Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is one of the most entertaining reading experiences in any language and arguably the finest novel of the twentieth century. But since its original prewar translation there has been no completely new version in English. Now, Penguin Classics brings Proust’s masterpiece to new audiences throughout the world, beginning with Lydia Davis’s internationally acclaimed translation of the first volume, Swann’s Way.
Swann's Way is one of the preeminent novels of childhood: a sensitive boy's impressions of his family and neighbors, all brought dazzlingly back to life years later by the taste of a madeleine. It also enfolds the short novel "Swann in Love," an incomparable study of sexual jealousy that becomes a crucial part of the vast, unfolding structure of In Search of Lost Time. The first volume of the work that established Proust as one of the finest voices of the modern age—satirical, skeptical, confiding, and endlessly varied in his response to the human condition—Swann's Way also stands on its own as a perfect rendering of a life in art, of the past recreated through memory.
About the Author
Lydia Davis, a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, is the author of a novel, The End of the Story, and three volumes of short fiction, the latest of which is Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. She is also the translator of numerous works by Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, Pierre Jean Jouve, and many others and was recently named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. Her essay on close translation of Proust appeared in the April 2004 issue of the Yale Review.
Christopher Prendergast (series editor) is a professor emeritus of French literature at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King’s College.
Date of Birth:July 10, 1871
Date of Death:November 18, 1922
Place of Birth:Auteuil, near Paris, France
Place of Death:Paris, France
Read an Excerpt
For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: “I’m falling asleep.” And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflec-tions on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This belief lived on for a few seconds after my waking; it did not shock my reason but lay heavy like scales on my eyes and kept them from realizing that the candlestick was no longer lit. Then it began to grow unintelligible to me, as after metempsychosis do the thoughts of an earlier existence; the subject of the book detached itself from me, I was free to apply myself to it or not; immediately I recovered my sight and I was amazed to find a darkness around me soft and restful for my eyes, but perhaps even more so for my mind, to which it appeared a thing without cause, incomprehensible, a thing truly dark. I would ask myself what time it might be; I could hear the whistling of the trains which, remote or nearby, like the singing of a bird in a forest, plotting the distances, described to me the extent of the deserted countryside where the traveler hastens toward the nearest station; and the little road he is following will be engraved on his memory by the excitement he owes to new places, to unaccustomed ctivities, to the recent conversation and the farewells under the unfamiliar lamp that follow him still through the silence of the night, to the imminent sweetness of his return.
I would rest my cheeks tenderly against the lovely cheeks of the pillow, which, full and fresh, are like the cheeks of our childhood. I would strike a match to look at my watch. Nearly midnight. This is the hour when the invalid who has been obliged to go off on a journey and has had to sleep in an unfamiliar hotel, wakened by an attack, is cheered to see a ray of light under the door. How fortunate, it’s already morning! In a moment the servants will be up, he will be able to ring, someone will come help him. The hope of being relieved gives him the courage to suffer. In fact he thought he heard footsteps; the steps approach, then recede. And the ray of light that was under his door has disappeared. It is midnight; they have just turned off the gas; the last servant has gone and he will have to suffer the whole night through without remedy.
I would go back to sleep, and would sometimes afterward wake again for brief moments only, long enough to hear the organic creak of the woodwork, open my eyes and stare at the kaleidoscope of the darkness, savor in a momentary glimmer of consciousness the sleep into which were plunged the furniture, the room, that whole of which I was only a small part and whose insensibility I would soon return to share. Or else while sleeping I had effortlessly returned to a period of my early life that had ended forever, rediscovered one of my childish terrors such as my great-uncle pulling me by my curls, a terror dispelled on the day—the dawn for me of a new era—when they were cut off. I had forgotten that event during my sleep, I recovered its memory as soon as I managed to wake myself up to escape the hands of my great-uncle, but as a precautionary measure I would completely surround my head with my pillow before returning to the world of dreams.
Sometimes, as Eve was born from one of Adam’s ribs, a woman was born during my sleep from a cramped position of my thigh. Formed from the pleasure I was on the point of enjoying, she, I imagined, was the one offering it to me. My body, which felt in hers my own warmth, would try to find itself inside her, I would wake up. The rest of humanity seemed very remote compared with this woman I had left scarcely a few moments before; my cheek was still warm from her kiss, my body aching from the weight of hers. If, as sometimes happened, she had the features of a woman I had known in life, I would devote myself entirely to this end: to finding her again, like those who go off on a journey to see a longed-for city with their own eyes and imagine that one can enjoy in reality the charm of a dream. Little by little the memory of her would fade, I had forgotten the girl of my dream.
A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a second the point on the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken. If toward morning, after a bout of insomnia, sleep overcomes him as he is reading, in a position quite different from the one in which he usually sleeps, his raised arm alone is enough to stop the sun and make it retreat, and, in the first minute of his waking, he will no longer know what time it is, he will think he has only just gone to bed. If he dozes off in a position still more displaced and divergent, after dinner sitting in an armchair for instance, then the confusion among the disordered worlds will be complete, the magic armchair will send him traveling at top speed through time and space, and, at the moment of opening his eyelids, he will believe he went to bed several months earlier in another country. But it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was deep and allowed my mind to relax entirely; then it would let go of the map of the place where I had fallen asleep and, when I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was; I had only, in its original simplicity, the sense of existence as it may quiver in the depths of an animal; I was more destitute than a cave dweller; but then the memory—not yet of the place where I was, but of several of those where I had lived and where I might have been—would come to me like help from on high to pull crossed centuries of civilization in one second, and the image confusedly glimpsed of oil lamps, then of wing-collar shirts, gradually recomposed my self’s original features.
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. However that may be, when I woke thus, my mind restlessly attempting, without success, to discover where I was, everything revolved around me in the darkness, things, countries, years. My body, too benumbed to move, would try to locate, according to the form of its fatigue, the position of its limbs so as to deduce from this the direction of the wall, the placement of the furniture, so as to reconstruct and name the dwelling in which it found itself. Its memory, the memory of its ribs, its knees, its shoulders, offered in succession several of the rooms where it had slept, while around it the invisible walls, changing place according to the shape of the imagined room, spun through the shadows. And even before my mind, hesitating on the thresholds of times and shapes, had identified the house by reassembling the circumstances, it—my body—would recall the kind of bed in each one, the location of the doors, the angle at which the light came in through the windows, the existence of a hallway, along with the thought I had had as I fell asleep and that I had recovered upon waking. My stiffened side, trying to guess its orientation, would imagine, for instance, that it lay facing the wall in a big canopied bed and immediately I would say to myself: “Why, I went to sleep in the end even though Mama didn’t come to say goodnight to me,” I was in the country in the home of my grandfather, dead for many years; and my body, the side on which I was resting, faithful guardians of a past my mind ought never to have forgotten, recalled to me the flame of the night-light of Bohemian glass, in the shape of an urn, which hung from the ceiling by little chains, the mantelpiece of Siena marble, in my bedroom at Combray, at my grandparents’ house, in faraway days which at this moment I imagined were present without picturing them to myself exactly and which I would see more clearly in a little while when I was fully awake.
Then the memory of a new position would reappear; the wall would slip away in another direction: I was in my room at Mme. de Saint-Loup’s, in the country; good Lord! It’s ten o’clock or even later, they will have finished dinner! I must have overslept during the nap I take every evening when I come back from my walk with Mme. de Saint-Loup, before putting on my evening clothes. For many years have passed since Combray, where, however late we returned, it was the sunset’s red reflections I saw in the panes of my window. It is another sort of life one leads at Tansonville, at Mme. de Saint-Loup’s, another sort of pleasure I take in going out only at night, in following by moonlight those lanes where I used to play in the sun; and the room where I fell asleep instead of dressing for dinner—from far off I can see it, as we come back, pierced by the flares of the lamp, a lone beacon in the night.
These revolving, confused evocations never lasted for more than a few seconds; often, in my brief uncertainty about where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed any better than we isolate, when we see a horse run, the successive positions shown to us by a kinetoscope. But I had seen sometimes one, sometimes another, of the bedrooms I had inhabited in my life, and in the end I would recall them all in the long reveries that followed my waking: winter bedrooms in which, as soon as you are in bed, you bury your head in a nest braided of the most disparate things: a corner of the pillow, the top of the covers, a bit of shawl, the side of the bed and an issue of the Débats roses,1 which you end by cementing together using the birds’ technique of pressing down on it indefinitely; where in icy weather the pleasure you enjoy is the feeling that you are separated from the outdoors (like the sea swallow which makes its nest deep in an underground passage in the warmth of the earth) and where, since the fire is kept burning all night in the fireplace, you sleep in a great cloak of warm, smoky air, shot with the glimmers from the logs breaking into flame again, a sort of immaterial alcove, a warm cave dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat with shifting thermal contours, aerated by drafts which cool your face and come from the corners, from the parts close to the window or far from the hearth, and which have grown cold again: summer bedrooms where you delight in becoming one with the soft night, where the moonlight leaning against the half-open shutters casts its enchanted ladder to the foot of the bed, where you sleep almost in the open air, like a titmouse rocked by the breeze on the tip of a ray of light; sometimes the Louis XVI bedroom, so cheerful that even on the first night I had not been too unhappy there and where the slender columns that lightly supported the ceiling stood aside with such grace to show and reserve the place where the bed was; at other times, the small bedroom with the very high ceiling, hollowed out in the form of a pyramid two stories high and partly paneled in mahogany, where from the first second I had been mentally poisoned by the unfamiliar odor of the vetiver, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and the insolent indifference of the clock chattering loudly as though I were not there; where a strange and pitiless quadrangular cheval glass, barring obliquely one of the corners of the room, carved from deep inside the soft fullness of my usual field of vision a site for itself which I had not expected; where my mind, struggling for hours to dislodge itself, to stretch upward so as to assume the exact shape of the room and succeed in filling its gigantic funnel to the very top, had suffered many hard nights, while I lay stretched out in my bed, my eyes lifted, my ear anxious, my nostril restive, my heart pounding, until habit had changed the color of the curtains, silenced the clock, taught pity to the cruel oblique mirror, concealed, if not driven out completely, the smell of the vetiver and appreciably diminished the apparent height of the ceiling. Habit! That skillful but very slow housekeeper who begins by letting our mind suffer for weeks in a temporary arrangement; but whom we are nevertheless truly happy to discover, for without habit our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless to make a lodging habitable.
Certainly I was now wide-awake, my body had veered around one last time and the good angel of certainty had brought everything around me to a standstill, laid me down under my covers, in my bedroom, and put approximately where they belonged in the darkness my chest of drawers, my desk, my fireplace, the window onto the street and the two doors. But even though I knew I was not in any of the houses of which my ignorance upon waking had instantly, if not presented me with the distinct picture, at least made me believe the presence possible, my memory had been stirred; generally I would not try to go back to sleep right away; I would spend the greater part of the night remembering our life in the old days, in Combray at my great-aunt’s house, in Balbec, in Paris, in Doncières, in Venice, elsewhere still, remembering the places, the people I had known there, what I had seen of them, what I had been told about them.
At Combray, every day, in the late afternoon, long before the moment when I would have to go to bed and stay there, without sleeping, far away from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom again became the fixed and painful focus of my preoccupations. They had indeed hit upon the idea, to distract me on the evenings when they found me looking too unhappy, of giving me a magic lantern, which, while awaiting the dinner hour, they would set on top of my lamp; and, after the fashion of the first architects and master glaziers of the Gothic age, it replaced the opacity of the walls with impalpable iridescences, supernatural multicolored apparitions, where legends were depicted as in a wavering, momentary stained-glass window. But my sadness was only increased by this since the mere change in lighting destroyed the familiarity which my bedroom had acquired for me and which, except for the torment of going to bed, had made it tolerable to me. Now I no longer recognized it and I was uneasy there, as in a room in some hotel or “chalet” to which I had come for the first time straight from the railway train.
Moving at the jerky pace of his horse, and filled with a hideous design, Golo would come out of the small triangular forest that velveted the hillside with dark green and advance jolting toward the castle of poor Geneviève de Brabant. This castle was cut off along a curved line that was actually the edge of one of the glass ovals arranged in the frame which you slipped between the grooves of the lantern. It was only a section of castle and it had a moor in front of it where Geneviève stood dreaming, wearing a blue belt. The castle and the moor were yellow, and I had not had to wait to see them to find out their color since, before the glasses of the frame did so, the bronze sonority of the name Brabant had shown it to me clearly. Golo would stop for a moment to listen sadly to the patter read out loud by my great-aunt, which he seemed to understand perfectly, modifying his posture, with a meekness that did not exclude a certain majesty, to conform to the directions of the text; then he moved off at the same jerky pace. And nothing could stop his slow ride. If the lantern was moved, I could make out Golo’s horse continuing to advance over the window curtains, swelling out with their folds, descending into their fissures. The body of Golo himself, in its essence as supernatural as that of his steed, accommodated every material obstacle, every hindersome object that he encountered by taking it as his skeleton and absorbing it into himself, even the doorknob he immediately adapted to and floated invincibly over with his red robe or his pale face as noble and as melancholy as ever, but revealing no disturbance at this transvertebration.
Table of ContentsSwann's WayIntroduction
A Note on the Translation
Suggestions for Further Reading
Part I: Combray
Part II: Swann in Love
Part III:Place-Names: The Name
What People are Saying About This
Indispensable... the crucial modernist work, overtopping the books of even such giants as Joyce and Mann. (Peter Brooks, The New York Times Book Review)
A sensitive and direct translation... Lydia Davis does us a great service in bringing us back to Proust. (Claire Messud, Newsday)
Reading Group Guide
In his achievement as a novelist, Marcel Proust stands alone. Swann's Way is one of seven books that comprise In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu, 1913-1927), unique in fiction for its sustained fullness of thought and richness of characterization. Though In Search of Lost Time is saturated with details of French bourgeois and aristocratic life at the turn of the century, it retains its freshness for readers today because Proust's concerns—the meaning of love and time, as understood through an individual's memories—are always relevant. The novel is encyclopedic: its chief themes include the genesis of erotic attachment and jealousy, the growth of wisdom, and the dawning of artistic consciousness. What sets Proust's work apart, however, is not his subject matter but his way of treating it. The unnamed first-person narrator's story is laced with digressive explorations of the feelings and thoughts underlying even the smallest actions.
In Swann's Way, the great arc of In Search of Lost Time begins with the narrator's efforts to recapture and understand his past, efforts set in motion by the taste of a madeleine soaked in tea. The narrator's thoughts about his own life lead him ineluctably to the past of Charles Swann, a family friend the narrator knew as a child. By remembering and imaginatively inhabiting Swann's love affair with the coquette Odette, the narrator gains insight into his life and the nature of love itself.
The famous opening paragraphs of Swann's Way, in which the narrator describes his habit of going to bed early as a child, typify Proust's ability to mine insight from apparently insignificant events. As the narrator attempts to understand the workings of his own consciousness as he falls asleep reading, he makes comparisons and creates images that give body and force to his philosophizing. The narrator observes, "I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read . . . it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V" (p. 3). Wakening further, he feels "the subject of the book detached itself from me, I was free to apply myself to it or not" (p. 3). Here Proust's portrayal of the complexity of consciousness centers on the mind trying to understand itself. Reading Swann's Way, the reader may feel the same vertiginous sense of identification with the book that the narrator experiences while falling asleep.
The first section of the novel orients us to both Proust's method and his subject. The narrator's analytical subtlety in explaining what he feels and thinks while longing for his mother's goodnight kiss prepares us for the novel's emphasis on exploring mixed emotions and ideas. At the same time, the anguish the narrator experiences as a result of this seemingly simple event—he is sent to bed without a kiss from his mother—is a kind of prelude to the frequent disappointments and reversals of human love that form so much of the novel's substance.
In looking back at his life, the narrator confronts the question of what exactly an individual's identity consists of. As he tries to understand his life, he realizes that it is inseparable from the lives of others—his parents, his grandmother, the family's servant Françoise, and family acquaintances, including Charles Swann. Of Swann, the narrator writes that he leads an existence away from the narrator's house that the family does not dream of; the narrator remarks that "no doubt the Swann who was known at the same time to so many clubmen was quite different from the one created by my great-aunt" (p. 19). The narrator comes to understand that identity is not fixed and conferred by birth into a social caste, as his family imagines; rather, it is flexible, continually being reshaped. "Our social personality," the narrator remarks, "is a creation of the minds of others" (p. 19). Swann's Way explores this process but also goes beyond it to ask whether there is a core self which is not merely a creation of others' minds. If there is such a self, the narrator suggests, it awakens in the presence of beauty that endures—for example, as when Swann feels the idealism he has abandoned resurfacing while he listens to Vinteuil's sonata.
Paradoxically, the narrator discovers that, by sympathetically imagining the experiences of others, he can best begin to understand his own identity. Thus a crucial component of his own selfhood becomes intelligible to him through the story of Swann's love for Odette, whom Swann meets around the time of the narrator's birth. The narrator is drawn to Swann's story because he recognizes in Swann a shared sensibility. As the narrator thinks about the grief of being sent to bed without a kiss, he tells us that, "as I learned later, a similar anguish was the torment of long years of his [Swann's] life and no one, perhaps, could have understood me as well as he" (p. 30). In the same way, the narrator's sensibility enables him to revisit in memory and better understand the scene of cruelty involving Vinteuil's daughter that he witnesses as a child. Peering through a window as the daughter and her lesbian lover enact their contempt for the daughter's dead father by what they say about his portrait, the young narrator is horrified by the daughter's sadism. As an adult, however, he sees this sadism as foreign to the daughter, reasoning that she must feel "virtue, memory of the dead, and filial tenderness" or she would feel no "sacrilegious pleasure in profaning them" (p. 167-68).
Proust's narrator is always striving to find the hidden springs of feeling and action, but the novel nevertheless leaves us with mysteries. Why is Swann so drawn to Odette, although he realizes that she is not "his type" and that the Verdurins' social group is vain and shallow? Most mysterious of all, how does Swann come to marry Odette despite this realization? Musing on all that is not fully understandable in Swann's love, the narrator faces the finally unknowable complexity of human nature. The narrator's anguished desire for his mother's closeness and his childhood attraction to Gilberte, Swann's daughter, suggest the extent to which the narrator will be drawn into the same type of emotional turmoil that Swann has experienced. The story of Swann and Odette is satisfying on its own terms, but it is also a prelude to the narrator's emotional relationships, which will be the chief subject of the remainder of In Search of Lost Time. By the end of Swann's Way, it is evident that even the subtlest human understanding must be incomplete, and that understanding is not enough to safeguard us from folly. But by transmuting such folly into his novel, Proust illustrates the power of art to reveal to us "what richness, what variety, is hidden unbeknownst to us within that great unpenetrated and disheartening darkness of our soul which we take for emptiness and nothingness" (p. 363).
ABOUT MARCEL PROUST
Marcel Proust was born in 1871 in Auteuil, a suburb of Paris, to the respected physician Adrien Proust and his wife, Jeanne (née Weil). Proust's father was of French Catholic descent, while his mother came from a wealthy Jewish family. At the age of nine, Proust had an asthma attack, and he suffered from asthma for the rest of his life. He attended the Lycée Condorcet, where he did his first writing, for class magazines. He went on to do a year of military service and studied law and literature at the École des Sciences Politiques. During his time at school, he was strongly influenced by the philosopher Henri Bergson's theories positing the world as dualistic (with a life force struggling against the material world) and time as a duration that is not divisible or measurable.
While at school, Proust became a visitor of various salons, including some of the most exclusive. His first published book was Les Plaisirs et les jours (1896), a collection of short stories. He worked on a novel, Jean Santeuil, from 1895 to 1899, but never finished it. Toward the end of this time, he became less active in social circles, partly due to his failing health and partly because of his involvement in the Dreyfus affair, in which the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of spying and imprisoned unjustly. The affair deeply divided French society, and Proust petitioned for Dreyfus's release and assisted his lawyer.
Proust began writing what would become his masterpiece, the heavily autobiographical In Search of Lost Time, after the deaths of his father in 1903 and his mother in 1905. Financial independence enabled him to devote more time to his writing. In 1907, he moved to a Paris apartment, where he had the bedroom lined with cork to muffle sound while he was writing. He rarely left home, giving up almost all social ties.
In 1909, he had an experience in which his memory was reactivated by a chance association, and this became the basis for his narrator's all-important taste of madeleine. In creating his narrator's persona, Proust transferred some of his own traits, including his homosexuality and Jewish background, to other characters, but critics have generally agreed that the novel as a whole embodies Proust's conclusions about life.
Proust completed Swann's Way in 1912; it was refused by two publishers before he published it at his own expense. During World War I (1914-1918), Proust revised his idea of the novel, which he had originally planned for three volumes, expanding it to seven. Proust died in Paris in 1922, before the last three books were published.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTI0N
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
This highly complex, richly allusive novel follows three Dubliners through an ordinary day, but outward events are far less important than the characters' mental lives, which Joyce depicts with unprecedented immediacy and depth.
Andrei Makine, Dreams of My Russian Summers (1995)
In an effort to recapture and understand his past, this novel's protagonist recounts the summers he spent with his Aunt Charlotte in Siberia, where her tales of the "France/Atlantis" of her childhood awaken his imagination and longing.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924)
The story of Hans Castorp and his experiences over seven years at a tuberculosis sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, Mann's novel explores the roots of decadence in European society on the eve of World War I.
Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75)
Spanning more than fifty years, the twelve novels in Powell's sequence describe the life of Nicholas Jenkins and his upper-class circle in post-WWII England..
Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931)
Woolf's most poetic novel explores our experience of time by pairing interludes describing the cycles of the natural world with a series of interior monologues, spoken in rotation by each of the book's six characters.