The Commencement of an Epic

The contribution of France to the world of literature cannot be taken lightly. Over the centuries, the nation has produced some of the world’s most revered writers who, in turn, gifted the world with some of the most beloved, if not most studied works of literature. Who has not heard of Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) and his masterpieces Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Or Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) and his beloved works, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers? Not to be outdone, France also produced Émile Zola (1840-1902), Jules Verne (1828-1905), Voltaire (1694-1778), Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), and George Sand (1804-1876). The excellence of French writers continues in the contemporary as it has produced 16 awardees of the Nobel Prize in Literature, including the most recent Nobel laureate in literature, Annie Ernaux (2022). In fact, France has produced the most number of awardees of the most prestigious literary prize out there.

One of the most revered names in French literature is Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust, more popularly known as Marcel Proust. Proust’s interest in reading was cultivated at a young age; his father wrote books about medicine and hygiene while his mother was also well-read. Despite his frail health – he suffered from asthma from a young age – his interest in literature never waned; it was one part of his education in which he excelled. While at school, he wrote for class magazines and also wrote a regular column n the journal Le Mensuel. In 1892, Proust was involved in the establishment of the literary review Le Banquet. Post-university, Proust found himself more and more involved in the world of writing and publication. 1896 was a monumental year for Proust as he would publish Les plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Days), a collection of short stories, essays, and poems.

The transition to full prose, however, was no walk in the park. In 1895, Proust attempted to write his first novel, Jean Santeuil. However, he never got around to completing it, fully abandoning the autobiographical novel in 1899. The book would be published posthumously in 1952. Following the failed attempt at writing his first novel, Proust spent the following years writing translations and annotating the works of the English art historian John Ruskin. 1908 marked another pivotal point in Proust’s career as he picked up the pen again. He wrote pastiches of other writers, an exercise that allowed Proust to find his voice as a writer. With momentum on his side, he started working on what would be his career’s defining work a year later, À la recherche du temps perdu.

“In summer, bad weather is no more than a passing fit of superficial ill-temper expressed by the permanent, underlying fine weather, a very different thing from the fluid and unstable-fine weather of winter, its very opposite, in fact, for has it not (firmly established in the soil on which it has taken solid form in dense masses of foliage over which the rain may pour in torrents without weakening the resistance offered by their real and lasting happiness) hoisted, to keep them flying throughout the season, in the village streets, on the walls of the houses and in their gardens, its silken banners, violet and white.”

~ Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

A journey across French literature would not be complete without À la recherche du temps perdu, a novel that would be one of the most revered titles not just in French literature but in literature in general. Shortly referred to in French as La Recherche, the book was published in seven volumes with a whopping page count of over 3,200 pages. The book earned him scores of praise from literary critics and even from his fellow writers such as Graham Greene W. Somerset Maugham. The books were first translated into English by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, giving it the title Remembrance of Things Past. Scott Moncrieff, however, was not able to translate the seventh book as passed away before it would be completed. The task of translating the last volume was taken by other translators. The book was later revised and the title changed to In Search of Lost Time, the literal translation of the book’s French title.

The first of the seven volumes comprising the novel, Du Côté de chez Swann, was finally published in 1913 after it was rejected by several publishers as many were ambivalent about the potential of the book, including Nobel Laureate in Literature, André Gide. These rejections prompted Proust to personally finance the book’s publication. The rest, as they say, was history. The book enchanted and engaged readers all over, thus, elevating Proust to literary greatness. Gide even wrote a letter to Proust, apologizing for the role he played in the refusal of publishers; Gide referred to it as one of the most serious mistakes of his life. Despite these obstacles Proust had to overcome, he managed to rise above it all as the success of the first book paved the way for more books.

The first book was translated into English in 1922 as Swann’s Way; it is sometimes translated as The Way by Swann’s. The story was narrated through the perspective of an anonymous character. “For a long time, I went to bed early,” he opened the story followed by a rumination on sleep. He related how sleep alters his surroundings and his reality. At times, he wakes up without a clear sense of where he is or of his own age. There is a momentary lull when he had to gather his thoughts and process everything in order to make sense of his reality, thus, reclaiming his identity: “Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, and by the immobility of our conceptions of them. For it always happened that when I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything would be moving round me through the darkness: things, places, years.”

As if to recreate the motion of gathering one’s bearings after waking up, the narrator started recounting his childhood memories. In flashing back to the past, he transported the readers to his family’s country home in Combray, a quaint fictional town in the French countryside. There was one particular memory that he built the story around: his encounter with the titular Swann. Charles Swann was a friend of his grandparents. The young narrator was unable to go to sleep as he was deprived of his mother’s goodnight kiss, one of the things he look forward to; the adults were downstairs, preoccupied with entertaining their guest, Charles Swann. The narrator stayed up until Swann left. This was his only memory of Combray, one that he would repress only to be resurrected by the taste of a madeleine.

 “The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seems such things in the meantime, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had disassociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the shapes of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness.

~ Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

The eureka moment of some sort would go down in literary history as one of the most memorable scenes. It also subtly laid out what would be the backbone of the book. The passage of time and the power of memory were seminal subjects upon which Proust built Swann’s Way brick-by-brick. Memory is a theme that is ubiquitous in literature, but under Proust’s masterful storytelling, memory was transformed into a powerful literary tool. In its exploration of memory, the book was brimming with philosophical intersections as the author’s and the narrator’s voices converge; there was no robust plot as it was secondary to the greater picture Proust had in mind. The prelude to memory was captured in the book’s first section, Overture; the book was divided into four sections.

To capture and arouse memory, Proust subtly used the human senses. Sights, sounds, and tastes triggered memories. These memories were primarily built around the days he spent in Combray; the book’s second section was titled Combray. As can be the case with most, some memories filled the narrator with pleasure, such as the memory of eating a tea-soaked toast offered by his grandfather; this was, after all, the starting point of the story. Meanwhile, Combray came alive as memories came rushing in. Proust takes the readers across the countryside with vivid details of domestic life forming an integral part of Proust’s design. The narrator’s childhood memories were filled with relatives. It underscored the complexities of relationships, from family circles to neighborly interactions. Gossip and prejudices also abounded.

But for the narrator, confronting the past served a more important purpose. Traveling to the past prompted the narrator to assess these memories’ role in his growth, both as an individual and as a writer. In retrospect, he was examining the details that make him up. As philosophical musings intersect, a moment of enlightenment seized the narrator as it slowly dawned on him that he and who he is is a convergence of the different influences from the people surrounding him. Who we are cannot be fully bifurcated from that of our parents, grandparents, and our relatives. Even loyal family servants and casual family acquaintances can leave their mark on us. They leave with us indelible traces of themselves, some more remarkable than others, that the passage of time can obscure but never fully remove.

For the narrator one prominent character in his life was Charles Swann. The narrator’s single childhood memory of his visit – one that made him feel disappointment and anguish – has left a deep mark on the narrator that was imperceptible at the onset. He was enamored by Swann and his story; Swann’s story would form the book’s second prominent strand. In Swann, he saw a reflection of himself. In imagining, examining, and understanding the lives and experiences of those around him, the narrator begins to understand more about himself. The narrator’s preoccupation with Swann was parallel to the narrator’s fascination with Gilberte, Swann’s daughter.

 “Climates that breathe amorous secrets and futile regrets may agree with an old disillusioned man like myself; but they must always provide fatal to a temperament which is still unformed. Believe me, the waters of that bay – more Breton than Norman – may exert a sedative influence, though even that is most of questionable value, upon a heart which, like mine, is no longer unbroken, a heart for whose wounds there is no longer anything to compensate.

~ Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

The heftiest part of the book, the third section titled Swann in Love, vividly captured Swann’s love for a former courtesan named Odette de Crécy. A man of refined taste for the arts, Swann was, at the same time, enchanted and intrigued: “albeit his admiration for the Florentine masterpiece was probably based upon his discovery that it had been reproduced in her, the similarity enhanced her beauty also, and rendered her more precious in his sight.” However, despite Swann’s efforts, Odette kept him at an arm’s length. It was a push-and-pull love story as Swann was uncertain of his position in Odette’s life. This was a book that was not bereft of disappointments. Swann still persisted with her even though she was not who he would typically be romantically involved with. There is a power behind his feelings for her that was never quite disclosed by the narrator, a mystery of some sort. It nevertheless gave the story a different texture. As the narrator would later on realize, human nature is so complex that there are some portions of it that remain unexplainable and unknowable.

One of the major mysteries of the novel surrounded the identity of the narrator. However, as the story moved forward, one can surmise, with the parallels between the narrator and the author, that the anonymous narrator was a conduit of the author and the memories he was sharing were his own. They also shared similar traits, such as their devotion to literature and reading. There was also an emphasis on the importance of re-reading a book in order to gain a different perspective, similar to the way that the narrator examined his memories through the evocation of the senses. The narrator and Proust also both loved their mothers. The book’s setting, Combray was inspired by the country town of Illiers where he spent long holidays during his childhood. The town, later on, adopted the name Illiers-Combray as a homage to both the writer and the book.

Gluing in all of the book’s wonderful elements was Proust’s writing. Beyond the exploration of memory and the complexities of human nature, one facet of the book that stood out was its attention to detail. The intricacy was a device to further evoked memory, amplifying the senses even more. For instance, the smell of furniture wafts through the air. The descriptions made the visuals more vivid, abetting the reader’s imagination. There was a candidness in how Proust captured the details of the simplest actions and objects. Proust’s devotion to details, however, can also be the book’s undoing. Pages of description were dedicated to inanimate objects which did not move the story forward. The long paragraphs can also be tedious.

Minor slanders, however, do not diminish the power that the book holds. Swann’s Way might be Proust’s first full-length prose but it was a remarkable debut. The voice of the narrator and the beauty of Proust’s language enchants the readers. The exploration of memory studied through the titular Swann and the narrator was its finest facet. But the book does not reduce itself to a mere recount of the author’s growth and development driven by a singular memory. In the story of Swann and the narrator, we read about the complexities of human relationships and of human nature in general. Both are integral in understanding ourselves and the process of how we get to be the person we are in the contemporary. Swann’s Way was a perfect start to one of the most studied and prominent works of literature. Proust has clearly laid out the foundations for a magnificent masterpiece that transcends and would transcend time.

“At that time, he was satisfying a sensual curiosity by experiencing the pleasures of people who live for love. He had believed he could stop there, that he would not be obliged to learn their sorrows; how small a thing her charm was for him now compared with the astounding terror that extended out from it like a murky halo, the immense anguish of not knowing at every moment what she had been doing, of not possessing her everywhere and always!”

~ Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way


Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

Finally! Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way is one of the books that have been sitting for the longest time on my bookshelf. I obtained a copy of the book back in 2015 but I had to put off reading the book after I learned it was part of a seven-volume novel, the remarkable In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past. Before I start reading the book, I wanted to obtain the rest of the books. And now that I have six of the seven books, there are no more reasons to keep me from reading the book.  Seven years thence, I already have six of the seven books and I deem it the right time to commence my journey into Proust’s prose. Swann’s Way, for certain, was no easy read. The anonymity of the narrator initially perplexed me. The long paragraphs of descriptions also overwhelmed me but I persisted for in this flurry of words, I was starting to recognize a beautiful and lyrical language that usually reels me in. My patience was repaid as the story started to take shape. Sure, it had no robust plot but the narrator’s musings and his observations of the people around him kept me invested. More importantly, I have gained some insight into Proust’s prose. I also got acquainted with themes and characters which I surmise will play seminal roles in the succeeding books. I can’t wait to read the rest of the books.

Book Specs

Author: Marcel Proust
Translator (from French): C.K. Scott Moncrieff
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publishing Date: February 1970
Number of Pages: 325
Genre: Literary


Swann’s Way tells two related stories, the first of which revolves around Marcel, a younger version of the narrator, and his experiences in, and memories of, the French town Combray. Inspired by the “gusts of memory” that rise up within him as he dips a Madeleine into hot tea, the narrator discusses his fear of going to bed at night. He is a creature of habit and dislikes waking up in the middle of the night not knowing where he is. (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871, in Auteuil, France. His father, Adrien Proust, was a prominent French pathologist and epidemiologist while his mother Jeanne Clémence (Weil) was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family from Alsace. Proust’s childhood was marked by the onset of chronic asthma attacks which continued throughout his life. His childhood years were spent at Illiers and Auteuil or at seaside resorts in Normandy with his maternal grandmother. When he was eleven, Proust enrolled at the Lycée Condorcet where he wrote for class magazines. However, his illness kept on disrupting his education. Despite his affliction, Proust excelled in literature. His illness also did not preclude him from serving a year (1889–90) in the French army; he was stationed at Coligny Barracks in Orléans.

Following his military service, Proust studied at the School of Political Sciences where he obtained licences in law (1893) and in literature (1895). Post-university, Proust was heavily involved in writing and publishing. In 1896, he finally published his first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Days), a collection of short stories; some of these short stories appeared during 1892–93 in the magazines Le Banquet and La Revue Blanche. From 1895 to 1899, Proust started working on Jean Santeuil, an autobiographical novel. Jean Santeuil, unfortunately, was abandoned and was never completed. Following his unsuccessful attempt at writing a novel, Proust spent several years writing translations and annotating the works of the English art historian John Ruskin.

1908 proved to be an important year in rediscovering the love for and development of Proust’s writing. Proust published a pastiche of other writers such as Balzac, Flaubert, Renan, Saint-Simon, and others of Proust’s favorite French authors called L’Affaire Lemoine in Le Figaro. This also allowed him to solidify his own writing style. A year later, he started to work on what would be his most prominent work, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past), with the first volume Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way) published in 1913. It was succeeded by À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, 1919), Le Côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way, 1920–1921), and Sodome et Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1921-1922).

Unfortunately, before he could complete the book, Proust passed away on November 18, 1922, due to pneumonia. The last three books were published posthumously and edited by his brother Robert: La Prisonnière (The Prisoner/The Captive, 1923), Albertine Adisparue (The Fugitive, 1925), and Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1927).