Novel, Story, and Swan’s Way

In reading Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, he reminded me of the part of E.M. Forester’s Aspects of the Novel where he laments that the novel’s primary purpose is to tell a story. Perhaps that is correct, even in this day and age when each novelist is urged to focus less on plot (the story) and more on character development (also the story, just a different and “better” story.

I’m not certain that Forester had read Proust. I’d be surprised if Delaney hadn’t. I’m also reading Swan’s Way, and the first thing that strikes me is that story (either character development or plot) is the secondary purpose of why Proust wrote and people read Swan’s Way. The book is about memory and time, not plot, nor as far as I can tell, the development of a character. I’m taking my time (if you will excuse the pun) in reading Swan’s Way. The book’s sentences are long and luxurious. They are rich with philosophical musing and almost nothing had happened in the novel so far (plot) and the character has not developed much despite having some interesting internal conflicts. My interest is held in Proust’s exploration of time and memory, in his philosophical musings on the subject. At first, the book was daunting. When was something going to happen? When would we see the narrator grow up a bit, become the man who sips the tea instead of the child who the adult is remembering in rich detail.

Delany warns against the use of flashbacks, especially long flashbacks. In many ways, Swan’s Way is all a flashback, a reflection on life. Small things have happened, visits from Swan, visits to relatives, conversations about art and literature.

I’ve read one other book that also explored memory and time. Nabakov’s Ada or Ardor. The entire novel is a dialog between two older people of the life they’ve lived together and apart from each other, while exploring the nature of reality through the differences of memory, while exploring the nature of time. In many ways the subject of the book is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. However, in Ada or Ardor, things happen quickly, the characters grow quickly. The exploration of time and memory is better mixed in with the living through time, and the framing of the narrative as memory is often lost. When it is restored, it almost comes as an intrusion.

I’ve a long way to go before I finish the book. Perhaps the cadence will change, events will start to happen, the pace will pick up, the narrator will grow. However, I suspect that the reason why Proust’s work is hailed as the greatest novel of the 20th century is because the primary purpose of the work is not to tell a story, but to explore his search for lost time.

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