Proust and the Multiverse

A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.  

This could be taken as dialogues from Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or, Everything Everywhere All At Once, both 2022 movies flying high on the trending theme of multiple universes. But of course, the excerpt is Proust’s, and the universes he refers to are internal ones.

The above quote is taken from In Search of Lost Time Volume V: The Captive and The Fugitive (343), as the narrator Marcel acknowledges the infinite views that can arise from personal experiences of different individuals filtered through their own subjective lens. There are as many viewpoints as there are people, therefore, every object or event can evoke a variety of perspectives and responses. Subjectivity is Proust’s master stroke. Take this other excerpt from the same volume. As Marcel awakens in the morning:

… from my bed, I hear the world awake, now to one sort of weather, now to another! Yes, I have been forced to whittle down the facts, and to be a liar, but it is not one universe, but millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning. (V:250)

Today, November 18th, is the centenary of Proust’s death at the age of 51 (1871-1922). A look at his contemporaries could help us place him in a historical context and probably source the influence of his introspective sensitivity and his ultra-reflexive writing. Again, the disclaimer here is that, I’m no Proust scholar… mere ripples out of my own tiny universe. I can think of the following iconic figures as I consider the historical context of Proust’s writing.

It was the era of psychoanalysis. I’m sure Freud (1856-1939) would have been eager to apply his own theory to explain the case of Marcel’s longing for his mother’s goodnight kiss as he lies in bed waiting for her to come up to his room every night. And then there was Carl Jung, (1875 – 1961), whose theory on personality and the unconscious could have sparked some light into Marcel’s epiphany of the involuntary memories: ephemeral flashbacks that fuel his imaginative mind with creative thoughts. It’s such kind of subliminal emergence of Time past that fills him with joy and meaning.

And of course, there are the other writers whom Marcel has mentioned in the book, Henry James (1843-1916) whose brother is also a prominent psychologist of the time, William James (1842-1910), across the Atlantic. Another notable, Marcel’s enthusiasm is heightened when talking about Dostoevsky (1821-1881), the master of characterizing the human psyche.  

And what’s with all the space travel idea, flying from star to star, while the Wright brothers had just successfully flown the very first aeroplane only in 1903? Huge imagination and insight for one to think of multiverses at that time. I’m not sure what the original French word is. Those who read In Search of Lost Time in French, is the word the same as its English translation, ‘universe’? (V: 250, 343)

Reading this sparked a personal flashback as I remember my experience of visiting “The Infinity Mirrored Room” created by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto a few years ago. Infinite reflections from these tiny silver balls:

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Having said all the above about Proust’s sensitivity to subjective universes, here’s the rub. It is utterly ironic that these insights are taken from Volume V: The Captive and The Fugitive. Why, here in this volume, Marcel has taken Albertine captive in his parents’ home where he stays while in Paris. He first met Albertine in Balbec; she has now become his lover/mistress. No, she isn’t in chains, but the restraints Marcel puts on her is psychological rather than physical. He tracks her every move, “whenever the door opened I gave a start.” (494) In reality, there just might be two captives in that house, Albertine and Marcel himself, both caught in a psychological tug of war, maintaining a fragile relationship based on lies and evasiveness.

As much as he knows about his own thoughts and feelings, or even that of his housekeeper Francoise’s, Marcel’s empathy does not extend to Albertine’s universe. He might think his keeping her in his house is for her own good, “to save her from her orgiastic life which Albertine had led before she met me.” (474). Yet his ‘love’ for her is built upon his own possessiveness and jealousy; his displeasure with her intensifies when he learns it’s with other women that she seeks intimacy. Eventually, fleeing a stifling life, gasping for the air of freedom, Albertine leaves the house abruptly one morning. The captive now becomes the fugitive.

The events that follow are like a test of Marcel’s love for Albertine, showing if it is genuine or merely self-indulgence, egotism, or even just lust. Spoiler Alert from here on.

Marcel has never gone out to look for the fugitive. Until one day, he gets the news that Albertine has died in a horse-riding accident. Surely there is grief and pain in the immediate aftermath, but what does he miss most? “I needed her presence, her kisses.” (642) While he goes on to reminisce the good and the bad sides of Albertine, not long after that he has given her up for another:

The memory of Albertine had become so fragmentary that it no longer caused me any sadness and was no more now than a transition to fresh desires, like a chord which announces a change of key. And indeed, any idea of a passing sensual whim being ruled out, in so far as I was still faithful to Albertine’s memory, I was happier at having Andrée in my company than I would have been at having an Albertine miraculously restored… my tenderness for her, both physically and emotionally, had already vanished. (809-810)

“like a chord which announces a change of key…” O the fickleness of desire! The deceits of hidden motives and the capricious emotion one calls love. Marcel might be insightful in acknowledging multiple universes within individuals, pure love remains elusive. Dr. Strange crushes his enemies from the multiverse spectacularly, but the beast that lurks within oneself might be more formidable a foe to conquer.

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In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust: A Movie Reviewer’s Long Take

“Life is too short, and Proust is too long.” ­­– Anatole France, French writer and poet

Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Nobel laureate Anatole France died in 1924, three years short of seeing the publication of the complete seven volumes of Proust’s autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time.

My reading journey began in 2013 when I read the first two volumes, Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove, as a Read Along on Ripple Effects. For reasons I can’t recall, it took me a few years to get through the third volume The Guermantes Way, finishing at the beginning of 2018. After that, I thought, that would be all for me.

I’m glad I came across Emma’s Book Around the Corner in January of this year to learn that 2022 is the Centenary of Proust’s death (July 10, 1871 – Nov. 18, 1922). That prodded me to finish up the remaining three volumes. Also, since I own the Modern Library six-volume box set, I hate to see it as just a decorative item, however smart it does look.

So glad I finally finish the last three volumes this year in nine months, just in time for the centenary of Proust’s death in November: Vol. IV Sodom and Gomorrah, Vol. V The Captive and The Fugitive (originally in two volumes), and Vol. VI Time Regained. For me, a hobby Proust reader, not until I come to the last volume Time Regained do I realize the significance of the first three volumes and why Proust writes in such minute details about the narrator’s childhood and youthful experiences.

There are many websites and scholastic discussions on this 4,300 page autobiographical novel. Instead of summarizing––an impossible task for me––I’ll pick out those passages or ideas that have stirred up some ripples within me filtered through the lens of a movie reviewer, hopefully offering something that’s different and easy to chew.

At the end of Volume VI there are over 200 pages listing characters, places, and themes. Some of the subjects in the 44 pages of Index to Themes include beauty, brothels, dreams, literature, language, music, painting, politics, the Dreyfus Affair, anti-semitism, war, love, sexuality, old age, death… just to name a few. Imagine you’re standing by a smorgasbord of a huge array of culinary offerings, yes including those that are hard to digest or don’t agree with your system, and you can only eat so much, of course you would pick and choose your favourite foods. So, here’s what’s on my plate at this buffet.

In the last part of Vol. VI: Time Regained, the narrator discovers the crucial dimension of Time. Surely, Time over the years has rendered many people he has had crossed path with in his life frail and infirmed, or lost their good looks due to ageing, and some have died, like Swann. But the subliminal power of memories allows him to relive his childhood experiences once again and see these people reappear in his mind as he had known them in his youth. His memories have preserved them like they have not grown old.

So the end of this long book brings readers back to the beginning. It’s not so much about going back, but rather, bringing the past to the present as the two form a continuation of life. Yes, a virtual back to the future.

A reader bearing with him from the beginning and now reaching this eureka moment can feel the narrator’s joy in discovering this secret chamber deep in his psyche where he, unknowingly, has stored up treasured moments of his past. The length of the book could well be a virtual reality as we see his life unfold at a slow pace, then vicariously feel the joy of the discovery of this hidden, mental treasure trove years later. Sharing such ecstasy with readers has now become the purpose of his writing:

The happiness which I was feeling was a product not of a purely subjective tension of the nerves which isolated me from the past, but on the contrary of an enlargement of my mind, within which the past was re-forming and actualizing itself , giving me –– but alas! only momentarily––something whose value was eternal. This I should have liked to bequeath to those who might have been enriched by my treasure. (VI: 513)

The above quote found towards the end of the long book brings readers back to the beginning. Many movies are just like this, a bookend finish: The last scenes bring viewers back to the beginning scenes, revealing their significance and then move on to wrap up the whole work. That’s the feeling I got when reading the last volume, Time Regained. Proust brings us back to the pleasure of enjoying the madeleine soaked in tea, the ringing of the bell on the garden gate when he was a child waiting impatiently for his mother to see Swann off so she could come up to kiss him goodnight, Combray memories, the Swann and the Guermantes way––precious scenes to go one full circle back to the beginning–––to regain Time, to cherish a life in continuity. Call it the Circle of Life if you will, but to the narrator, the present has never been separated from the past.

Another ripple from my mental pond is how mindful the narrator is in his everyday living. BTW, he is also called Marcel, so I take it as Proust’s own view of things. His exceptional sensitivity and the minute details in his observation and introspection form the signature of his book.

As I read how he’d stop and see things and people with incisive perception, a movie quote comes to mind. Nope, not from any old sage but spoken time and again by a high school wise guy who wants to play hooky for a day. In a very Proustian posture, Ferris Beuller (Matthew Broderick) lies in bed one morning as he considers a good reason for skipping school that day:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you can miss it.” –– from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986, directed by John Hughes.

Ferris Bueller might not have read Proust, but just shows how relevant Proust can be in contemporary life.

More Proust pebbles in the pond coming up…

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Proust posts on Ripple Effects:

Proust Read Along: Swann’s Way Part I, Combray

Proust Read Along: The Swann and Gatsby Foil

Proust Read Along: Within a Budding Grove

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

Out of the Budding Grove

When I picked up Swann’s Way earlier in March, I had no idea that 2013 is the 100th Anniversary of its publication. Now in hindsight, I’m all the more excited with this serendipitous selection for a Read-Along. And what discoveries I’ve made reading Proust!

Six months later in September, I started Vol. II Within A Budding Grove, allowing myself and any fellow reader two months to finish this 730 page volume.

Within A Budding Grove Modern Library

I reiterate, I’ve encountered thickets blocking the way through the budding grove, but I must say, the enjoyment I’ve reaped from slashing and plowing through it is greater than my frustration. All in all, coming out of it feels like finding my way through a corn maze. Out I come dazed but gratified.

I’ve posted some thoughts on Part One of Within A Budding Grove here. This latter part is about Balbec, a seaside resort the adolescent narrator travels with his Grandmother to stay for the summer to recuperate his health. Like his memories of Combray, Proust’s description of Balbec is detailed and colourful. He relays to his reader his journey, the scenery, the Grand Hotel they stay in, its guests and their social hierarchical interactions, his new-formed friendship with the painter Elstir who introduces him to the band of girls the young narrator admires but is too shy to greet on his own, Albertine, Andrée, Rosemonde, Gisele…

The original title of this volume is In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs) which I think is spot on. But, the budding grove is an apt metaphor too for his adolescent self discoveries of love and passion. And in one hilarious scene with Albertine, Proust has shown he can be a writer for Saturday Night Live any time. Too long to quote here but well worth the read. (p. 700-701 in case you want to skip the first 699 pages.)

And young Marcel is ever in-touch with his own feelings for these girls, especially Albertine. Here is his honest analysis:

At the start of a new love as at its ending, we are not exclusively attached to the object of that love, but rather the desire to love from which it well presently arise (and, later on, the memory it leaves behind)… (p. 676)

Ahh… romancing a desire and a future memory.

What about Gilberte, Swann’s daughter, with whom the young narrator is so obsessed earlier? To his credit, young Marcel has a full grasp of his own psyche. Why? It’s all a matter of Habit, he reasons. Since Gilberte has snubbed him, he needs to forget her and let go of any form of Habit reminding him of his previous life in pursuing her. This trip to Balbec takes him away from the familiar and replaces his memories of Gilberte, and a static existence, with fresh experiences and revitalized senses. Getting out of his home in Paris and going away might just be the best medicine:

… one’s days being paralysed by a sedentary life, the best way to gain time is to change one’s place of residence. My journey to Balbec was like the first outing of a convalescent who needed only that to convince him that he was cured. (p. 301)

Even before he gets to Balbec, while on the train stopping at a station, the sensitive and observant narrator is already filled with delight as he sees a young milk-girl carrying a jar of milk walking to the train at the break of dawn:

She passed down the line of windows, offering coffee and milk to a few awakened passengers. Flushed with the glow of morning, her face was rosier than the sky. I felt on seeing her that desire to live which is reborn in us whenever we become conscious anew of beauty and of happiness. (P. 318)

My own memories of the changing hue on those Bohemian Waxwings come to mind. Proust has effectively conveyed the power of association, the linking of words on a page to the reader’s own memory and the joy it had once elicited.

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Proust in Cabourg copy 1
Photo Source: franceculture.fr

Proust insists that In Search of Lost Time is not autobiographical, but said “The pleasure that an artist gives us, is to introduce us to another universe.” No matter, his writing relates closely to his life experiences, parallel universe if you will.

Balbec is the fictitious reconstruction of Cabourg, a seaside resort town in the Basse-Normandie region of France where Proust frequented between 1907-1914. While Proust explores voluntary and involuntary memories in his long work, he could well be weaving memories with imagination, fusing fiction with real life experiences, creating an intricate tapestry.

Lydia Davis, translator of the most recent edition of Swann’s Way (The Way by Swann’s), offers this insight: “this novel is not autobiography wearing a thin disguise of fiction but . . . fiction in the guise of autobiography.”

Right.

Whichever way you slice it, it’s still as delicious as madeleines dipped in tea.

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Some Relevant Links:

The TLS blog: French literary anniversaries, part 4 – Du côté de chez Swann

CLICK HERE to a webpage on Cabourg where you can see the video of The Grand Hotel, with Proust’s room still being kept there.

Proust in Cabourg

In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flowers, from The Modernism Lab at Yale University

Photo Source: franceculture.fr

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Half Way Through a Budding Grove

Swann’s Way Part I: Combray

Parts 2 & 3: Swann In Love

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Half Way Through a Budding Grove

Half way through reading In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II, Within A Budding Grove, I’ve discovered a key to enjoying Proust. Just as it’s best to eat madeleines by dipping them in tea before putting the moistened petite cakes in your mouth, the most enjoyable way to read Proust is lying in bed with an unhindered mind. In this most relaxed state, I’m at ease to stroll leisurely through a budding grove, or the thickets of a genius’s mind.

Within A Budding Grove Modern Library

So far, I’ve gone passed the narrator Marcel’s painful struggles with adolescent, unrequited love for M. Swann’s daughter Gilberte. In contrast, his crush for Mme Swann has been appreciated and normalized. Unlike the cool and aloof Gilberte, Mme Swann welcomes Marcel into their home warmly, including him in their family outings, and their home gatherings with their friends, thus allowing him an opportunity to meet his literary hero, the writer Bergotte.

And here’s the passage I’m most impressed by, so far. The man Bergotte is very different from the writer Marcel has encountered in his ‘divine writing’. The man appears to be very common, inarticulate even, and devoid of eloquence, a man who spent his childhood in a ‘tasteless household’. Marcel is shocked by this discovery, and scrambles to come to terms with such dissonance. In a most ingenious analysis, the young Marcel comes to this conclusion:

But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them… To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface… is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. (p. 175)

As I read these few pages, Jane Austen came to mind. A writer who had lived her short life mainly in a rural setting, her associations parochial and far from ‘high society’, and yet could transport herself and thus her readers to a different world from her mundane social environs. Her imagination soared as it took flight with her incisive observations of human nature.

… the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror… genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected. (p. 175-176)

The adolescent Marcel’s disillusionment with the discrepancy between the man and writer Bergotte leads him to an uplifting insight:

The day on which the young Bergotte succeeded in showing to the world of his readers the tasteless household in which he had spent his childhood, and the not very amusing conversations between himself and his brothers, was the day on which he rose above the friends of his family, more intellectual and more distinguished than himself; they in their fine Rolls-Royces might return home expressing due contempt for the vulgarity of the Bergottes; but he, in his modest machine which had at last ‘taken off,’ soared above their heads. (p. 176)

Yes, more Proust’s words than mine on this post. Many other highlighted passages and surprising delights, but will have to wait till I’ve come out of the budding grove the end of November. If you’re interested, you’re welcome to join me in a read-along of In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II: Within A Budding Grove.

CLICK HERE to my wrap-up post: Out of the Budding Grove

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Related Posts:

Proust Read-along Swann’s Way Part I: Combray (Featured in ‘Freshly Pressed’)

The Swann and Gatsby Foil

What Was Jane Austen Really Like? Reading Tomalin and Shields

In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

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Another Proust Read-Along

… as if we’re not busy enough?

Truth is, reading Proust calms me down. Maybe because I’ve to slow down, really slow down, to savor, and decipher. These two have become a fused enjoyment for me while reading Vol. 1 of In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way.

After finishing that, I quickly ordered the next volume Within a Budding Grove, but have since put it aside… until now, thanks to Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza, who read Vol. I with me. She’s right, of course, as she wrote on her invitation post for Vol. II:

‘No one should read Proust alone.”

So here we are, embarking on another Proust Read-Along, In Search of Lost Time Vol. II, Within A Budding Grove.

Within A Budding Grove Modern Library

Yes, this is a slow read, as always on Ripple Effects. We plan to finish and post our thoughts on November 30. I just might add in a mid-way post around end of October.

You are invited to join us for another slow and enjoyable ride.

If quantifying makes it easier to grasp, counting the days in October and November, and the 730 pages in my Modern Library Classic edition, you only need to read about 12 pages every day. A very doable plan.

Those of you who have read it all… how about a re-read now?

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First Post for Vol. II:

Half Way Through A Budding Grove

My posts on Vol. I, Swann’s Way:

Part 1: Combray (my ‘Freshly Pressed’ post)

Wrap-up: The Swann and Gatsby Foil

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Proust Read-Along: The Swann and Gatsby Foil

“He knew perfectly well as a general truth that human life is full of contrasts…” Swann’s Way, P. 510

While plowing through Part 2, ‘Swann In Love’, I happened to reread The Great Gatsby. Thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s new movie adaptation, I’m sure many more are doing the same. And oh what interesting contrasts Swann and Gatsby make.

Both are deeply in love, yearning for a woman who seems to be utterly elusive. Gatsby frantically maximizes to attract Daisy; Swann willingly minimizes to reach Odette. From a poor background, Gatsby grabs whatever means he can to build his wealth; Swann whose niche belongs to high society, has to pretend that he is nobody special, stooping to ‘a lower social sphere’ (P. 285) to be near Odette.

That distance is more than social. Swann is willing to forsake his cultured tastes of art and music, to lay aside even his own research and writing on Vermeer (Odette: I’ve never heard of him, is he alive still? P. 279). Swann is willing to lay down his interests and privileges for a woman who is uncouth in the sophistication of high society, who has superficial views and flashy tastes, and alas, even promiscuous.

However, love transforms all deficiencies and blemishes into ethereal beauty. Here’s how Swann visualizes Odette. To him, she is like Sipporah, Jethro’s daughter, Botticelli’s fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel:

Zipporah, Jethro's Daughter by Botticelli

Following Odette to her ‘little nucleus’ at the Verdurins, Swann downplays his association with prominent people and tries not to be so outspoken with his knowledge and opinion about art and music.

When he is alone with Odette, he has taken her values and interests:

he tried at least to ensure that she should be happy in his company, tried not to counteract those vulgar ideas, that bad taste which she displayed on every possible occasion, and which in fact he loved, as he could not help loving everything that came from her, which enchanted him even. (P. 348)

Is this measurement of incompatibility in tastes inherently snobbish? Yes, Swann (or Proust) is sensitive enough to analyze this in depth. What is ‘taste’ anyway, or the intellectual beliefs with which he has been raised from the days of his youth?

… the objects we admire have no absolute value in themselves, that the whole thing is a matter of period and class, is no more than a series of fashions, the most vulgar of which are worth just as much as those which are regarded as the most refined. (P. 350)

So, all for love of Odette, Swann is willing to give up going to the Jockey Club, lunching with the Prince of Wales, or his love of Holland, or a visit to the Versailles (‘which bored her to tears’):

And so he denied himself the pleasure of visiting those places, delighted to tell himself that it was for her sake, that he wished only to feel, to enjoy things with her. (p. 350)

Those colorful shirts Gatsby has hoarded, Odette would have loved them, just like Daisy, and his mansion too… if only Swann had resided in a more prestigious address, somewhere ‘more worthy of him’ instead of his house on the Quai d’Orleans. (P. 346)

Odette’s fondness of Swann begins to wane as Forcheville enters into the picture. She becomes even harder to get. Swann is burned with jealousy, anger and bitterness. Yet he cannot forget her. His love even grows stronger for her, despite receiving an anonymous letter defaming her. Why,

People often say that, by point out to a man the faults of his mistress, you succeed only in strengthening his attachment to her… he had begun to desire the possession — as if that were ever possible — of another person. (P. 517)

Perhaps that is a mark of love: the demand for exclusivity. This is exactly what Gatsby wants Daisy to admit, that she has never loved Tom, that she has always loved him. “Oh, you want too much,” she cried to Gatsby.

But Swann is more fortunate. He knows he must gain back Odette’s full and exclusive devotion and somehow he does. I’m glad to read in Part 3 that eventually Odette does become Mme Swann. I’d be curious to know how that comes about. (Proust’s strategy to get us go on reading the next volumes?)

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Part 3 is an enjoyable and much swifter read as the narrator remembers his childhood in Paris drown in unrequited love (so far, not sure about how this unfolds later) for Swann and Odette’s daughter Gilberte. Because of his love for Gilberte, the boy is infatuated with M and Mme Swann as well. His crush on the elusive Gilberte parallels Swann’s love for Odette in their earlier days.

The last sentence in Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, like that in The Great Gatsby, ends with a haunting remark on memory and the past:

The places we have known… were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

There are much more to be said, but nothing can replace the actual experience of reading Proust first hand. From March to May as I plowed through Swann’s Way, there had been up’s and down’s. Numerous times long sentences entangled, yet the very next moment could be so beautiful and lucid it dissipated all frustrations. I now look forward to Volume II.

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Thanks for joining me in this Read-Along. Finish or not, you’re welcome to share your thoughts. Throw your two pebbles into the pond and make some ripples. If you have written a post, do let me know so I can link it here.

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza

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CLICK HERE to my post on Part 1 of Swann’s Way: Combray

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