Proust’s Way? (NY Review of Books)

By André Aciman

Swann’s Way
by Marcel Proust, translated from the French by Lydia Davis
Viking/Penguin, 468 pp., $27.95; $14.00 (paper)

We’ll say there are two kinds of novelists: the snail and the swallow. The swallow is quick, agile, and able to speed across long, tireless stretches. Nothing a swallow does goes wrong; mistaken turns are instantly corrected, bad weather is put to good use, and poor judgment can be tweaked just enough to look like a flash of genius. In the implacable assembly line of prose, nothing is ever wasted or thrown away. By contrast, the snail is slow, deliberate, fussy, cramped. Swallows travel and seek out the world; the snail burrows into itself. The swallow acts; the snail retracts, guesses, speculates. A swallow chugs life down the way whales take in water, plankton and all, while the snail ingests choice bits down a multichambered spiral, where its appetite, like its vision, is eternally whorled. Balzac, Dickens, and Fielding are swallows, even Tolstoy.

Not Gogol, not Stendhal, not Meredith, certainly not Proust. The difference between them is neither the speed with which each author turned out works of fiction nor the emphasis some have placed on plot or style. It lies in something else. If to the swallow life is an open book, to the snail it is unfathomable. Everything, from love, friendship, desire, and death to the very art that portrays love, friendship, desire, and death, is essentially twisted and coiled along a narrow passageway where good judgment and clear thinking are less likely to lead to truth than paradox and guesswork.