I may have been familiar with the name of Proust, but I really didn't know much about what to expect when I started the book. I was even unsure whether Swann's Way really counted as a book, after all it's only part 1 of 7, and I discovered it's also been published in two separate sections itself. To make matters more confusing, the version that I read had the first two parts in the same volume. Part of the complication of reading an old, long, work in translation I suppose. Really the book falls into two (or maybe three?) parts, with quite distinct switches between them, although the themes and characters remain the same and they pick up on some of the same images. The change between the end of chapter 1, 'Combray', which brings to a close the discussion of the 'Overture', and the start of chapter 2, 'Swann in Love', is almost jarring- switching from first person to almost third person, though the story remains the same. It's interesting that though it is a novel of many different sections and different parts, the style is fairly fluid and almost stream of consciousness.
Apart from the many divisions and subdivisions, I knew that it was a novel about time and memory. The blurb on the back of my copy said that it was about "obsessive love", and both these things are true. But they seemed like fairly abstract ideas to start a novel with, so I really wasn't sure what I would find, and whether I would love it as much as other people did. Now I can't really speak for other people, but love it I did! I was enchanted by the way he described experiences like waking up in darkness and being disoriented about where you are:
Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our conception 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 revolved around me through the darkness: things, places, years. My body, still too heavy with sleep to move, would endeavour to construe from the pattern of its tiredness the position of its various limbs, in order to deduce therefrom the direction of the wall, the location of the furniture, to piece it together and give a name to the house in which it lay. (Moncrieff and Kilmartin trans.)
I really liked the attention given to small things, the details of everyday life, and how well he captured things like the experience of reading a book as a child. Most of all it is a really good book about memory, since it both talks about the action and triggers of memory and at the same time is the act of the narrator remembering, at times I thought it was just perfect, it made me feel nostalgic in a very generalised way. I also loved the sense of humour, the way the characters' foibles were wittily but lovingly portrayed.
But really this review has mostly been about the first part of the book, though it's true that the themes (and the characters etc.) go throughout the whole book, there really is quite a dramatic shift at the start of 'Swann in Love'. Most notably, the narrator switches from talking about his own experiences to someone else's, so that it is no longer an act of remembering and more an act of recounting. For another, the focus seemed to switch from 'time and memory' to 'obsessive love'. And I was not so keen on the obsessive love part. I found the characters a bit less sympathetic, there was more distance between us after all, and while it really was an evocative description of love and obsession it is a less pleasant topic I think. But I had fallen in love with the book earlier so I was willing to look on the bright side. Really this is still a very good book, but I found the reading process less joyful and progress was slower. Strange that I found it slower going in the part where there was a plot (kind of) to the part where there wasn't. Maybe this is very much a personal preference? But there were still some lovely passages about memory and music, and the relationship rang very true I think. Sad to read, but very true.
All in all I am very glad that I did read this, and I am looking forward to read Volume 2 in the future. I want to see more of the characters lives, I want more of the passages I loved, and I am really happy to have found a book that I enjoyed so much. And that is so conducive to starting conversations on trains.