Memory, Nostalgia, and the Joys of Proust

After a month of deliberate, leisurely reading, I arrived at the last page of Swann’s Way. Today is October 19, however, and I finished the book a few weeks ago. Which means I kind of freaked myself out with the idea of writing another blog post. I wrote my first entry without any problems. But for some reason, posting a second time made me feel solipsistic, and more than a little neurotic, so I buried myself in my current writing project, happy to deny the fact that I had started a blog.

So I guess I just have to embrace my idiotic neurosis and enjoy the Thrill of the Blog, which means letting the world know I enjoyed reading Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.

First, it should be noted that Swann’s Way has the sort of slippery, subtle plot that means “no plot at all” in genre fiction. As I’m currently writing genre fiction, this is how I initially labeled the plot of Swann’s Way: that it has no plot at all.

However, as my true heart’s desire is for literary fiction, which is often full of brilliant words and beautiful sentences in which Little Happens, but the soul is often Laid Bare, then it’s easy enough to see that Swann’s Way does, indeed, have a significant plot. Major plot. Maybe the best plot of all. There are many raving Proust-fans out there who would agree with that statement.

The narrator (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) has a deep longing for the people, places, and emotions he felt as a child, which he can only access through memory, and he illustrates how memories are strange, elusive things often beyond our control. Sometimes we can summon a memory by concentrating hard enough, but often, memory is summoned through our senses—smells, sounds, touch, images, feelings—that remind us of the last time we felt that way, smelled that perfume, heard that piece of music, touched silk that soft. Our minds have a mind of their own.

And so this is the plot of Swann’s Way. The narrator is grappling with memory, and why it operates as it does, and how the memories in our youth are so strong that they transform into something more substantial in our minds, into our beliefs.

And then we grow up, and the world changes around us, and no longer looks as it does in our memories, which are now attached to our beliefs. And when the world doesn’t match our beliefs, we experience internal conflict.

The narrator in Swann’s Way faces this dilemma, and as a grown man, he longs to see the world again as it looked when he was a child. The fact that his memories no longer match the world before him makes him feel he has lost, not his memories, but his beliefs. Was the world truly so much lovelier when he was a child? Or is that a trick of memory?

The narrator isn’t sure. Without using the word nostalgia, he sure makes a compelling case for defining exactly what it means to suffer from it: “But when a belief disappears, there survives it—more and more vigorous so as to mask the absence of the power we have lost to give reality to new things—a fetishistic attachment to the old things which our belief once animated, as if it were in them and not in us that the divine resided and as if our present lack of belief had a contingent clause, the death of the Gods.”

So here is the book’s central conflict: the death of the Gods—the loss of the divine that resides within us. How much more strife can one expect in a story? Swann’s Way has the highest stakes a book can have.

The closing words of the novel are also quite beautiful, and further illuminate the nostalgia the narrator is suffering from: “the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.”

How much more pessimistic can a human possibly be? To equate memory with regret? Wow. Is that a true statement? Yes. Memory can mean regret. But I would be as ready to say we can equate a memory with fondness as much as regret. I draw on happy memories as proof that happiness exists. So when I face a difficult situation, my brain can feed me this thought: I was happy once before, therefore, I will be happy again.

I know, I know. That is JUST the sort of bubbling optimism that literary fiction shuns. Bring on the depression! Bring on the hopelessness! Bring on… the REGRET! Life is meant to be dramatic, damn it! Where is the drama in optimism? THERE IS NONE. So don’t give me the release of desire and Buddha’s enlightenment. Give me pain, give me death, give me… NOSTALGIA! I need to long for things. Long for people who have died, for buildings that have been torn down, for fashions that no longer exist, for horses and carriages that once filled the streets. I need to long for everything outside my control… including my own memories.

And knowing that I have no control over my memories… memories that inform and create my beliefs… I will also make the mistake of wondering if my memories are where my divinity lies, where my very soul resides… and then wonder if I have killed my own Gods.

I think everyone faces this dilemma in life, especially in adolescence, which is why Swann’s Way is labeled by some as The Greatest Novel of All Time. As a teenager, I found my way out of this personal conundrum as follows: that one need only look at an Alzheimer’s patient to know that our soul does not reside in our memories. Belief does, but not our soul. Divinity is far more profound than memory. Though our egos (asshole things that they are) would like to trick us into believing that’s not the case.

I had many other thoughts as I finished reading Swann’s Way. This is definitely a great novel to read to kick-start Deep Thinking, Reflection, and spur on New Ideas. That’s why it’s been labeled Greatest Novel of All Time.

My favorite part of reading Swann’s Way in September definitely arrived when I watched the film Frances Ha. Frances Ha is a wonderful movie about a 27-year-old woman trying to figure out how to make her life work. As she bumbles her way through her troubles, Frances Ha has the idea to go to Paris one weekend and to read Swann’s Way on the trip.

And she reads the same copy I did, the same translation, with the same book cover. How awesome is that?? The film makes funny jokes about Proust. Proust jokes! Really!! I loved the movie Frances Ha, I loved that my friend April and I read Swann’s Way at the same time I saw Frances Ha, and I loved that life is full of coincidences like this. Because sometimes we grow up and our brains are able to make a memory as strong as a memory we made in our childhoods. Seeing Frances Ha reading Swann’s Way in the movie, I was overcome with so much joyful laughter, so much instant “Wow, This is Awesome!!” that I felt bad for Proust’s narrator, who can only equate memory with regret.

Life is so much more magical than that.

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