Having just finished reading SWANN'S WAY for the fourth time, it remains at the top of my short list of favorite novels. Influenced by John Ruskin, Henri Bergson, Wagner and the fiction of Anatole France, Proust (1871-1922), in his "universality and deep awareness of human nature," is considered by Harold Bloom to be "as primordial as Tolstoy," and "as wise as Shakespeare" (Bloom, GENIUS, p. 218).
Most recently, I re-experienced SWANN'S WAY through the Modern Library's new, 2003 revision of the Montcrieff/Kilmartin translation of Proust's IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, Volumes I through VI. Through an illuminating series of what Walter Pater has called "privileged moments," or what James Joyce might call "epiphanies," the narrative in SWANN'S WAY tells a dual story of unrequited love. The taste of a madeleine pastry brings with it a flood of childhood memories from the narrator's youth spent in Combray and Paris, mostly relating to his infatuation with Charles Swann's daughter, Gilberte, and Swann's obsessive affair with a courtesan, Odette de Crecy. Although Swann realizes Odette is not his type (p. 543) and suspects she is a liar, his jealous love for her consumes him. Odette is unsophisticated, has lesbian tendencies, and is rumored to be a prostitute. Even after he acknowledges he has "wasted years of [his] life" on Odette (p. 543), Swann is nevertheless powerless to end their turbulent relationship. For Proust, human love becomes synonymous with suffering, failure, exhaustion, ruin, and despair (p. xviii) except, that is, for the love between a mother and son (symbolized in SWANN'S WAY by a memorable goodnight kiss, which leaves the young narrarator longing to tell his mother, "Kiss me just once more")(p. 15). SWANN'S WAY is not a feel-good novel, to be sure; for Proust, there are no limits to human suffering. He believed that any intrusion upon one's solitude is damaging, that we can only understand our pain if we approach it from a distance, and that friendship is somewhere on a scale between fatigue and ennui (Bloom, GENIUS, p. 218).
In the end, Volume I of Proust's IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME is about the lost and wasted years of human existence, and it prefaces things to come in subsequent volumes. There is a satisfying intellectual profit to be derived from the narrative of SWANN'S WAY. Proust reveals through his use of small illuminations that one may find rewards beyond the worldly ways of the human condition. Serious readers will find uncommon pleasure in the experience of reading SWANN'S WAY. For me, reading SWANN'S WAY is the best example of what it means to read "a good book."