Swann’s Way

I have always taken pleasure in walking, and not just in the pursuit of it but in the very idea; visualising a new route or remembering an old one; or simply the pleasure of putting one foot before another and going I know not where, exploring the streets and alleys to see where they might lead, what would happen if I turned left here and not right?

Walking is a way of becoming invisible, of disappearing.  As a child I would wander for hours, either literally or metaphorically exploring the narrative of a book, for the arts of reading, or rather of storytelling, and walking are intertwined. Elderly relatives would often comment overloudly that I always had my head, or my nose (?) in a book. What they could not comment on was that this was but a substitute, since I was unable to escape as I wished, and be outside exploring. And so I developed the habit of reading that even now, when I have the option to be out, I will chose the open book over the open road.

As soon as I was old enough to be able to walk home from school by myself I would devise as many alternative routes as possible, the straight line, through the park, along the horizontal and straight on until I came to our street where one turned right, past the butcher’s shop and thus to home was never enough. I soon found you could turn right and skirt the park and approach home from Bath Street, an otherwise dull road that stretched on for ever and seemed to lack the vitality of other routes.

Later, when we moved to the village, there was always a choice of taking the direct route (left) or turning right through the centre of the village. Of course, you would be expected to take the direct route, why would you do otherwise, for unless you had a purpose, such as calling at a friend’s house, or calling in the shop, not going straight home was considered odd and you were clearly up to no good.

1913 saw the publication of the first book of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Swann’s Way, a fact I was unaware of when I started reading it back in March. (I know realise that I have just over a month to complete it if I want to do so within its anniversary year).

The main character recalls his childhood and family visits to the house in Combray, where it was their custom to go for a walk. From the garden gate they had a choice of routes to take, either right or left and these are named, by the narrator, Guermante’s Way and Swann’s Way. During those walks, the narrator reflects on art and beauty, on the creative desire, the religious impulse as exemplified as much in the Hawthorn as the Gothic church, and in so doing he narrates tales of his family, his life and the people that inhabit this imaginary world of Combray.

My days begin and end with a journey, where I rehearse or revisit the triumphs or disappointments of the day. Best of all are the stories I tell of and to myself as I amble without purpose, reinventing and reassembling myself.

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