The History of Literature #289 – Swann’s Way (Marcel Proust)

289 Swann’s Way (Marcel Proust)

Since its first appearance, Marcel Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time has delighted and confounded editors, readers, and critics. Published in seven volumes over a fourteen-year period, the enormous novel has generally been recognized as both the highest form of artistic achievement and one of the most difficult reading experiences imaginable. In this episode, Jacke and Mike discuss Swann’s Way (1913) to see whether this opening volume serves as a good introduction to the entire work.

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The History of Literature #185 – Marcel Proust


Marcel Proust (1871-1922) did little of note until he turned 38 years old – but from that point forward, he devoted the rest of his life to writing a masterpiece. The result, the novel In Search of Lost Time, published in seven volumes from 1913 to 1927, stands as one of the supreme achievements of Modernism or any other period. Written in Proust’s inimitable, discursive prose, the novel recreates the memories of a lifetime, infusing a search for the past with an almost mystical belief in the power of beauty and experience to be ever-present, alive, unified, and universally important. Drawing upon everything in Proust’s life, from his childhood bedtime kisses from his mother to his travels through high Parisian society, the towering novel stands alone for its deep artistic and psychological insights.

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The History of Literature #92 – The Books of Our Lives


“In the middle of life’s journey,” wrote Dante Alighieri, “I found myself in a selva oscura.” Host Jacke Wilson and frequent guest Mike Palindrome take stock of their own selva oscura in a particularly literary way: What books have they read? What books have been the most important to them? What do they expect to come next? It’s a celebration of reading – and friendship – on this episode of The History of Literature Podcast.

Authors discussed include: John D. Fitzgerald, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elena Ferrante, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Jay McInerney, Rene Descartes, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, Graham Greene, Patrick O’Brian, Marcel Proust, Javier Marias, Haruki Murakami, Paul Celan, and Leo Tolstoy.


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Show Notes: 

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Music Credits:

Handel – Entrance to the Queen of Sheba” by Advent Chamber Orchestra (From the Free Music Archive / CC by SA).

Episode 7A – Proust, Pound, and Chinese Poetry

A young Jacke Wilson immerses himself in great books on his way from Taiwan to Tibet – and finds out what Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, and Chinese poetry can teach him about literature and life.



The Spirit of Self-Publishing: William Shakespeare Edition

So you’re thinking about self-publishing. You take some consolation in the dignity of small audiences and the examples of Marcel Proust and others.

You use examples like the great Joanna Penn to show you the way. She reminds you that you’re keeping 70% of your sales (and 100% of your control).

David Gaughran explains how the publishing piece of the writerly endeavor is now easy (though the other two pieces – writing and marketing – are still hard).

You already know the writing piece is hard, of course. And you’re glad to hear the publishing part is easy. (So easy a monkey could do it.)  Then you listen to something like the Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast episode with Leeland Artra. And you realize just how far down that rabbit hole you can go. Spreadsheets? Ratios? Writing computer programs to send out tweets? Pulling down stats? There’s a lot of effort there – effort that’s not writing, effort that might not be something you enjoy. Frankly, it sounds like a terrible distraction from writing itself, at least for you. And you start to think – well, what’s the point of writing this if nobody reads it? Why go through all this effort?

And then – serendipitously – a friend tells you the story of a guy he knew who sold shirts out of the trunk of his car. He’s now 41 years old. You may have heard of his billion-dollar company.

And you read about the greatest writer of all, the king, the master, the honey-tipped quill, who himself had the entrepreneurial spirit:

It was an unprecedented step for an Elizabethan author to take a stake in the ownership of of a theatre company and it put Shakespeare in a “unique position”, compared with his literary contemporaries, claims Dr van Es, from Oxford’s faculty of language and literature.

It made Shakespeare much richer, but it also gave him much more freedom over his writing and allowed him to innovate.

And you think: yes, this is hard, yes, this is lonely, yes, this is probably futile…

But yes, this has benefits, yes, this gives me what I didn’t have before, and above all: Yes, it’s time for me to get this done. 

Go forward, young self-publishing grasshopper!

Indie Publishing: What Would Ezra Pound Do?

We’ve seen some great examples of the indie publishing spirit, from Dr. Johnson to Stéphane Mallarmé, to Marcel Proust. Next up: poetry’s mad scientist, the original miglior fabbro (well, except for the real miglior fabbro), the Tireless Champion of the Arts who wound up living – literally – in a cage. An amazing, awful life story: Ezra Pound!

Pound of course, was an indie publisher, ahead of his time:

Arriving in Italy in 1908 with only $80, Pound spent $8 to have his first book of poems, A Lume Spento, printed in June, 1908, in an edition of one hundred copies.

Elsewhere I read that he sold these for six cents apiece. He didn’t even try to recover his costs! His book was a loss leader! And a career launcher.

Ah, Ezra. I hope somewhere you are at peace.

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Independent Publishing: What Would Marcel Proust Do?

This is an easy one: we know what Proust would do, because he did it:

Still, for all the brouhaha, many modern readers still find themselves in agreement with the two French publishers who turned down Proust’s manuscript [Swann’s Way] in 1912. A third agreed to publish it, provided that Proust himself cover the expenses.

I agree with Andre Aciman’s assessment:

Proust’s novel is so unusually ambitious, so accomplished, so masterful in cadence and invention that it is impossible to compare it with anyone else’s. He is unabashedly literary and so unapologetic in his encyclopedic range that he remains an exemplar of what literature can be: at once timeless and time bound, universal and elitist, a mix of uncompromising high seriousness with moments of undiminished slapstick. Homer, Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Proust—not exactly authors one expects to whiz through or take lightly, but like all works of genius, they are meant to be read out loud and loved.

I also agree with his opinion that Proust had elitist tendencies (but that his artistry overcame them):

As Proust recognized, who we are to the outside world and who we are when we retire into our private space are often two very different individuals. Proust the snob and Proust the artist may share the same address, the same friends, and the same name, even the same habits; but one belongs to society, the other to eternity.

Think about that for a minute. If this snob – and there’s no doubt that Proust was a snob, a world-class one, though I love him dearly – if even this titan of self-regard could overcome his doubts about paying for the publication of his own manuscript, then what are you – you, the lover of democracy, you, the friend of the little guy – waiting for?

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