By Chet Yarbrough
By Marcel Proust
Narrated by Neville Jason
“Remembrance of Things Past” is referred to in Haruki Murakami’s recent book, “1Q84”, as a book that is rarely read because of its interminable length. It is chosen by Murakami’s bodyguard-character as reading material for “1Q84”’s female hero while she is hiding in a safe-house. One wonders why Murakami chooses “Remembrance of Things Past”. The answer is clear in “Swann’s Way”. “Swann’s Way” exemplifies the quality of classic books; i.e. readership longevity and life’s universality.
“Swann’s Way” is the first volume of a five-volume work by Marcel Proust. The first volume begins with a child’s recollection of his family. Because it begins as a story of a young boy raised in luxury, it seems unlikely to have consequential meaning to all who read it; however, as the story progresses, opinion changes.
Murakami cleverly chooses Proust’s book reference because “Swann’s Way” is a young boy’s recollection of youth as a period of time in a chrysalis (see review “1Q84”), a pupa before hatching into adulthood. “Swann’s Way” shows a pupa’s transformation; i.e. the duckling becomes a swan; the boy becomes a man. To the general reader, “Remembrance of Things Past” is a beautifully written book about coming-of-age for a young boy.
Coming-of-age is no easy journey; i.e. this first volume shows how difficult it is for Swann to realize his first adult love is not like a boy’s remembrance of a “good-mother’s”’ love. In the beginning of “Swann’s Way”, we hear the saccharin story of an ultra-rich family proffering a life of leisure for a precocious, socially insulated, child that would rather read a book in the garden than play tag in the park. This child loves and craves his mother’s attention, respects and fears his father, and observes the world through the wonderment and delight of infant eyes.
There is a passing reference to a Mr. Swann that periodically visits the boy’s house. Mr. Swann is a relatively wealthy, well-educated, socially sophisticated art broker that has a young female companion named Odette. This companion is considered by the boy’s family to be of lower class breeding, poor intellect, and questionable virtue. As the story of Swann’s female companion unfolds, a reader’s mind transforms the boy into Swann and compels one to think how a boy’s remembrance of his mother’s love might lead to a disastrous relationship.
A boy who dearly loves his mother, with a memory of unconditional love, fails to understand that adult love of women is not like a child’s love for a mother or a mother’s love for a child. When a boy becomes a man and chooses to fall in love with a woman, the woman is not his mother; i.e. the woman is the sum of her own genetic inheritance and life experience, as is the life of the boy who becomes a man. A woman is an equal partner in life; not the fantasy relationship of a son to a mother.
“Swann’s Way” explains a truth in life. Swann expects his lover, Odette, to be an ideal love; like the love which Proust’s boy remembers with his mother. But Odette is not Swann’s idealization; she is an independent human being with her own strengths and weaknesses; her own successes and failures. Odette may be an ill-bred young woman with a history of affairs and she may have prostituted herself early in life but she is who she is; not the idealized and justified person of Swann’s remembrance of things past or a boy’s idealized love of his mother.
By telling a story, Proust is showing why and how people should be accepted for who they are; not whom one thinks they should be. Swann begins to see Odette as an independent human being; albeit a toxic companion for his life, but one that, if loved, should be loved for who she is, not what Swann thinks or wants her to be.
This interpretive insight, whether right or wrong, is an example of why Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” is a classic. A classic resonates in some way with whoever reads it, based on their human inheritance and life experience. Even if this critic’s insight is wrong, Proust writes beautifully, with detail and intelligence that are classic values in themselves.