My Year with Proust – Swann’s Way

Marcel Proust by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1892

I have a reading goal this year and not just a number to reach like at Goodreads, but rather like an accomplishment in refining my world literature knowledge. That is a general goal for me and why I usually gravitate toward classics and philosophical books. This year I am attempting to read all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Time Lost and I have recently finished the first of seven(!) instalments, Swann’s Way. (Note: I am reading the newly translated version in Danish by publisher Multivers who has also broken up most instalments into two volumes, so here I have in fact read two books but I only count them as one in my Goodreads.) Throughout the internet, mainly on Tumblr, I have read quotes and extracts from Proust and somehow they just seemed to turn up so often that it felt like fate that I should tackle this giant literary work soon. By the way, am I the only one who sometimes feels haunted by books, as if they put quotes or references to them everywhere as to say, ‘Come on read me!’ and you just connect? Okay, that sounds absolutely crazy now that I see it in writing but it feels that way and that is how I have discovered many of my most profound reading experiences.

When I went to the national book fair in the fall (BogForum), I saw the whole collection (the spines make a rainbow!) and had a chat with the publisher, and goodness it was tough to see and leave this new edition behind! But I really could not justify buying such an expensive edition of a work that I had not actually read. The people at Multivers did say that they would bring the collection to the book fair again at the reduced prize, so maybe I will pick it up this year because if I had to judge only from Swann’s Way, it will be a favourite of mine. Most people know about the premise of In Search of Time Lost: Proust dipping a madeleine cake into tea and then being transported back to his childhood and all the memories of that time covering the Belle Époque in France. I was therefore quite surprised that this famous scene was not the actual beginning! It did not happen until half-way through after a long memory of Proust’s childhood summers and his family’s relationship with Swann. Most notably, Proust initially recalls his hurt and longing for his mother’s goodnight kiss and all the trouble he goes through in order to get it. He is not glorifying his conduct or ways, in fact sometimes it felt a bit like he was belittling himself if not for so thoroughly describing the way he experienced and experiences the world which shows his actual strength.

incredibleegg org recipe cherry-madeleines

We meet his immediate family and household members and learn all their characteristic little ways, flaws and talents and all, and I quickly started to smile and care for them because the attributes Proust describes are really subtle but exactly the ones which makes them stand out. Anything from the way the nose wrinkles when laughing, a certain expression they use, or how they view politics and society, Proust grasps it and describes it so vividly to the reader that after a little while you start to feel like you really know these people. This along with small anecdotes, which often tell the uses of these expressions and ways, makes the characters breathe through Proust’s carefully crafted sentences. Despite the length, the actual writing is just so beautiful and voluptuous yet still precise that you just let go and let yourself be guided, and even though I could not read from chapter to chapter like I usually do (because there are only about five chapters in the whole of Swann’s Way!) I still felt it ended too soon and I deliberately dragged the ending out.

The story so far runs in two lanes: one is Proust’s own memories of his childhood and upbringing, the other is the story of Charles Swann and how he came to be such a central part of Proust’s life. Much of that story takes place before Proust himself is born but towards the end, their stories overlap with Proust crushing hard on Swann’s daughter Gilberte. Along the personal characteristics of the people in the book, Proust also connects them to the society’s morals, ethics, and aesthetics of the time, giving the reader a meta-commentary on the French Belle Epoque as well. I admit that I had forgotten how ‘French’ this might be because I am so used to the English Victorian style, so I was almost shocked by some of the obvious sexual references but it also made the whole period seem more truthful (because I do not trust any of the uptight English Victorians in that regard!) and a lot more fun.

I am really enjoying this visit back to the end of the 19th century and to know how much more I can look forward to still makes me giddy! I am curious about the fates of the characters and it is so interesting to follow the developments of the era’s politics and society movements, especially since I can compare so much to both the British and Scandinavian history as well. This is promising to be a treat throughout the year for me and I absolutely recommend you get to know it. I am even considering co-reading the Danish and an English translation simultaneously just in case some subtleties were lost from one language to another. Sadly, I do not read French (only menu cards!) but if the translations are anything close to the original, then I would very much love to learn French because I could probably highlight the whole book in order to mark beautiful passages and quotes.

So far, In Search of Time Lost seems like a sunny summer’s day where you sit in the garden, tea and cake at hand, and lounging with a book while the sun is filtering through leaves: warm, fuzzy, and just a place you want to stay forever.

(If you want a visual interpretation, I have started a Pinterest board for Proust.)


Jeg har et læseprojekt i år og det er at få læst hele Marcel Prousts På sporet af den tabte tid. Det har længe været et værk, som er poppet op forskellige steder med citater og referencer og det har føltes som om, at det bare skulle være et værk jeg måtte læse. På BogForum i efteråret så jeg den nye oversættelse fra forlaget Multivers i dens samlede virkning med regnbuesider og det hele, men smuk som den dog var, syntes jeg alligevel det var mange penge at give for et værk jeg ikke kendte, så jeg bestemte mig for at bruge i år på at læse det, dog stadig i den nye oversættelse.

Det tegner til at blive et fremragende år på den front, for jeg føler mig hjemme og veltilpas blandt Proust og hans fantastiske beskrivelser og observationsevner. Alle de små finurligheder, som gør os til individuelle personer har han øje for og får dem samtidigt flettet ind i kommentarer på tidsalderens moral, etik og æstetik. Det er et skønt overflødighedshorn af smukke sætninger og farverige personer og jeg er endda begyndt at forhale læsningen lidt, da jeg næsten ikke nænner, at det skal slutte. Jeg elsker fordybelsen i værket og alle referencerne til litteratur, musik og kunst.

Allerede efter første del, Swanns verden (bind 1+2 i den nye), kan jeg mærke, at dette bliver et værk jeg vil læse igen, og jeg overvejer faktisk at finde en engelsk oversættelse at læse simultant med den danske, så jeg ikke går glip af små, fine nuancer. Desværre læser jeg ikke fransk (bortset fra menukort!) men hvis sproget i den danske er bare i nærheden af det franske, så er det en sublim læseoplevelse.

For mig føles dette værk som de der perfekte sommerdage hvor man sidder i en god stol i haven med en bog og en kop thé mens lyset flimrer gennem trækronerne: varmt, trygt og et øjeblik man ikke ønsker skal ende. Jeg kan kun anbefale at læse med.

About Ann-Cathrine 39 Articles
Established 1987 in Aarhus, Denmark. MA degree in English and Art History from Aarhus University, Denmark. Loves books, art, writing, coffee, dandelions, paper dolls, and haute couture.