Don’t forget the Hawthorns…

I’ve climbed a few literary mountains in my time (Ulysses, War and Peace, Don Quixote, A Suitable Boy, Buddenbrooks…), but I always thought that the one I was working towards, a more literal literary mountain, was Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), a thousand-page monster to be read in German.  However, I’ve come to realise that I’m actually in the middle of a far more ambitious project, one which will probably take me a good while to complete…

Last year, I read Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way), the first part of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume epic, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).  It was my first encounter with Proust and his masterpiece, and it was certainly, ahem, an experience.  For those of you who have never tried his work, it’s a fairly difficult job to describe how it reads.  Simply put, this is not writing for those who enjoy plot-driven novels (or anyone who likes things to, well, actually happen over the course of a book).

Sadly, I was in the middle of one of my infrequent injury-related blogging slumps at the time, so I didn’t actually review the book.  However, I do recall posting a summary in four tweets, which went something like this:

Part One – Man remembers his childhood in the country.  Eats a cake and has flashbacks.
Part Two – Walks in the countryside, long descriptions of churches. Hawthorns, don’t forget the hawthorns…
Part Three – Long, seemingly irrelevant, story about a family friend’s love-life: am assured this will eventually become relevant. 
Part Four – Boy plays with pretty girl in Paris.  She goes on holiday, he’s too sick to travel.  Fin 😦

At which point, most people will be looking for something a little more action-packed to peruse…

Of course, there is a lot more to  À la recherche du temps perdu than that.  The destination is of relatively little importance – it’s the journey which makes it a great book.  Proust’s writing is unlike anything I had previously encountered, a mesmerising, minutely-descriptive avalanche of words (although ‘glacier’ might be a more fitting choice here) – phrase after phrase, sentence upon sentence, paragraph after paragraph, pages of hypnotic prose, drawing the helpless reader ever further into Marcel’s world.

What begins as something akin to watching paint dry (and each time you pick up the book, this feeling is still there at the back of your mind), ends with the reader becoming completely absorbed with the text, forgetting the world outside, fascinated by… something which described in fewer words would probably not be that interesting.

In a way, it’s a literary gamble, a game of novelistic chicken – the writer slows time down to such an extent that the reader has only two choices: to get out of the way and stop reading, or give in to the relentless, gentle flow of description and sensation.  The kind of reader you are will probably determine which choice you make.  Either way, you know that Proust isn’t going to blink first…

Despite some of my comments above, I always intended to continue with the novel, and I finally got around to making time for the second part of the story, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower).  Marcel (the narrator, not the writer) is now a teenager living in Paris, and the first half of the book describes his first love, the slightly ambiguous relationship he has with Gilberte Swann (the daughter of the family friend whose love-life is dissected in painful detail in the first book).  Once this affair has run its course, Marcel then spends a few months in the country, where he makes friends with Robert de Saint-Loup, an aristocratic soldier, and Elstir, a famous artist, before finally meeting Albertine Simonet, a young girl who (if the titles of the later volumes are anything to go by) will become very close to young Marcel…

Once again, the reader experiences the story through the filter of Marcel’s memories and thoughts, leaving us to follow events at the languid pace he chooses to unroll them at.  The whole book is written in beautiful, rolling waves of language, which you cannot help but admire.  When I was able to sit down and give myself the time to enjoy it, I did so thoroughly.  However…

…if you’re looking for a sympathetic narrator, Marcel ain’t it.  One of the things which detracted a little from my enjoyment of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs was how utterly spoiled and incomprehensible he could be at times.  The story is being told by old Marcel, looking back at his youth, explaining his childhood memories (which, of course, have been coloured by time) in the language of a mature, intelligent writer, and you have to wonder if he is deliberately making his younger self look ridiculous.  When Gilberte appears to tire of him, he decides not to see her any more (while still visiting her mother while she’s out…), hoping in some way to make her come back to him by doing nothing at all.  He says:

Je pleurais mais je trouvais le courage, je connaissais la douceur, de sacrifier le bonheur d’être auprès d’elle à la possibilité de lui paraître agréable un jour, un jour où, hélas! lui paraître agréable me serait indifférent.

I cried, but I found strength, I recognised the sweetness of sacrificing the happiness of being close to her for the possibility of her liking me again one day, a day when, alas! I would be completely indifferent to the idea of her liking me. (My translation)

In fact, without insights from anyone slightly less biased than Marcel himself, it is extremely difficult to warm to him at all.  Despite the fact that everyone he meets seems to recognise him as a superior being from the offset, the reader would struggle to find any justification for this from the text.  He appears to be a spoiled, weak, sickly, selfish brat (yep, a teenager), yet famous artists, soldiers and beautiful young women seem to be falling over themselves for the pleasure of making his acquaintance.  His family must be very rich…

Still, the writing makes up for it.  Forgive me if I don’t provide more examples of it here;  the reason for this (apart from the fact that I’m too lazy to find and copy the appropriate passages – and then translate them too…) is that Proust isn’t about the odd pithy sentence, or a telling paragraph here and there.  His work is about the cumulative effect of hundreds of thousands of words perfectly placed to create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.  And if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea…

So I’ll keep going with À la recherche du temps perdu, albeit at a fairly slow rate of knots (which is probably highly appropriate), but before I leave you, I thought I’d just finish with a note on how I’m reading it.  As you may have suspected, I’m reading it in French, which may account for some of the problems I’ve had with it.  I am always torn when reading French-language novels, as my ability in the language is such that reading books in the original is possible (and usually enjoyable) but not always that easy, leaving me to wonder whether it might be acceptable to take the easy option and read an English translation instead…

It’s a moral dilemma (one I don’t really have in German, which I read much more fluently), especially as the more often I give in, the less likely I am to ever read anything in French in the future.  It’s a matter of weighing up the choices, deciding whether the opportunity of reading the writer’s own words is more important than getting every nuance of a recreation of the original.  In the end, I decided that I would go for the French, despite the many drawbacks this entails.  I’m not sure if it’s the right decision, but it’s one I’m happy with – for the moment at least 🙂

19 thoughts on “Don’t forget the Hawthorns…

  1. A more obstinate precocious arrogant younger version of myself worked my way through the many paths, & cul de sacs of Proust's book, although I was mightily impressed etc, not sure if I have the patience nowadays..


  2. Wonderful post which captures much of Proust's style and method. The contrast between what you (the reader) thinks about Marcel and his treatment by others is one of the things that often struck me through my reading of it.
    The Magic Mountain is really wonderful, too, although as with Proust I read it in translation. It's due a reread but there are just so many unready on my shelves.


  3. Séamus – Thanks 🙂 I've heard that he gets even worse later, so that's not something to look forward to…

    You read a lot of flowing eulogies to Proust, so I wanted to write something a little more balanced. Undoubted genius, yes, but you can't deny that he goes on a bit at times 😉

    As for 'The Magic Mountain' – one day…


  4. By far the best writing I have ever read in my life. Keep at it, don't give up because it gets better and better as you go along. If you've had Aha! moments already, wait till you get to le temps retrouvè. Nothing will ever read the same. Yes, at times it's long, and (I admit) boring, but DON'T GIVE UP.


  5. I only read the first volume – Du Coté de Chez Swann, as my French isn't good enough and it takes me ages to plough through. As to The Magic Mountain, I think you'll like it very much! It is my favourite novel, and actually very lively, funny, and engaging. And contrary to what people say, quite an easy read. Try it, you might even fall in love with Madame Chauchat! 🙂


  6. Despite the effort that needs to be given, I find it ultimately satisfying afterwards. I've only to read the final installment and I dare say the characters will grow on you and even stick, as they'll keep reappearing in more ways than one in the subsequent volumes.

    If you're too lazy to type passages, feel free to copy and paste from my blog, no kidding. I've shared a few. 🙂


  7. I feel I'm getting closer and closer to Proust's masterpiece. This year I've already read 3 novels with over 800 pages. Soon I won't be afraid of tackling this behemoth 🙂

    One day, one day, one volume at a time…


  8. Anonymous – I'll look forward to that then… in about 2017 😉

    Margit – It can be a struggle, but I've found with my German reading that the more you try, the easier it becomes. As for 'Der Zauberberg', next year (maybe)!

    Claire – I'm sure I'll continue to love the book; it's just tricky sometimes, reading in French with two little girls running around screaming 😦

    Miguel – Come on! A long book is just a book that's long 😉


  9. Hi Tony,

    I agree with you, Marcel is not always likeable. Swann's Way is not my favourite volume.

    I understand perfectly your question about reading it in French or in English. I have the same problem with Henry James, only the other way round.
    I don't know exactly how good your French is. Proust is difficult for a native French speaker too. You know, Proust is extremely funny in a subtle way. He uses irony like an Englishman with a French background. My experience with reading in English is that when you need to concentrate too much on the language, you miss that kind of humour. The Scott Moncrieff translation is free on the kindle, why don't you try it in English? It would be a pity to miss the fun; Proust's humour is one of the best things of In Search of Lost Time.

    PS: There are good reviews from Max and Seamus on my Reading Proust page.


  10. Emma – I definitely see the humour in Proust, but it is very subtle, usually a dry, mocking criticism of the people surrounding Marcel. It's a shame Marcel himself isn't the target of more of that humour…

    For the moment, I think I'll be sticking to the French 🙂


  11. I'm over half way through the third volume at the moment. In that you do get a definite sense that not everyone loves young Marcel. There are those who do, and who admire his wit, but others who quite clearly view him as a flatterer and perhaps even as a social climber. He also at times comes across as a bit of a stalker.

    The thing is, to his face everyone is charm personified, but everyone is charm personified to everyone to their face. It doesn't mean much in terms of what they actually think of each other. Marcel's inclusion in society often seems to be more a matter of favours done in recognition of his family, or just him having inveigled hismelf some form of invite, rather than a genuine desire to see him for his own sake.

    You do have to surrender yourself to the text as you say. I think you're right in that. In the third volume I spent 150 pages or so on a single salon party and much of the book dwells on issues of pro and anti-Dreyfus politics which can be quite hard now to follow. Still, the writing is staggeringly good, and there are moments of such insight that perseverance is more than rewarded. I absolutely intend to press on with the other volumes.


  12. I forgot to say, Proust is also frequently funny as hell. There's tremendous wit in these books. Emma's totally right about that, and it's the biggest and most welcome surprise in reading them.


  13. Max – That's good to hear – I really can't see (so far) why anyone would give him the time of day!

    I do appreciate the humour too – it's a very wry style, on ei enjoy greatly 🙂


  14. Hi Tony, I've read “A la recherche du temps perdu” in a wonderful Dutch translation. It's one of my favorite novels of all time (together with “War and peace”). My French is by far too inadequate to try the original and I tried a little bit in the English translation, but that was also much too difficult for me. The Dutch translator worked more than 20 years on her translation. I like to think that one day I'll be able to read this in French, but I'm pretty sure, that day will never arrive. Greetings, Erik
    ps: Your daughter looks very cute on your picture


  15. Erik – While my French is far from perfect, I still feel I should make the effort to read the original. I actually read the first part of the third book earlier this year, but I haven't found the time to move on to the next section yet 😦


Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.