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Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust (1913)

A Madeleine ignites a masterpiece

Liel Leibovitz
September 17, 2013

In one of Monty Python’s sharpest skits, a host of game show contestants take up the ultimate challenge: summarizing Proust. The first contestant—whose hobbies, we learn, include “strangling animals, golf, and masturbation”—gives it a go. “Proust’s novel,” he begins, “ostensibly tells of the irrevocability of time lost, the forfeiture of innocence through experience, the reinstatement of extra-temporal values of time regained, ultimately the novel is both optimistic and set within the context of a humane religious experience, re-stating as it does the concept of intemporality. In the first volume, Swann, the family friend, visits…” A gong cuts him off. He has failed, as anyone would who tried to capture the novel’s 4,215 pages and its richness of themes and observations in just a few sentences. This immeasurable vastness makes Swann’s Way and the six volumes that followed it an unparalleled peak not only of literature but of human thought as well. Writing about Proust, which he did often and eloquently, Walter Benjamin wondered if it couldn’t be said that the “quintessence of experience” was “to find out how very difficult it is to learn many things which apparently could be told in very few words.” This was the challenge of the great Talmudists, who realized that complications were necessary if we were ever to abandon the comforting but ultimately futile pursuit of clarity and replace it with a far more flawed but immensely more gratifying grasp of humanity’s granular imperfections. It was Proust’s challenge, too; the real voyage of discovery, he was fond of saying, consists not of seeing new vistas but of having new eyes.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.