbing …all of it is pathos. It remains to be seen how this unfolds. Or crashes. Meanwhile M. Swann is losing ground as Odette has her way with him and keeps him at a distance. The original “I” narrator vanished in Part 2 and became 3rd person narrative god (little Charles/Marcel becomes author Marcel Proust). In the last part of the novel, the “I” voice returns. Young Marcel seems still pre-teen though it isn’t specified, and is a reflection of Swann who he admires and emulates. He develops the same sort of fawning lovesick behavior towards his daughter Gilberte, who in turn is a reflection of her mother Odette (an unhappy surprise…Swann married her) by way of her aloof and cold disdain for the affections of boy Marcel. There is an implication he also has a thing for Odette and can sense her allure even at his early age. These will be topics in Proust’s second volume, In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower. Not sure I’ll ever go there, but this first volume turned on the lights about a famous writer and the works that I have avoided and kept in the dark for years. A fine revelation and worth the reading effort.
SIDEKICKS (novels also stacked by bedside for longterm reading, and only parts have been read so far. Maybe will split out into their own reports later)
“Our Mutual Friend,” Dickens’ last novel. Dark. More oblique and complex than his name novels. Opens at night with rival boats dragging for a body in the river. Gritty characterization of people in London the poor family kids, the dust heap hustlers, the wealthy consumer-conformists, greedy counselors and venal inheritance seekers, strange street dudes and informational posers of all varieties. Not far in, we get Twemlow the human furniture piece and the funny Veneerings who are as superficial as their name sounds.
“Lonesome Dove,” McMurtry’s writing in this one is like rodeo-talk mixed with the campy voice of “Dodge Ram tough.” Events can sometimes be absolutely trifling. But when the author shifts to events of more substance the writing comes with an accomplished ease. McMurtry’s material can be both banal and sublime, but he is always skilled and literate. There is no short-changing. He gives us honest prose. Enormous writing energy is required to create scene after scene over 700 pages, weaving the motives and desires of characters, making them vivid, and placing them in a setting and milieu that we can see and experience. Larry Mc is getting up there now. What a treasure he has been over the years in American fiction.
“Fortunata y Jacinta,” a novel studied in part when a Spanish language student many years ago. My professor hauled me along to an academic seminar at Mary Washington College. A series of speakers read esoteric papers about Benito Perez Galdos. I learned he was long since dead. A strange osmosis took place. My Florida novel has two Spanish-speaking sisters as characters, who I named after Galdos’s dos casadas. Full report on this great novel when I’ve time to read it all, maybe next year.