When I sit and think of the effect that I want to have on my readers, I often think of Proust and the effect Swann’s Way had on me. After reading Swann’s Way, I felt that I had truly swallowed another person’s experiences so completely that those experiences now made up a part of the inner landscape of my mind. Somehow, someway, this human with a heart that beat 100 years ago tore through the barriers of time, space, socioeconomic hierarchy, culture, and language to transplant whole pieces of himself inside of me. Proust’s Combray comes back to me with the same kind of familiarity as my own childhood home in Nesbit, Mississippi. And my own childhood self seems to come back with more vividness, as if Proust has shown me how to walk back through my old brown particle-board bedroom door at the top of the stairs of the gray house on Victoria Drive. As a reader and a person, I am grateful to Proust and what he gave me in Swann’s Way. As a writer, I wonder how in hell he accomplished what he did. Because when I write a memory, I want to be able to give my reader a little bit of what Proust has given me.
However Proust accomplishes what he accomplishes, he begins accomplishing it on those first few pages where he teaches his reader how to approach his words. Here, Proust describes the experience of falling in and out of sleep. Nothing could be more mundane; nothing could be more compelling. And Proust makes his subject matter compelling by the power of his observations. Proust notices and describes the experience of sleep blurring the boundaries of your life and another’s life by reading before you fall asleep; he notices the way the a worry can follow a person into sleep and eventually force them back up into consciousness; he notices the way the smallest suggestions, like “the whistling of the trains,” (3) can infiltrate a sleeping man’s dreams. These noticings are things I have experienced myself in my life, countless times. But even though I have experienced them, until Proust solidified these noticings into words that I read, my conscious mind had never considered and acknowledged the workings of my subconscious mind during sleep. Each of Proust’s descriptions comes back to me with almost the force of an epiphany by giving words to wordless memories, by naming what I, not even in my own mind, had formed words for. Proust creates one of my favorite phenomena of art: the observation that is so new, and yet so true, that it becomes a revelation for the reader.
These revelations of Proust’s cloaked in the mundane are made more visceral and more immediate by Proust’s use of the second person. He does not begin with the second person; he begins where he should begin: with his own self and his own mind. The first sentence of this, his first book in his In Search of Lost Time series of memoir-ish novels, is “For a long time, I went to bed early” (3). Proust’s narrator is very fittingly the subject of his first sentence, just as he will be the subject of Proust’s fictionalized remembrances throughout the book. But in this first few pages, he will flicker in and out of the first and second person, singular–just “person” layering the “I” and the “you,” until there is a kind of connection forged between the writer and the reader. By lines such as “…summer bedrooms, where you delight in becoming one with the soft night…” couched in the same sentence as “But I had seen sometimes one, sometimes another, of the bedrooms I had inhabited in my life” (7), Proust blurs the boundaries between his identity and his experience and mine. Later, he’ll bring in a third person point-of-view for the benefit of Swann himself, but in these first few pages, Proust uses only the first and second persons to create an intimacy with his reader.
And then there is the structure of Proust’s language itself, especially his famously long sentences. Proust rarely begins his paragraphs with his syntactical titans. In fact, he begins with that simple sentence: “For a long time, I went to bed early” (3). Short, simple, single clause. His second sentence stretches a bit longer: three clauses and an absolute phrase. And then comes a sprawling sentence, a sentence boasting several independent clauses separated by three semicolons and one colon. The sentence comes in rhythmic waves: it’s as if Proust is using his syntax to gradually lull his reader, not into sleep, but into the calm, reflective state of mind that he or she must cultivate in order to enjoy looking at the world through Proust’s eyes for another few hundred pages.
Many first sentences of Proust’s paragraphs begin with an insight, a truth, a thesis. One of my favorites is his fifth paragrapher opener: “A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds” (5). Here on the first few pages, Proust is destroying the linear idea of time, and he is redefining time as a malleable, circular structure full of wormholes that can cause a person to slide into a moment in the past and reinhabit that moment again. This time is not the timeline of immediate experience, perpetually marching and ticking into the future measurable increment after measurable increment. This time is the time of memory, a concept of time where experience has already been subjectified and some moments have dropped out of a person’s mind like sand from a sieve, and other moments have become part of the structural foundations of the person’s identity. Sleep is one way to access the “revolving, confused evocations…shown to us by a kinetoscope” of memory; art is another. Later, Vinteuil, Proust’s fictional composer, will have the power to break down the linearity with the music he creates. And, of course, Proust the author completely destroys the normal onslaught of time with his writing. In Swann’s Way, he creates an anchor to his past, a kind of portal through which we can follow him.
Attempting to analyze Proust’s prose is problematic. Proust’s writing has a mystery that isn’t dispelled by dissection and naming its various elements. Something happens when these elements are considered as a whole, a kind of majestic synergy, where Proust’s choices all work together to create something more complex, something alive. Just as the mystery of consciousness is still a mystery to the doctor who has dissected a corpse, even after examination, Proust’s work sustains the mystery of itself. And I am grateful for this mystery, as a reader and a person. I am also grateful for this mystery as a writer. This text is the kind of text that continues to teach, the kind of the text with the depth to unfold its secrets bit by bit over time. As Proust himself writes, “Perhaps the immobility of the things around us is imposed on them by our certainty that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our mind confronting them” (6) Swann’s Way is not one of these stagnant pieces of furniture sprinkled throughout our lives. Proust’s writing changes and grows as its reader changes and grows.
Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. Edited by Christopher Prendergast. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2004.