Book 1 of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu
(In Search of Lost Time)
A critical paper by
February 5, 2002
Many of the older generation in the Novel Club -- this includes me -- were exposed at college age to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. I doubt that young people are brought together with this book today. Not that I know. Nor do I remember all the criteria established by Veblen as qualification for, or symptoms of, this leisure class. At any rate, I recommend that those who read Proust be among the fortunate members of the class, because Proust requires time, lots of time, as well as patience. And in particular, time and patience for the parenthetical commentary that ambles lengthily throughout. M. Proust does not place one on a train moving forward on a plot-line. It’s a different kind of journey, and, I think, beautifully worth it. I know, however, that not everyone in this room would agree.
Having said that, I’d like to review the course of action – perhaps I should say reflection – in Swann’s Way, or volume one of In Search of Lost Time.
The opening section, aptly called “Overture”, is very like an overture to an opera that announces or hints at what will later be more profoundly developed. It begins in the murky terrain between sleep and waking, and already we’re drawn deep into the consciousness of the narrator; and already we’re made witness to the odd dance of memory and time. The narrator does not yet give himself a name. But I will refer to him as Marcel, since later in the opus that name will shyly and briefly make an appearance.
Marcel, speaking to us initially as an adult in current time, reflects on a period apparently not so long ago when he “used to go to bed early”, then would awaken from sleep with the thought that it was time to go to sleep; but it’s only midnight. He’s not sure where he is or in fact who he is, but his body’s memory, as he calls it, takes him to a series of rooms in which it had slept before – in Combray, in Paris, in other spots along a meandering geography. Each of these places will be dealt with in succeeding volumes, in Proustian detail.
Taking center stage now is the Combray of his boyhood, and his great-aunt Léonie’s house, where Marcel and his parents would arrive for an extended stay over the Easter holidays.
It is here, when Charles Swann, a family friend, comes for dinner from his nearby estate, that young Marcel falls into despair, knowing that now his mother won’t show up in his bedroom to bestow her customary goodnight kiss – the act upon which his entire romantic and no doubt Oedipally-overwrought being is fixated. It is here where, on one such night, young Marcel through duplicity and high dramatics gets his way and his mother breaks with tradition not only by granting him his kiss, but by spending the night in the bedroom of her sobbing child. The scene will cast long influences on Marcel’s life.
It is in the Overture, also, that we are introduced to what has perhaps become the western world’s most famous pastry, better known perhaps than Sacher Torte, dobos torte, mille feuilles, or Hostess Twinkies. For the adult narrator, still in bed, still reflecting, recalls how, many years after the Combray days, his mother gave him a cup of tea, and into the tea he dipped a madeleine, which caused an exquisite shudder to invade his senses, and made the vicissitudes of life seem suddenly a matter of indifference, “its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory.”
What he’s tasting, he realizes in an epiphany, is the crumb of madeleine which his Aunt Léonie in Combray used to give him, dipping it first in her own cup of limeflower tea. He likens the process to the Japanese custom of filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it fragments of paper which the wetness will transform into distinctive shapes. “So that in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park ... and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, sprang into being ... from my cup of tea.” Thus involuntary memory brings past time into an ecstatic now; thus experience escapes the bonds of chronicity and tastes of the infinite.
In section two, “Combray”, that town indeed springs into being – its medieval streets named for saints, its gabled houses built of the blackened stone of the region, its citizens all known to one another. And Aunt Léonie’s own house. Its mistress presides over it from the sickbed where she makes a fetish of her illness, an illness that is at the same time genuine and from which only death will release her. As Léonie runs the household from her bed, so does her maid Francoise from the kitchen. The indissoluble partnership between the two women includes tracking from Léonie’s window the comings and goings of the townspeople – as meticulously as a gossip columnist might for his paper.
The young Marcel and his parents, devoted to country walks, would choose one or the other of two routes leading from Combray. They referred to the first as “Swann’s Way,” since it touched the boundary of Charles Swann’s estate. The second pointed to the realm of that family of ancient lineage, the Guermantes.
A word about Swann, whose late father, a stockbroker, garnered sufficient wealth to establish his son so securely in the leisure class that were Charles so inclined, he could devote his entire life to reading In Search of Lost Time and to decoding that vast, astounding jigsaw. As it is, he works intermittently on a paper on Vermeer.
Swann moves with ease and without ambition in the highest circles of the aristocracy – has even lunched with the Prince of Wales. But he associates as well with Marcel’s upper middle class family, who are innocent of his connections with nobility. Swann also has an appetite for rosy-cheeked young women of the peasant class. Not as predator, but as one who with courtly delicatesse relishes their company in and out of bed.
Now if ever there were a budding intellectual and potential artist, it is young Marcel – fascinated with theatre and its leading actors, with language and books, with the idea of himself becoming a writer. When Swann tells him that the author Bergotte visits him regularly, and is friendly with his young daughter, Marcel, who has already been dreaming of an encounter with this child, is beside himself. Later, on a walk, he spies through Swann’s hedge a little girl who with raised hand delivers him an insulting gesture. What boy wouldn’t fall in love? Gilberte Swann now mounts a throne in Marcel’s psyche.
The Guermantes Way, following meadows with half-sunken medieval ruins, and the course of the river Vivonne, is emblematic of a long stream of French history, and of a feudal mentality to which the events of 1789 may have dealt blows but not eradicated. The Duchesse de Guermantes has long been another source of Marcel’s fevered fantasies, one of which has her trout-fishing with him in the Vivonne. One day, beholding the actual lady as a wedding guest in the church at Combray, he’s at first disappointed by the reality, then projects upon her happier attributes, and into his psyche, so crowded with obscure objects of desire, he brings her, also, to a sceptered spot.
In his roamings along the two ways, Marcel is not only a profound, almost a religious, observer of their botany, but a pensive wanderer along inner roads, thinking deeply “of things, of people”. And the things, the people, that these ways taught him to know, says the adult narrator, still give him joy. Swann’s Way, Guermantes Way, “represent the deepest layer of my mental soil – firm sites on which I still may build.”
Section three, “Swann in Love”, brings an abrupt switch in time, and a narrative switch to third person. It reads simply like a novelist telling a tale. As for time: it pre-dates Marcel’s birth. Now we’re made privy to the world of the Verdurins, where Swann attends a party given by those inveterate and arriviste partygivers. Immensely wealthy citizens of the bourgeoisie, vulgar, controlling, thirsty for art and bohemia, the Verdurins surround themselves with friends and sycophants who, depending on their loyalty, remain in, or are expelled from, the “clan”. Odette de Crécy is one of its members, a beautiful woman of dubious virtue. She has introduced Swann to the Verdurins’ milieu.
Odette at first is not Swann’s cup of limeflower tea, her particular kind of beauty leaving him indifferent. She, in fact, is the one who initially woos him. But meeting regularly as they do at the Verdurins’, slowly, almost imperceptibly – and Proust masterfully details this invisible, unalterable process – he falls in love.
Like the Roman Empire, the course of Swann’s passion has a rise and decline. Its trajectory includes Swann’s desperate, finally successful, search for her one night when she has failed to appear at the Verdurins, and in his coach on the way home, taking sexual possession of her, and thereupon, for years, becoming utterly possessed by her. It includes the unifying bond of a musical phrase to which the two often listen, from a sonata by the composer Vinteuil – “the national anthem of their love.” It includes meetings at Odette’s place, a hothouse of flora and orientalia, and Swann’s attacks of jealousy, as painful as each arrow must have been as it pierced St. Sebastian. It includes Odette’s waning interest even as Swann’s grows, to the point where, at home in bed one night he falls to weeping. But after protracted anguish punctuated by intermittent happiness, and after many a disillusionment with this Odette of the sullied past, he at last emerges from his malady of eros, and declares: “To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman ... who did not please me, who was not in my style!”
“Place Names: the Name” is the finale to Swann’s Way. We return to the adult narrator and his recollections of the young Marcel – a Marcel mesmerized by the names of distant places, each name seductively wrapping the spot it encloses: Venice, Florence, the seacoast town of Balbec. But the frail Marcel is forbidden by his doctor to travel, and stuck in Paris, makes trips instead from his house to the Champs Elysées for play. Hark! Guess who’s also at play in that field of dreams: young Gilberte Swann. To Marcel’s delight she permits him to join her and her friends in their games, and his reveries of love now center on her afresh. He falls into melancholy when he doesn’t see her; conjures inner movies of the life she leads; and thinks her father, who comes to the park to fetch her – Charles Swann, that is – an extraordinary creature.
Marcel knows that Gilberte’s mother Odette walks daily along an avenue in the Bois du Boulogne, which is “thronged by the famous beauties of the day.” And when Gilberte fails to show up to play, there he hies himself, to witness the magnificent Mme. Swann, magnificently garbed, as she takes her stroll, her coach following at a slow crawl, and multitudinous eyes of onlookers following her as well. I almost felt, as the author drew me into this grand procession in the Bois, as if I were hearing a symphony conclude with an orchestral clash of trumpets.
But this drops to an elegiac note, and so the book ends, when the narrator muses on a recent visit that he made to the Bois, and saw it as no longer the place that held him enraptured as a boy. To be that place would require Mme. Swann to occupy the foreground. And, he realizes, “houses, roads, avenues, are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”
In the time I have left this evening, I’d like to touch on a few of the reasons for my taking joy in this book.
~ The prose, at once lush and cerebral. Its density – something for one to wrestle with and come out the stronger! The phrasing moves not only horizontally but also seems to spiral downward, creating substrata that enrich the whole. Almost every sentence is, in fact, an adventure.
~ A melting of customary boundaries between the visual arts, music, literature, and the holy, and the juxtaposition of these high matters with the quotidian. The sculpture of a saint in the Church of St. Hilaire resembles the countrywomen of Combray. Odette’s face replicates Jethro’s daughter in a Sistine fresco, and the madeleine has “severe religious folds.” Sometimes the sacred and the mundane intertwine comically, as in Aunt Léonie’s false hair ... “through which the bones shone like points in a crown of thorns.” Above all (literally!) the church at Combray, august embodiment of myth and poetry, art and architecture, past, future, and the mind of God, is at the same time as commonplace and daily in the life of the folk as their shoes and socks. Its steeple “shaped and crowned and consecrated every occupation, every hour of the day ...”
~ Proust’s people, who are, speaking of memory, memorable: Marcel’s grandmother in her indomitable love; Francoise in her devotion to her turf and the hierarchy of things; Legrandin in his snobbery; Vinteuil in his citizenly ordinariness which, we find, harbors a great artist. They and a varied cast of others trail their own sociology, their own psychology, wave after overlapping wave of which impinge on their every private and social moment. Each of them – aristocracy, haute and petite bourgeoisie, peasantry – is particular and eternal, cross-stitched in the canvas of a society that was.
~ Proust’s defeat of the linear tyranny of time. His sentences, as in any book, follow one another in marching order, having no choice. But when I finished “Swann’s Way” it was if it had no beginning and no
end. I felt as if I’d inhabited a circle, or a circle were inhabiting me.
How did he do it?