Review: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Swann’s Way is the first of seven volumes in the nearly-1.5 million word novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.  The entire collection is semi-autobiographical and is meant to chronicle the life and layers of Parisian and French people in the early-20th Century.  This first novel is divided into three parts, the “book end” parts being told by the main narrator, at this time an old man but narrating from the point of his youth (never given, but my approximation would be somewhere about 10-12 years old).  The middle and, I think, best portion is “Swann in Love” and it is the story of a young man, Monsieur Swann, who lives beneath his means, and who seems spurned by both the lower and upper classes for it.  He falls in love with a coquette and, one assumes by part three, gets her pregnant.  Our narrator, then, in part three, becomes enamored with Swann and Odette’s daughter, the young Mademoiselle Swann, who seems to be quite similar in character to her mother.  The story itself does not seem to be as important as the general presentation of French society, philosophy, culture, politics, and thought.  This seems to be the first volume in a novel of ideas, rather than a novel of any particular point or purpose.  This first part is certainly not obviously didactic in any means; instead, it seems to be just a presentation, an observation, of what it meant to be French and of a certain class.

The Good 
“Swann in Love” is this Volume’s savior.  It was the only portion of Swann’s Way which I found at all meaningful or enjoyable.  Character development occurred, there was emotion and conflict, and the relationships between those characters who I feel will play important roles again in the future Volumes begin to be established.  There is an interesting relationship between our young narrator and his mother – disturbing, really, and no resolution was brought to bear, but it does intrigue the reader and one begins to wonder what is in store for this family in future Volumes (if they even appear – perhaps each Volume follows the lives of completely separate people?).  The language is quite beautiful and this translation, in particular, I think is well wrought (I am referring to the Penguin Classics edition, 2004, translated by Lydia Davis). 
The Bad
There seems to be no point.  This could be intentional, or it could be because, technically, I am still at the very beginning of the novel (being in Volume 1 of 7); still, this novel standing alone, as many other reviews claim it can, just does not work for me.  The first and third parts, particularly, are incredibly disjointed and meandering.  As a reader more familiar with and privy to linear thought, I found Proust’s flashbacks within flashbacks and ambiguous narrators distracting and hard to follow.  While the middle part obviously stood apart, and was quite beautiful in many ways, I feel it overshadowed the two parts between which it is sandwiched, and left me wondering why the other parts were necessary.  My only conclusion – and it is a hopeful one- is that the young narrator, who we stroll along with in parts one and two, is ultimately going to be the “main character” but that “Swann in Love” was a necessary prelude or prequel to the story about to unfold. 

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 5.0 
The novel’s language is beautiful and its characters quite interesting, yet I was disappointed in it overall.  Perhaps I need to read In Search of Lost Time in its entirety to truly appreciate it for the complete work it is.  By itself, Swann’s Way was, for me, a wandering, flowery traipse through the lives of many French people who are not at all appealing or interesting.  The two or three characters I could potentially champion tended to be spineless and weak (particularly the men) or deliberately vile and duplicitous (typically the women).  Proust does create an interesting dynamic between men and women, but the stroll seems to be toward no end, with no purpose.  If this is the point (as I wonder can only be surmised after reading all 7 volumes) then, it is unfortunate for me.  Perhaps I am too much of a modern “Western” reader, but I believe novels should have a goal and a purpose, other than just to show for the sake of showing. 

Published by Penguin Classics, 2004
Challenges: N/A
Source: Owned Copy
Rating: 3.0/5.0

9 Comments on “Review: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

  1. Awwww. I LOVED this book. I found it incredibly meaningful and beautiful. Proust is able to explain emotions like no one I’ve ever read before. I’m sad you didn’t like it as much as I did. :(. I know that a lot of people dislike this book, but it’s one of those books I loved so much that I didn’t want to review it because I didn’t want to read comments from people who didn’t like it. Haha.


    • Haha – Sorry! I wanted to like it – I wanted to LOVE It! I just couldn’t. Still, I do plan on reading all seven volumes eventually. I have volumes 2 & 4 (not sure how that happened)… so I’ll get there. 4 (Sodom & Gomorrah) sounds most interesting to me.


      • My husband Derik is obsessed with Proust and made a goal to read all of them. I think he’s currently in the middle of The Fugitive. He said that Sodom & Gomorrah was his favorite, and I think Guermantes Way he said was the most boring. He told me about this passage in Sodom & Gomorrah that compares homosexuality to something about bees and pollonation … it sounds really beautiful. (Is that how you spell “pollonation?” Looks wierd.)


    • Oh, excellent! I’m glad you’re joining us for that – it should be interesting. I’ve read the group before (Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller) but it’s been a few years.. I’ve been craving re-exposure. I’m going to read some Whitman for this, too – as he was certainly influenced by this movement (although he was more a humanist – so that makes it more interesting, to take a religiously inclined school of thought and apply it to humanism and Nature).


      • Yes! I’ve wanted to read Civil Disobedience for awhile and this seems to be the perfect opportunity. Also, I hate Louisa May Alcott so maybe reading other people’s posts about her will help me appreciate her more. 🙂


      • Lol. I haven’t read any L.M. Alcott. I had planned to read Little Women, but I’m currently re-watching the Friends t.v. series on DVD and the episode I just watched has Rachel ruining the book (Little Women) for Joey, because he ruined Stephen King’s The Shining for Rachel… so now I know who dies, who marries whom, etc. I’ll have to wait a few years, try to forget what I heard, and then read the book. Frustrating – because I’ve had the book no my shelf for about 5 years!


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