(The lights go up on a cozy room with two comfortable armchairs with a small table between. A fire crackles merrily in the brick fireplace in the background, and outside the window one sees the faint outline of mountains. Two coffee mugs steam on the table. To your right, a pudgy man who is mostly bald with a thin mustache is smoking a bubble pipe. He takes a sip from his mug and speaks–he has a British accent.)
Hello, and welcome to Literary Corner. I’m your host, Snob E. Bookman, and tonight (or today depending on when you read this post) we interview Nathan who has just finished the first book of Marcel Proust’s epic seven-part novel In Search of Lost Time, entitled Swann’s Way. Why are we interviewing Nathan, you ask? Well, I’m a figment of his imagination, so I am accustomed to doing as he wishes. So now, let us bring in the star as of the show, so to speak, Mr. Nathan.
SB: Good day, sir.
N: Good day to you.
SB: We are here to discuss Swann’s Way, which you have just finished reading. Tell me: why did you decide to read Proust?
N: Well, I’d heard a lot about him, as many people have. Proust is that hoity-toity author literary professors like to talk about but never actually assign (they do that with a lot of authors, actually). I’ve even heard him lauded as the best novelist of the 20th century. Naturally, I had to see if he lived up to the hype.
SB: Quite. Before we ask you whether or not Monsieur Proust exceed your expectations, let us first discuss a few aspects of the book itself, shall we? (He takes a pull from his bubble pipe and blows a bubble ring.)
N: Yes, let’s.
SB: Excellent. First, why don’t you give us a brief sketch of what the book is about?
N: That is a difficult task. The novel has three main sections. The first, Combray, is about Proust the narrator–
SB: You differentiate between Proust the author and Proust the narrator?
N: I do indeed, partially because the introduction to my edition suggested it that way, and partially because I don’t think Proust tries to represent himself as he truly is in the book. This isn’t an autobiography; it’s fiction.
SB: I see. Do go on.
N: (Takes a sip from his coffee) Mm, excellent coffee! Is this Caribou’s La Minita Peaberry?
SB: Indeed it is, good fellow. I don’t think you’d have imagined it any other way.
N: You’re right there. Anyway, back to the structure of the book. Combray is Proust’s recollection of growing up in the French countryside and the people, landscapes, and impressions he has of that time. The second part–and the largest–is called Swann in Love, and the title self-explanatory. Charles Swann (whom we meet briefly in part one) falls in love with Odette de Crecy, who doesn’t sound too attractive, by the way. At first they’re madly in love, but then complications arise as Swann finds out more about his mistress. Part three, Names of Places: The Name, covers a slightly older Narrator/Proust living in Paris. He frequently plays in the park on the Champs-Elysees where he falls in love with Gilberte, i.e. Swann’s niece. That’s probably enough synopsis.
SB: Agreed. Let us turn now to style, for which Proust is world famous. What did you make of it?
N: It is superb and he deserves his reputation on that count. True, it took me 100 pages to get the hang of it, but it is quite elegant. You see, Proust, who loves his asides and dependent clauses, often turns the sentence in various different ways, which can cause one to lose one’s sense of what the sentence is saying, especially if one is not careful or is sleepy, which, as we all know, makes reading for comprehension difficult under the best of circumstances; however, eventually, given that one continues reading Proust, one adopts a habit of not trying to make out the meaning of the sentence or, indeed, where (if anywhere) a given sentence may be heading, for Proust, like Odysseus in the legend, wanders the waters of meaning, encountering many distractions–as the sirens were for the Greek hero–before he meanders home to his lovely Penelope, which, in the epic simile I am currently employing, symbolizes what the crap he’s trying to say. It’s tough to get used to.
SB: I have no idea what you just said, but it sounded elegant and descriptive!
N: Well, there you are. Proust loves description more than just about anything. He lingers on every scene, every detail, and describes them all in minutia to the reader. He often goes on for a dozen pages about what a character’s feeling are about something he or she might do. Then, he abruptly brings about whatever the character was thinking about doing in a sentence. The rhythm is odd, but I got used to it and even enjoyed it at times.
SB: Let’s move onto characters. What did you make of them?
N: There are dozens of characters in Swann’s Way, but few of them matter much. The most important are Narrator/Proust, Odette, and the title character, M. Swann. Let’s start with the last of these. I liked Swann a lot at first because he held my attention. There is a bit of mystery about him for parts of the book. I wanted to see what he was all about. He grew less likable when Odette enters the book. At first their love affair is engaging and quite beautiful to read about, but when we find out what kind of person Odette is I grew impatient. I dislike her strongly, as I think you’re supposed to, but I couldn’t understand why Swann stays with her for hundreds of pages. What is he thinking?
SB: I think you’re a bit hasty here. Proust is not a novelist of logic but of emotion, surely.
N: Don’t call me Shirley. Go on, though.
SB: He isn’t interested in action, is he? He delves into the psyche of his characters and explores their emotions.
N: True enough. It isn’t that I didn’t notice or appreciate the talent that Proust displays in rendering emotions in powerful, tangible ways; it’s that I grew weary of lingering for long stretches of time in these depressing emotional states. It took far too long for Swann to confront Odette about her actions–I’m trying to avoid the word whoring.
SB: You have just failed.
N: (Takes a sip of delicious coffee) Yes, I did. Anyway, I wanted him to dump her because that’s the only move that makes sense. Of course, I grow impatient with other real people who are in bad relationships as well, so it helped me understand why people are so reluctant to extricate themselves from destructive relationships. That was of value.
SB: What of the plot of the book? You have confessed yourself a man who enjoys action.
N: Not so much action as development. I like to see movement from point A to…well, somewhere.
SB: All right, so what of Proust’s plot?
N: (Laughs) What plot? The entire book is continuous rumination on the same few things: memory, unrequited love, and loss. Nothing really happens. You could write a complete plot summary of the entire 600-some-page book on five pages. If plot is what you love about reading, don’t consider Proust. Stay away.
SB: Did you have other frustrations with the book aside from the long emotional scenes and lack of plot?
N: Yes, I did. I grew altogether weary of the narrator. He’s tiresome, whiny twerp!
SB: You don’t really mean to use the epithet twerp.
N: I do. Take the whole goodnight kiss from his mother–
SB: One of the most famous bits of the novel.
N: Yes. What kind of pansy kid gets so worked up over a goodnight kiss from his mom? He ruins his whole day wondering if his dad will let Mommy come and kiss him goodnight. You’re a kid! Go play outside and stop worrying. It’s not as if she won’t be there the next morning.
SB: You can’t relate to those tender scenes at all?
N: I can a little, I guess. But my recollection of childhood involves more playing and less worrying about something as trifling as a goodnight kiss. Perhaps if Proust didn’t come back to that theme so often I wouldn’t have hated it so strongly.
SB: But that is not his nature as a writer.
N: And that’s I why didn’t enjoy Proust very much: too much repetition and too much lingering in maudlin emotions–not enough motion in both plot and character interaction. He is the consummate writing of musings. The whole book is one enormous session of meanderings through his memory. I confess I didn’t see the point of most of his little recollections.
SB: But the recollections are the book! That longing to have the chance to turn back the clock and relive one’s life–that is the essence of Proust.
N: I agree but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed the book.
SB: Granted. That said, I presume you object to the notion of Proust as the best novelist of the 20th century.
N: You couldn’t be more right. He’s nowhere near that lofty title. I’d put at least a dozen if not more ahead of him, especially Joyce, Hemingway, Woolf, James (though he writes in two centuries)–even more recent writers such as Sebald or even Toni Morrison are better.
SB: So does that mean you do not intend to finish In Search of Lost Time?
N: Certainly not now. Perhaps someday I’ll take it up again.
SB: Finally, how would you rate Swann’s Way?
N: I give it three stars out of five. It has a lot of literary merit but not the kind that suits my taste.
SB: Very good. Well, that is all for Literary Corner. We thank our guest Nathan for being on the show.
N: You’re welcome.
SB: So from all of here…both of us…good night and happy reading.
N: Is there anymore coffee?