Sunday, 2 January 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: love, obsession, jealousy

I have complaints.

Before we get to that, it must be said that I do think Proust is a great writer, which you can see in my previous 5 blog posts about Swann’s Way. I absolutely love “Part 1: Combray”, with which many readers seem to struggle, and I do think that “Part 2: Swann in Love” is a great study of obsession and jealousy.

My problem with Proust is personal, and seems to be a clash of sensibilities. 

First of all, Proust is exhausting. He goes on and on and on about Swann’s obsession with Odette, and his jealousy. Swann’s Way is not a big volume—on my kobo, it is 445 pages, and Part 2 is about 184 pages or so—and yet it feels very long. Why do I find Proust, though not Tolstoy, so long and exhausting when both writers are interested in details and subtleties? I asked myself.* A major difference between Tolstoy and Proust is that Tolstoy moves rather quickly between characters and between groups of characters, and he inhabits everyone’s mind, whereas Proust’s underlying tempo is slow, and mostly stays in one character’s mind for a long time, either the narrator (unnamed but generally called Marcel for convenience), or Swann. Everyone says Swann is like Marcel, or at least his obsession with Odette will be later paralleled by Marcel’s obsession with Gilberte and Albertine (Proust writes “like certain novelists, he had distributed his own personality between two characters”).  

Another difference is that many things happen in Tolstoy and he writes about the minute changes in consciousness, whereas Proust writes about different actions and different incidents that are essentially manifestations of the same thing—Swann’s obsession with Odette and his jealousy.

Proust fans don’t have to tell me that the two novelists have different aims and must be judged accordingly, I know. I understand that Swann projects his fantasies onto Odette, as the narrator does with Gilberte in Part 3. I understand that Proust deliberately stays in Swann’s mind so that we don’t quite see Odette, only the Odette in Swann’s head. I understand that Proust is making a point about the impossibility of truly knowing another person. The comparison with Tolstoy is to explain what about Proust I personally find exhausting.

Part 2 of Swann’s Way is a great study in obsession, but being stuck in Swann’s neurotic, jealous mind feels oppressive after a while. Proust and Cao Xueqin have opposite “problems”: if Cao Xueqin largely conveys characters through action and dialogue, and sometimes makes me want to know more about characters’ thoughts but doesn’t go any further, Proust holds me hostage in a character’s head and doesn’t let go. Proust explores the subject till exhaustion, I end up feeling exhausted. 

My second complaint, again personal, is that I don’t know how old the characters are and how much time passes between events. We know how much time passes in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, in The Tale of Genji and Hong lou meng…; in In Search of Lost Time, memories are jumbled together and time is generally unclear (even though once in a while there are references to historical events). In novels, sometimes it doesn’t matter, but the omission of time references in Swann’s Way can be a barrier: my perception of the behaviour of the narrator and Gilberte in Part 3 would change depending on how old they are (their language about playing games sounds young, but they’re probably older); I want to know the time gap between him first falling in love with Gilberte in Combray and meeting her again in Paris; the time gap also changes the significance when the narrator makes a distinction between Combray Swann and Swann as father of Gilberte; even something as minor as Marcel lying to Françoise and writing a note to his mother to ask for a goodnight kiss would be viewed differently depending on his age, and so on. 

Perhaps this is premature and reading all 7 volumes may help me create some sort of timeline, but my complaint remains true for Swann’s Way

My third complaint is to do with Psychological Proust. In my previous blog post, I wrote that I didn’t understand Swann’s love for Odette. I have decided to go along with Proust and see that love as irrational, though there’s something very strange about the way Swann associates Odette’s face with a painting by Botticelli (for some sort of satisfaction, because he’s not attracted to her), and associates their love with Vinteuil’s music. But let’s say I accept that.

Proust writes: 

“For what we suppose to be our love or our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion. It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multiplicity they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity. The life of Swann’s love, the fidelity of his jealousy, were formed of the death, the infidelity, of innumerable desires, innumerable doubts, all of which had Odette for their object. If he had remained for any length of time without seeing her, those that died would not have been replaced by others. But the presence of Odette continued to sow in Swann’s heart alternate seeds of love and suspicion.” (Vol.1, P.2) 

Perhaps I misunderstand what Proust means, but I don’t think it’s true. It’s true for Swann, and I suppose, for some people, but Proust writes it as a universal thing and I don’t think it is. Swann’s love for Odette seems to die and gets replaced with jealousy (or insecurity) when they’re apart, and he loves her again when they’re together (and she doesn’t play games with him), then his love dies again, and so on and so forth, but that isn’t normal. This is the relationship of a neurotic and insecure man with a manipulative woman; loving couples aren’t like that. 

“… The important thing was that we should see each other, Gilberte and I, and should have an opportunity of making a mutual avowal of our love which, until then, would not officially (so to speak) have begun. Doubtless the various reasons which made me so impatient to see her would have appeared less urgent to a grown man. As life goes on, we acquire such adroitness in the cultivation of our pleasures, that we content ourselves with the pleasure we derive from thinking of a woman, as I thought of Gilberte, without troubling ourselves to ascertain whether the image corresponds to the reality, and also with the pleasure of loving her without needing to be sure that she loves us too…” (Vol.1, P.3) 

Again, I suppose it’s true for the narrator, and many people, perhaps also Proust, but Proust presents it as a general thing and I don’t think it’s true for everyone. It’s not true for me, for example—I know that I cannot truly know my boyfriend and can only know what I know (I’ve seen Solaris), but I do care that my love for him is grounded in (part of) reality rather than some sort of fantasy entirely in my head; and it’s not enough to love unrequitedly. I asked a few grown men, and they didn’t think it’s a universal thing either.  

Generally speaking, Proust does have great psychological insight, especially when he pierces through people’s pretensions and hypocrisies, and when he writes about cruelty (the scene of Mlle Vinteuil and her lesbian lover in Part 1 is shocking and unforgettable). His depiction of a sick mind (I mean Swann’s) is brilliant. But Proust seems to have no idea what a normal, healthy love is like, so when the narrator speaks of his own or Swann’s feelings as something universal, problems arise.

Having said all that, I still think Proust is a great writer, and the last 20 pages of Swann’s Way, when the narrator returns to the Bois much older, are wonderful. 

“They had long since fled, and still I stood vainly questioning the deserted paths. The sun had gone. Nature was resuming its reign over the Bois, from which had vanished all trace of the idea that it was the Elysian Garden of Woman; above the gimcrack windmill the real sky was grey; the wind wrinkled the surface of the Grand Lac in little wavelets, like a real lake; large birds flew swiftly over the Bois, as over a real wood, and with shrill cries perched, one after another, on the great oaks which, beneath their Druidical crown, and with Dodonian majesty, seemed to proclaim the inhuman emptiness of this deconsecrated forest, and helped me to understand how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” (Vol.1, P.3) 

(The excerpts are from the edition translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, and revised by D.J. Enright).

That is magnificent writing. 

Will I read Volume 2? Probably, but not yet. 

*: I once came across a tweet from a (self-proclaimed) Proust fan saying that Proust did everything Tolstoy could do, and better. This, now I know, is pure bollocks. This person clearly knows neither Tolstoy nor Proust.   


  1. Perhaps I misunderstand what Proust means, but I don’t think it’s true. It’s true for Swann, and I suppose, for some people, but Proust writes it as a universal thing and I don’t think it is.

    Exactly! That's what infuriates me about Proust. He is, as you say, a magnificent writer, and psychologically perceptive about a certain subset of human psychology, but it seems to me he has no comprehension of anything beyond that subset. Tolstoy also does the overgeneralizing thing ("like all [cavalry lieutenants, house servants, men in unhappy marriages, whatever], he [behaved/thought in some particular way]"), and that annoys me too, but not as much, because Tolstoy had a much broader understanding of humanity. Proust is like Freud, who took insights that might have applied to a particular class of inhabitants of fin-de-siècle Vienna and claimed they were valid for all people everywhere at all times. But yes, the writing is splendid!

  2. Right. That in Tolstoy doesn't annoy me at all (though I'm annoyed about some other things in Tolstoy), but I've noticed that Balzac does the overgeneralising thing too, and it gets on my nerves, especially when he talks about women.
    You're right though that Tolstoy has a much broader understanding of humanity.

  3. I just ran across a relevant quote from Martin Amis; he said that as a novelist "you assume how you feel is how everyone feels." What an odd thing to say! And of course he generalizes from his own case to novelists in general.

    1. I've never read Martin Amis so I don't know if that "rule" works for him, but I don't think that works lol.

  4. Very nice blog. I generally agree. Proust presents as a universal experience a version of love that is in fact far from universal, and one that is also not particularly healthy for that matter. As I've always thought, the problem with Proust's picture of love is not that it is psychologically untrue, but that it presents a very narrow picture of love. In this, he resembles Henry James or James Joyce in some ways, both of whom describe love in narrow and often dysfunctional terms. To see truly universal picture of love, in all its varieties, you do need to go to Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Trollope (yes, you must read him eventually!), and Austen (despite her necessarily confined and parochial position in the world), among others.

    Though I do think it is interesting, in a general way, to contemplate the illusion of continuity that we appear to find in ourselves and in others. Proust explores this idea in multiple ways -- most beautifully in Swann's prospective fear that his love will die, and thus that this iteration of himself will die too. Contemplate one’s self as a child, for example (or more poignantly, one's children), and it cannot be denied that prior versions of oneself have indeed died, leaving a rather tenuous line of continuity between those past selves and the present version. Of course, Proust is not the only one to focus on this, but he does so beautifully. The quote about love that you cite also explores this idea.

    Proust's way of not spelling out time or age doesn’t bother me. You do eventually learn to gauge his approximate age -- for example, when the Narrator starts going to dinner parties, you have a general sense that he must be a young adult -- maybe 18 or 19. I think he's about 11 or 12 or so in the episodes described in the Overture, if only because I would think he couldn't be much younger and both (a) be commanded to bed early and (b) read Georges Sand. In the later parts of Volume 1, with Gilberte, I think he's probably about 15 or 16. In some ways, this free flow of time is perhaps an artifact of the “remembered” nature of the work. It also becomes less important to precisely figure his age once he reaches adulthood, which is roughly in the second book, I think.

    And it’s not exactly the same, but Tolstoy is famously messy and inconsistent with ages and chronology. Is Vera Rostova younger or older than Nikolai? It depends. How did she go from 17 to 24 from 1805 to 1809? For that matter, how old is Nikolai at the start of the book? How is it possible he was gone 1 ½ hears between September 1805 and January 1806? And so on. Not the same, but also a bit frustrating if you're trying to keep these things straight.

    1. Regarding Tolstoy, I read War and Peace years ago so can't respond, but he definitely does not make such mistakes in Anna Karenina. Nabokov establishes a precise timeline for Anna Karenina.
      But if he does make such mistakes in War and Peace, I can easily forgive him because it's a huge book with hundreds of characters, whereas Proust doesn't have that many characters, as far as I can see.
      In The Tale of Genji, there is one continuity error at the beginning, and there are a few in chapter 43, but that chapter is a bit odd and I think has some other hand. For the rest, however, I think Murasaki Shikibu has great control over her characters and their developments, which is even more admirable because of the lack of names and the complex relationships between the characters.

      Back to Proust, perhaps you're right that he and Gilberte are about 15 or 16, but their language about playing and stuff sounds very young. The way Marcel writes her name over and over again in notebooks also sounds very young. That's why it annoys me that I don't know how old they are and how much time passes between their first meeting and the meeting in the park.

      And yeah, I do think that Proust is essentially narrow. And I think generally I'm not very interested in the kind of writing that is just internal, inward. I'm interested in the world, in humanity.

    2. Nabokov's "AK" timeline creatively justifies Tolstoy's continuity mistakes! It is quite clever.

    3. They're not really continuity mistakes though, but Tolstoy does have different speeds for the two strands of story, so there's lots of jumping back and forth, though it doesn't feel that way.

    You might like this blog post by the way.

  6. I agree with Michael about Trollope -- he's wonderful, especially about women (rare in a male Victorian author). As for the "tenuous line of continuity," my favorite example is from Proust, but our gracious hostess hasn't gotten to that part yet, so I won't spoil it!

    1. Hahahaha okay.
      How good is Trollope, if you have to rank him? (I know ranking is silly, but still...)

    2. I think he's better than Dickens (whose prose style and melodrama I can't stand) and Elizabeth Gaskell, and not quite as good as George Eliot; I personally prefer his novels (basically cheerful, if unflinching about the nasty ways people can behave) to Hardy's unrelenting grimness.

    3. Oh no, I love Dickens, especially Bleak House.
      I only read one novel by Elizabeth Gaskell and kinda thought that's enough.

    4. Oh, I know lots of people love Dickens, I'm not saying he's a bad writer, just explaining my problem with him. I would also rate Trollope higher than Thackeray, for what that's worth.

    5. Why so?
      I was going to read Vanity Fair after Bleak House, but my reading took another direction.
      I don't really like George Eliot. She's a great writer, but I don't get along with her hahahhaa.

    6. I can't say enough good things about Trollope. His writing style is not in any way brilliant or even beautiful -- he's no Dickens when it comes to prose. But his characters are very beautifully drawn. One question with Trollope is where to start. Generally, people start with the Warden, because it is the first book of the Barchester series, which eventually spins off to the Palliser series. The problem with this is that the Warden, while wonderful, is a bit light weight. You have to get to the second book, Barchester Towers, before you really see Trollope's greatness. Another option is to start with one of his many stand alone books -- Miss McKenzie, Ayala's Angel, Mr. Scarborough's Family, any number of them. Anyway, Di, let us know when you are prepared to embark on Trollope. It may be that you won't get along with him, the way you don't with George Eliot. In some ways, they are similar writers. But to my mind, Trollope is really the English counterpart to Tolstoy.

    7. I completely agree. My wife and I read the Barchester novels and then the Parliamentary novels (dramatized by the BBC as The Pallisers, which is superb), and we absolutely loved them (though, as Michael says, The Warden isn't up to the high standard of the rest).

    8. Hahaha.
      The Trollope I intend to read is The Way We Live Now or Can You Forgive Her?.
      The reason I don't get along with George Eliot is that I can't stand the moralism, the intrusive narrators, the way she spoonfeeds readers and explains everything instead of leaving it to readers (I've blogged about this). Her characters can be categorised as selfish or selfless, and it's obvious who you're supposed to like, who not.
      I have never understood why many people on book twitter and book blogs complain about Tolstoy and accuse him of didacticism but have nothing but love and praise for George Eliot.
      Anothing thing is that I don't get from George Eliot the joy, the love of life that I see in Tolstoy or Melville or Nabokov. She is very moralistic.
      So is Trollope anything like that?

    9. No, he's not a moralizer. I haven't read The Way We Live Now, but I'm pretty sure once you've read Can You Forgive Her? you'll want to read the rest of the Parliamentary novels. What great characters!

    10. Don't hype it up so much, I get disappointed easily lol.

    11. Trollope's narrator intrudes in a quite different way than Eliot's. Different kind of irony. 55 posts tagged Trollope, covering 14 novels, over at Wuthering Expectations!

    12. Languagehat,
      Who are your favourite writers by the way? I've been reading your blog for a while but can't really tell. Dostoyevsky, I think, but who else?

    13. Tom,
      Riiiight. *heading to your blog*

    14. Who are your favourite writers by the way?

      Ha! Well, there's quite a long list at my LibraryThing page:

      Of the Russians, most of my picks would be boringly common: Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bunin (at the moment my favorite writer of Russian prose), Andrei Bely, Babel, Nabokov, Platonov, Shalamov (can only be read in small doses -- too grim), Yury Trifonov, Vasily Aksyonov, Valentin Rasputin, Sasha Sokolov; in poetry, Pushkin, Lermontov, Blok, Pasternak (the poetry, mind -- I can't stand Zhivago!), Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Brodsky. I have some early-19th-century favorites that haven't been translated (Vasily Narezhny and Aleksandr Veltman), and I'm currently very enthusiastic about a young poet who's been writing brilliant unclassifiable prose, Alla Gorbunova -- I hope she gets translated soon!

    15. "Can You Forgive Her" is the first in the Palliser Series. Technically, the first appearance of a very young Plantagenet Palliser (the focal point of the series) comes in the fifth Barchester book (so the Palliser series is a spinoff of the Barchester series), but there is really no problem starting there. I would pick "Can You Forgive Her" over "The Way We Live Now." Both are great books, but TWWLN is more of a kind of dark Dickensian social commentary, and so isn't really typical of Trollope, who tends to focus more on character situations than on social issues.

    16. OK, OK... At the moment, the five Russian prose authors I most consistently want to reread and would take to that fabled desert island are Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bunin, and Nabokov.

    17. I'm right there with you re Pasternak. I have a little book of his nature poems, and they're so good, dense and crawling with life.

    18. Yes, he loved nature madly -- more than he did other people, I think.

    19. Michael,
      All right. I'd read Trollope after Vanity Fair anyway, as I've got a copy from the library.

      What about in general, not just Russians? Bunin is the one I haven't read. I picked up something once and couldn't get into the story.

      I've heard that his poems are good. I didn't like Doctor Zhivago.

    20. You're so cruel! I dunno, of the non-Russians... maybe Melville, Joyce, Woolf, Proust, and Faulkner? But how can I give preference to the classics when I would generally rather read current writers I love, like Tessa Hadley, Alan Hollinghurst, Hilary Mantel, Ann Patchett, and Zadie Smith? So many good writers, so little time...

    21. Right, okay.
      I'm gonna stop here (unless somebody wants to discuss something, especially Proust), so you all don't have to keep getting email notifications hahaha.

  7. I don't really like George Eliot. She's a great writer, but I don't get along with her

    See, we all have our reading quirks!

  8. " but Proust writes it as a universal thing and I don’t think it is."

    I have this problem too and for the same reasons. I roll my eyes whenever he uses first person plural.

    Other than the love/sexual desire, Proust also writes a great deal about aesthetics (music, painting, literature, church architecture etc) and how we perceive and interpret the world around us through our senses and in those passages his generalizing is more palatable. In fact I had read an essay by the great American philosopher Richard Rorty who said Proust is the most important philosopher of aesthetics in the western tradition and he is second only to Aristotle in this.

    It's probably homophobic but again I had read somewhere that his portraits of heterosexual desire should actually be read as those of homosexual relationships. I have not the read the later volumes but the treatment of sexual love gets even more outré there.

    1. "Other than the love/sexual desire, Proust also writes a great deal about aesthetics (music, painting, literature, church architecture etc) and how we perceive and interpret the world around us through our senses and in those passages his generalizing is more palatable."
      I was going to write a blog post about Proust on reading, but I'm lazy. And I've been having a stupid backache.

      "who said Proust is the most important philosopher of aesthetics in the western tradition and he is second only to Aristotle in this."
      That's very high praise.

      "I had read somewhere that his portraits of heterosexual desire should actually be read as those of homosexual relationships".
      I've heard this a lot: that Gilberte is actually Gilbert and Albertine is actually Albert. I understand the disguise, but that's almost as stupid as saying that I should forget about Skye in To the Lighthouse and understand that it's meant to be Cornwall.
      Having said that, I don't really have a problem with the relationships, until Proust generalises about love and those feelings as though they're universal.

  9. Yes, PROUST IS EXHAUSTING. As everyone knows because I said it over and over again when I was trying to read Swann's Way. I find that the gems in his writing are buried under pages and pages of detail and description that I just can't vibe with. When Knausgaard does it I like it, when Tolstoy does it I like it, but there's just something about Proust that annoys me when he does it.

  10. No, just Swann's Way, and not the entire thing. I stopped around the point he was describing his aunt's house, it just got to be too much for me. I keep saying I'll try again, though, because I enjoy it when other authors get so descriptive, and maybe I wasn't in the right head space.

    1. Right. So that's still "Combray", I love that part.
      It was "Swann in Love" that I struggled with, but most of the complaints I saw were about "Combray".

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  12. I read the entire series a couple of years ago and I think your complaints are on the mark and mild. The other volumes follow the same pattern as in there are amazing passages, but you're going to wade through a mountain of unfocused meandering to get there. Also themes end up repeating for no apparent reason, for example, Swann's obsession with Odette is repeated with Marcel and Albertine later, for no gain as far as I could tell. Interesting characters like Charlus are never *really* developed. So is it worth it? Well for me I would say yes in some sense, though I can't say that I enjoyed nearly enough of it to warrant a re-read.

    1. Hahaha you're not very enthusiastic about Proust.
      Guess I have to see for myself, though not yet.


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