[Note: This is unfinished, but I have written in detail about most of this first volume.]
31 March 2014
I’m not sure how Proust manages to do any of this. We have a leisurely meditation on consciousness, identity and the subjectivity of memory which slowly becomes an ever more focused depiction of a particular time and place. Proust’s thoughts about memory – and, specifically, memories of bedrooms at the point of falling asleep or waking – somehow mutate, so that the meditation becomes the description of a time in the narrator’s childhood whilst still being a meditation. Whatever this narrator describes is always in the context of what a remarkable thing memory itself is. The person he might be remembering – Swann, say, in those strange little evening visits he makes at this time – is not at all the person he came to know well in later life: ‘even now I have the feeling of leaving someone I know for another quite different person when, going back in memory, I pass from the Swann whom I knew later and more intimately to this early Swann….’
Over half of the Overture is given over to one anxiety-riven evening at Combray, where the boy and his parents moved to every spring. This one dinner-party, in that way Proust has, comes to be representative of all the dinners Swann attended in those years. The details of the conversation are highly specific, but the way they reveal the bourgeois pride and pettiness of the family makes it clear that all their conversation is like this, all the time. Anything described in particular is liable to spark further memories and generalisations, and this becomes a pattern. And for this narrator it’s a given that his own consciousness, both in adulthood as he writes and in the childhood self he describes, is as worthy of minute exploration as anything else he is likely to encounter in the world. The precision with which he reports back to the reader is extraordinary.
The evening being described may be typical, but it is also a watershed. We’ve seen enough of the hypersensitive little boy to know that there is something obsessive about his love for his mother. Despite having a liking for Swann, he dreads his visits because they mean that his mother will not come to his room to kiss him before sleep. The narrator compares his yearning sense of loss with that of a lover – and the boy resorts to the deviousness of a lover in inventing a stratagem. The comparison with a more adult obsession is made explicit as he waits for a reply to the note he has sent her. Swann has told the narrator in adult life of an unreciprocated passion, and he has seen for himself the disappointment suffered by would-be lovers when the reply sent back to them is that ‘there is no answer.’ This is the reply the boy receives, and it doesn’t bode well for his chances of a good night’s sleep.
The watershed is arrived at through a series of crises. Desperate, the boy waits for his mother as she and his father come upstairs. She is annoyed, as he knew she would be, but his father, indulgent this once – he is usually the strict one – suggests she goes to him. She had already said that she isn’t sleepy, and he suggests she use the spare bed in the boy’s room. The narrator takes us through a subtly nuanced interpretation of this, shows how his father isn’t being kind, but making an arbitrary decision based on something he hadn’t noticed before. He knows his mother only sets limits for his own good and her indulgence, just this once, is the first sign of something new. She tells the servant of the boy’s ‘nerves’, the first time such a thing has ever been mentioned. The boy finds it troubling, the first ‘wrinkle’ in her soul as she makes an admission concerning him that he regrets. He would refuse the offer of her staying with him, but… he doesn’t, for reasons that sound urgent and plausible.
It’s been an epic account of a struggle over many pages, and if that sounds like sarcasm it isn’t supposed to. It never feels overblown because, somehow, the language is pitched at the right level of seriousness to describe the boy’s highly-strung anxiety. Tomorrow , his mother will be back to rationing her shows of affection, but tonight she is his and he can pretend that tomorrow is too far away to worry about. It’s that sort of recognisable self-deception that makes this novel so appealing. The boy is only doing what everyone does.
Neither of them is likely to fall asleep soon, so she offers to read to him, and the Georges Sand novels his grandmother has bought for him lead to another riff about the old woman’s particular brand of cultural one-upmanship. Popular is bad, photography is bad, new is bad…. She, of course, is a member of the same absurd family as the unmarried aunts whose unique brand of politeness we have witnessed: their gratitude to Swann for the wine and references to a mention of him in the papers are couched in such obscure terms he entirely fails to understand them. The narrator has made it clear that this unsophisticated family would be equally mystified by the social circles the stylish Swann moves in when he isn’t paying these stilted visits to the friends of his father.
This section, of course, is Overture, and the meticulous description of one evening in the narrator’s past is itself only a preparation for the narrator’s heroic struggle to retrieve a memory. It’s the novel’s most famous single incident, the experience of tasting the petite madeleine with a cup of tea, and when I told a friend of mine that I’d reached this point, he said that it’s only the most famous because it’s early enough in the book for most readers to have reached it without giving up. I couldn’t possibly comment…
…but I can say that, without any embarrassment, the narrator proudly lays before us the details of his battle with his own psyche. He’s tasted the tea and cake, can’t quite remember why it makes him feel so good, and he’s beating himself up about not being able to place the memory. ‘Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind…’ and so on. He could give it up, but no. ‘Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the natural laziness which deters us from every difficult enterprise, every work of importance, has urged me to leave the thing alone….’ But he struggles on, by implication leaving behind the others who have failed before him and, reader, he wins through.
I’ve chosen the most bathetic-sounding quotations I could find, but only because I’m lost in admiration for an author who can write like this in all seriousness. He means it. And where it leads is another revelation. It has led him to another memory of Combray, and suddenly that one evening, that he has described earlier as a ‘luminous panel’ now expands magically. There’s something about ‘the smell and taste of things’: they ‘remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment’ – and Proust spends the final paragraph in a glorious demonstration of exactly how it happens. Instead of his memory consisting of little more than a couple of rooms linked by a staircase, ‘the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.’
He’s daring us not to take him absolutely seriously.
Combray – as far as the narrator’s experience of reading
It isn’t surprising that in this novel, in which the author’s own experience is painstakingly re-worked into the stuff of fiction, we should come to a long exploration of what it is that novelists do. It comes, inevitably, as part of a longer thread concerning the narrator’s growing awareness of, and fascination with, his own consciousness. He has reached a time when every afternoon is spent alone: ‘these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic and sensational events than occur, often, in a whole lifetime.’ The events, of course, are those which ‘took place in the book I was reading’, and soon he is celebrating the extraordinary transformations of reality that can be achieved in fiction.
But it isn’t how Combray begins. The narrator segues seamlessly from the memory of the madeleine at the end of the Overture into a long sequence relating to Aunt Leonie, a cousin of the boy’s grandfather who lives in the Combray house. She is the one who used to let him taste the tea and cake, and she is both utterly self-centred and a shameless hypochondriac. Proust enjoys sending up the absurdities of his, or his narrator’s, relatives. The mockery is gentle, but it is relentless. Leonie has created a mythology around the state of her own health, and has retreated first to her room then, at the time of these memories, to her bed. One of her fictions is that she never sleeps, and she blushes when she accidentally mentions waking up. Another is that she has not long left to live – but strikes from her list of potential visitors anyone who either assents to this view or suggests she might do better to get up and take some exercise. The only one who is really welcome is Eulalie, formerly in service in the town, and whose Sunday visits are so regular that Leonie frets if she is a few minutes late.
Proust chooses to describe Combray by way of Leonie’s view from her little world. She can see out of her window and, in this presentation of the town, nothing new ever happens. Leonie’s surprise if she (wrongly) thinks she has seen an unfamiliar adult, or child, or dog always distresses her until the ever resourceful Francoise, the cook and general housekeeper we met in the Overture, puts her mind at rest. She does this through stratagems and forms of words whose only function is to convince her mistress that the world never changes. Words in this universe – we remember the narrator’s aunts and their absurd attempts at polite discretion in the Overture – are not about communicating anything, really. Welcome to the bourgeoisie.
Alongside memories of Leonie run a series of what feel like tableaux based on the town’s venerable old church. Its spire is the first thing that can be seen from the train at Easter, and this sets a precedent for who knows how many different views we get later on. By the eighth or ninth (or tenth) of these I realised that Proust, familiar with Parisian art fashions, must have seen series of Japanese prints like the 36 views of Mount Fuji published by both Hokusai and Hiroshige. But although these views are the starting-point, he never confines his treatment of place to the merely visual. In adult life an accidental view of an apse in a different town, or the sight of an unknown spire while being given directions, will lead him to forget his intended destination to stand in contemplation of the memories revived by the familiar-seeming sight. He always brings it back to memories.
A memory, sometimes crystallised into a single image, will veer off into other themes, or recollections of times in later life. This might lead into a meditation on some aspect of life, or culture, or memory itself. Something brings to mind a new member of the little society of Combray, M Le Grandin, whose main function seems to be to illustrate how people’s own perceptions of themselves differ from those of the people around them. He is in business in Paris, can only be in Combray between Saturday evening and Monday morning, and he has a whole other life the narrator’s family is almost shocked by: he is a highly cultured man whose writing is well-known enough to have been set to music.
We get a lot about the mismatch between different perceptions of people and events in this section: the individuality of each person’s understanding is such that it makes such disparities inevitable, as in an episode concerning the narrator’s ‘Uncle Adolphe’. This is his grandfather’s ex-soldier brother, and after a long sequence concerning him, a mismatch of expectations brings about an estrangement. The boy has gone to see his uncle on the wrong day, and has met the kept woman of an aristocrat there. He expects that when he tells his family (despite his uncle telling him not to) they will see things as he does: ‘I imagined, like everyone else, that the brains of other people were lifeless and submissive receptacles with no power of specific reaction to any stimulus which might be applied to them’, and that ‘I should at the same time transmit to them the kindly judgment I myself had based on the introduction. Unfortunately….’ Unfortunately not, and there’s a row. When the boy, embarrassed, doesn’t acknowledge him in the street Adolphe assumes he is following instructions, and the rupture is complete: ‘not one of us ever set eyes on him again.’
All this, of course, has been told through the eyes of a boy who understood nothing of why there might be a problem about his uncle seeing such a woman alone. It comes at a time when, pursuing his voracious appetite for anything cultural, he is besotted by the idea of actors and the theatre. He assumes she is an actress, and is rather disappointed that she seems so different from the exalted figure he had expected. It is only in adulthood, of course, that he can hint at the true nature of her visit. It’s another mismatch to join the others, with Proust focusing on the way the individual projects its own version of the world on to what it sees around it. It’s a preparation for what is to come later on the subjectivity of the reading experience…
…but it’s also another incident in the life of this upper-middle-class boy. Whatever else is going on in this novel, however Proust might allow his narrator to explore often complex philosophical themes concerning the self in relation to the outside world, the starting-point is always the actuality of one person’s lived experience. Through the story of Uncle Adolphe he is able to bring in other themes that thread through the whole novel, from class snobbery – the novel is full of the detail of bourgeois life – to the subjectivity of perception. That little phrase noting that he imagined, ‘like everyone else’, that his own view of things would be shared by others is Proust’s way of making the incident universal. He does that all the time.
Another narrative thread relates to the ‘kitchen-maid’. These girls didn’t last long under Francoise’s harsh regime, but one of them sticks in his mind. She is pregnant, and Swann has pointed out to the boy how she looks like ‘Caritas’ in a reproduction of a painting by Giotto he has given him. So here is Swann, the art connoisseur, acting as a kind of mentor in the boy’s ravenous search for cultural enlightenment that also takes in the theatre – not that he is allowed to go to plays – and, of course, reading. That’s one thread. Then there’s the idea that Giotto’s fresco, which definitely portrays a real woman, has to stand for an abstraction that cannot possibly be denoted in any other way. It becomes a part of the boy’s growing awareness of symbols and other signifiers, and that, however arbitrary they might be, the artist has to have recourse to them. Which, of course, ties in with the thread, in this most self-conscious of novels, that this is what the author himself is doing. The kitchen-maid, and her pregnancy, are real, but we have watched the novelist transform her into something entirely different.
And I’m back to what I started with in this section, the celebration of what novelists can do. It starts simply enough, with ‘the sort of screen… which my consciousness would quietly unfold while I was reading.’ Then it becomes more involving, with ‘the action in which I would be taking part’. This takes him into new territory, in which the ‘reality’ of a person or experience in a book is compared favourably to that of ‘what Françoise would have called “real people.”’ Now we’re getting there. ‘A “real” person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses’, whereas ‘the first novelist’ discovered that it is possible to offer something – Proust is clearly referring to the inner life that is unknowable except in fiction – which greatly enhances our understanding of human psychology. And, of course, a lifetime of experience can be compressed into a space that can be read as fiction in a few hours.
He goes on. Novelists invent places that are also a step up from ordinary reality, ‘for the scenes in the books I read were to me not merely scenery more vividly portrayed by my imagination than any which Combray could spread before my eyes but otherwise of the same kind.’ The reader is taken far beyond ordinary experience as his interaction with the written word opens up vistas of heightened experience. If this sounds hyperbolic, it’s nothing compared to what Proust writes, in paragraph after paragraph of celebration. His narrator ends with a kind of apology for the inadequacy of his own descriptions of what the experience was like: ‘my dreams of travel and of love were only moments—which I isolate artificially today as though I were cutting sections, at different heights, in a jet of water, rainbow-flashing but seemingly without flow or motion—were only drops in a single, undeviating, irresistible outrush of all the forces of my life.’
Where is there to go after this? He reminds the reader that this is all taking place in the garden where he spent his time reading, with the striking of the church clock marking the hours he spent there. We’re back to the reality of lived experience at a particular time and place, and soon ‘I would be torn from my book, in the middle of the afternoon, by the gardener’s daughter, who came running like a mad thing.’ The soldiers of the local regiment are coming and, for the first time, there’s a hint of the unsettled times that were happening outside the privileged bubble of this family’s life.
Combray, continued – as far as the encounter with Gilberte
As soon as he’s mentioned the soldiers, the narrator turns his back on any broader historical scope they might have opened up. Francoise, sentimental about people she doesn’t know, argues with the gardener about the waste of young lives… but that’s as far as it goes. (I read War and Peace recently, and both the vividness of Proust’s description of the men on horseback crowding through the streets and his immediate dropping of the subject seem like an almost satirical take on Tolstoy’s novel. That’s been done, he seems to be saying, and it’s not what I’m interested in.)
What do I need to cover? Transitions, or the way that one thread leads seamlessly to another. Thumbnail portraits of characters. The satirical presentation of the bourgeoisie. The slipperiness of language. The narrator and his heightened awareness. And… who knows what else? Of course, this is to separate out threads or themes that overlap, or are covered in the same section. There’s always more than one thing going on at once…. But you know that.
For instance, we get a character introduced, the boy’s appetite for culture, the limited horizons of the bourgeois mind-set and the trickiness of language in the story of Bloch. He’s a school-friend who is turning into another mentor for the boy and, like the soldiers, he has resonance beyond the bourgeois bubble. He is Jewish, which ostensibly presents no problem for the narrator’s family. After all – and this is the first time it’s been mentioned – Swann is ‘of Jewish extraction’. (Swann, I learned from Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, is modelled on the connoisseur scion of a Jewish banking family, Charles Ephrussi.) But the narrator’s father has a radar for spotting any Jewishness in his son’s friends, and thinks it is hilarious to question them about their families and hum tunes relating to Judaism. ‘These little eccentricities on my grandfather’s part implied no ill-will whatsoever towards my friends,’ says the narrator. But how would he know?
Bloch, as the narrator has already warned, is soon persona non grata. He is welcome at first, and the narrator makes no mention of how he responds, if at all, to the hummed tunes and muttered references to his Jewishness. But, one day, he makes the mistake of speaking frankly to the inveterately naive narrator, who now learns that ‘my great-aunt herself had led a “gay” life in her younger days, and had been notoriously “kept”. I could not refrain from passing on so important a piece of information to my parents; the next time Bloch called he was not admitted, and afterwards, when I met him in the street, he greeted me with extreme coldness.’ It’s the second time that the narrator, because of his inability to recognise that other people might think differently from himself, has unwittingly brought about a rift.
Another transition: before being ostracised, Bloch has raised the whole question of taste. He approves of the narrator’s appetite for Bergotte, a living novelist, and Swann finds out. The boy is keen to know whether he also approves. He seems to, but it’s complicated by something the boy has noticed before: whenever he appears to express an opinion it’s ‘as though he had put the phrase or word between inverted commas, and was anxious to disclaim any personal responsibility for it.’ Ok. But Swann knows Bergotte, even mentions that his daughter – the one who, along with Swann’s ‘unsuitable’ wife, the family never invite – is on good terms with him. ‘They go about together, and look at old towns and cathedrals and castles.’ That’s one to file away for later.
Characters. The vision of the soldiers is our introduction to Francoise’s sentimentality with regard to anybody she doesn’t know personally. Later this leads to a whole section on an absurd character trait of hers: her theoretical empathy for others sits alongside indifference bordering on cruelty towards some of the people she actually knows. The narrator has already let us know of little absurdity of his own: witnessing Francoise’s killing of a chicken he is appalled: ‘I could have prayed, then, for [her] instant dismissal’, even while he realises that the next day this same servant would have turned the ‘filthy creature’ – her words – into a wonderful meal. Her treatment of ‘Caritas’ is, somehow, worse. When she is close to giving birth and Francoise is sent for a medical dictionary, she is eventually found in the library ‘violently sobbing, now that it was a question of a type of illness with which she was not familiar.’ But when she returns to the girl’s side ‘she had nothing to offer but ill-tempered mutterings, mingled with bitter sarcasm.’ And Francoise is almost pathologically jealous of anybody else having contact with Leonie. She is perfectly genuine in her care and concern for the old woman, just as she is with the well-being of her own family. She will walk the ten miles to visit her grandson if he has a slight cold, then return in time for work in the morning. But…
…I’d had enough of Francoise before Proust had finished with her. Whatever he is saying about this poorly educated woman from the lowliest stock, as hidebound and snobbish in her attitudes as the bourgeois family she serves, I’m not terribly bothered. For instance, there’s what amounts to a bitter rivalry between her and Eulalie, the only other person from the lower classes allowed to visit Leonie. The most interesting thing to come out of this is the insight it offers the narrator into his aunt’s almost pathological self-centredness. She imagines catastrophes in which she is the only one to survive, ‘a prospect which combined with the two minor advantages of letting her taste the full savour of her affection for us in long years of mourning, and of causing universal stupefaction in the village when she should sally forth to conduct our obsequies, crushed but courageous’ She doesn’t get out enough, literally.
In amongst the social comedy surrounding Leonie, Proust brings us back to questions about language. One Sunday evening, the Curé arrives at the same time as Eulalie, a disastrous overlap in the old woman’s otherwise empty weekly schedule. At one level he’s a pedantic bore, incapable of mentioning any local place or family without a full explanation of the etymological derivation of the name, preferably from the Latin. For him, the search for meaning seems to have been stripped down to these literal-minded explications. And yet… it’s into his mouth that Proust places an imaginative tour de force of description of the same landscape he’s been endlessly labelling and re-labelling. The context is an account of a climb up the church’s tower, and the insights this gives:
‘There are all the canals at Jouy-le-Vicomte, which is Gaudiacus vicecomitis, as of course you know. Each time that I have been to Jouy I have seen a bit of a canal in one place, and then I have turned a corner and seen another, but when I saw the second I could no longer see the first. I tried in vain to imagine how they lay by one another; it was no good. But, from the top of Saint-Hilaire, it’s quite another matter; the whole countryside is spread out before you like a map…. To get it all quite perfect you would have to be in both places at once; up here on the top of Saint-Hilaire and down there at Jouy-le-Vicomte.’ At some deep level this seems to be a metaphor of what Proust is doing all the time in this novel.
Next. Vinteuil seems to be a more straightforward case, as his politeness prompts him to practise self-effacement to the point of invisibility. Only our narrator who, through a window, has seen him placing some of his own music where he clearly hopes it will be noticed, can detect the false note in his embarrassment when somebody notices it and asks him to play. Proust often puts his narrator in a position to see more deeply than is plausible into the inner workings of people’s psyches in this way. His aunt’s fantasy of surviving a conflagration comes about when he accidentally overhears a dream she is having when he goes into her room. I’ll come back to that.
When it comes to the difference between what people say and what they mean, Vinteuil has nothing on Legrandin. For the narrator he becomes two people, with two entirely different agendas. One is self-consciously poetic, coming out with absurdly overblown descriptions of, say, the clouds. But there is a darker Legrandin, an inveterate snob: ‘if I asked him, “Do you know the Guermantes family?” Legrandin the talker would reply, “No, I have never cared to know them.” But unfortunately the talker was now subordinated to another Legrandin, whom he kept carefully hidden in his breast, whom he would never consciously exhibit….’ This all leads to another freak show. This time Legrandin is the comic grotesque, doing his best not to answer an innocent-sounding question. At all costs, the narrator can see, he must avoid having to introduce these bourgeois acquaintances to his sister, who lives near the Normandy resort where the boy and his grandmother are to spend the summer.
What to say about this (rather cleverly handled) social comedy pointing up, again, the absurdities of this little world? At one level, it’s becoming a bit irritating: this narrator, we have to assume, has learnt enough in the intervening years to consider himself far above the ludicrous exertions of these people. Nonetheless, at another level it’s interesting: Legrandin uses poetic language, and particularly metaphors, to create a smoke-screen of verbiage to hide behind. Does he know anybody at the resort, asks the boy’s father, determined to force the truth out of him. ‘“There as elsewhere, I know everyone and I know no one,” replied Legrandin, who was by no means ready yet to surrender…’. This goes on for pages, the verbal contortions becoming ever more grotesque.
And, for me, it raises again that question of what seems to me little more than a narrative convention: Proust is relying on a younger self who is preternaturally perceptive, and who remembers long conversations verbatim. What are we to make of this combination of remembered detail and the insights into the motivation lying behind them? They are far beyond what even a precocious boy with highly developed social radar could really be expected to remember, and yet – what? – we’re expected to go along with it. Hmm. I suppose my problem is that in this novel, Proust appears to offer insights into how memory works… and yet here he is, doing what novelists so often allow their first person narrators to do: remembering it all. Yeh, sure.
And, finally, we get to hear about Swann’s way. As ever, Proust insists on an elaborate transition in order to get us there, taking us from Leonie’s anxiety if they come back late from a walk, via some very Legrandin-like descriptions of the evening light outside and in her room, to an explanation of how they go out of one door for the road to Méséglise-la-Vineuse, ‘which we called also “Swann’s way”,’ and out of another for the road to Guermantes. It’s on one particular walk, at the time of year when the hawthorn is in blossom, that they know that the route through Swann’s park will be clear: he is in Paris while his wife and daughter are away in Rheims.
The hawthorn blossom. Proust, however often his narrator might mention that these memories cover many different visits to Combray, is careful to take us through the seasons in a strictly chronological sequence. And it turns out that this is the first time the boy has seen Swann’s pink hawthorn…. The eulogy spreads over several pages, ranging from the absurd – they must be better than white blossoms, according to the aesthetic rules both of Combray and of the boy because pink cakes are more exclusive than white – to the frankly adoring. And, somehow, the boy’s exaltation in the sight of them becomes mixed in with his first sighting of Gilberte. Her mother’s peremptory calling out of the name is the first time we have heard it and… and I’ll come back to the boy’s absurd, ecstatic, contradictory reaction to her when I’ve read some more.
But one last thing. I’ve mentioned a couple things about Proust’s presentation of these far-ranging memories which, to me, seem to be self-imposed narrative rules. There are those transitions, which appear to suggest that no new thread can be introduced without a careful segue from whatever has gone immediately before. (I’m not sure that this is strictly true, but it’s definitely the impression I’ve got.) And there’s that notional chronological progression of the seasons. Combray begins with a description of their annual arrivals in the town in the chill of early spring, and we’ve moved through Easter and into ‘the Month of Mary’ as the hawthorns bloom. Both of these – and there may be others – seem to offer structural supports to memories that might otherwise seem too random… and I’m wondering whether he’ll keep it up.
To the end of Combray
He does keep it up, giving those supports, so that the narrator’s memories always come to us in what seems a structured way. There’s even a final framing device as, in an absurd-seeming rearrangement of furniture and whole buildings, he shows how memories after waking correct the imperfect constructions in dreams. It’s a mirror-image of the opening of the novel when, on falling asleep, the subjective consciousness begins to inhabit a fantastical world. But never mind that. The end of Combray feels like a wrapping-up, with the narrator going back over what he’s learnt since the very beginning of the novel. It’s turning into a Bildungsroman not only with regard to the narrator’s flowering consciousness, but as a writer.
Structure. That first mention of the two routes the family would choose between for their walks – Swann’s (or the Méséglise) Way, and the Guermantes Way – comes something like two thirds of the way through the Combray section, and all the rest of it hangs on this framework. And there are other framing devices within this larger structure, binding the reader to the little bubble of their Combray existence. When he first introduces these walks, we find out that walking the Guermantes way would necessitate eating later, causing worry for Leonie. Later, he reinforces the idea that this route, being the longer and more exposed, is reserved for the sunniest days, allows the narrator to tell us of Francoise’s sentimental concern over the poor farmers whose crops are drying out. And so on. And overarching everything we have at the end of Combray the boy’s dread of these late returns. We’re back with those difficulties he has in the Overture when he knows his mother will not be able to come upstairs to kiss him goodnight…. I’m beginning to wonder how many structural layers there are in this novel.
But I need to rewind, all the way back to that bizarre, formative sighting of Gilberte on the same day as those hawthorns. In French they are les aubépines, and they haunt the rest of the Combray section as the madeleine haunts the end of the Overture. Gilberte says nothing, of course, but makes an insulting gesture at him. The stirring of contradictory feelings that this brings about in him sets up a thread that lasts until the end of the section. The heady atmosphere of the perfume-filled garden is the right place for his reeling senses: ‘I loved her; I was sorry not to have had the time and the inspiration to insult her, to do her some injury, to force her to keep some memory of me.’ File that one away for later, because soon there will be masturbatory fantasies, imagined country girls who never arrive and, most bizarrely of all, the boy’s impossibly close observation – it’s through the same window that framed his view of M Vinteuil’s shy little deception earlier – of the music master’s daughter and her sadomasochistic relationship with her lesbian friend.
But those hawthorns on Swann’s estate. They feature in the family’s report to Leonie of their walk, the father’s polite suggestion to the old woman that she will be able to see them again one day, as she used to – cue meditations on age and the fate that awaits us all – and to a mention of Swann, always gallant towards Leonie in the past, and now the subject of a small-scale obsession on the boy’s part. He takes pains to skew the conversation so that others will have to speak his name and he can receive his little frisson. It’s no surprise that his farewell to Combray at the end of one season culminates in his farewell to the hawthorns during which Proust seems content to let the bathos of the scene speak for itself: ‘clasping their sharp branches to my bosom, and (like a princess in a tragedy, oppressed by the weight of all her senseless jewellery) with no gratitude towards the officious hand which had, in curling [my] ringlets, been at pains to collect all my hair upon my forehead; trampling underfoot the curl-papers which I had torn from my head, and my new hat with them.’
We get a concentration on the Méséglise way first. If this is a Bildungsroman of the artist, this is his early Romantic phase. On the lone walks he begins during the autumn after Leonie’s death – another anchor to the structured chronology of this section and to family life – he receives formative impressions of the wind, ‘the tutelary genius of Combray’, and of the palely rising moon. This is ‘before Bloch had attuned my eyes and mind to more subtle harmonies ‘, so his appreciation of the latter is only just beginning to be formed. The mention of Bloch, not yet a mentor, shows how not all chronologies in this novel are linear. There is the suggestion of an underlying time-progression during the Combray section, but the narrator is happy to make references to other times if it suits. He does it, presumably, because that’s what memory does. I’ll come back to that.
In the meantime, following Leonie’s death, we’ve had a glimpse of Francoise’s unexpected grief. It’s another of those times when it becomes clear that what the narrator thoughts – and, in this case, what everybody thought – is quite wrong. It doesn’t stop the boy teasing Francoise mercilessly about her grief compared to him. Perhaps he’ll learn… but not yet. This is when he starts to go on his long walks alone
On the Mes way is the Vinteuil house. We know about M Vinteuil and his tortured insecurities, and now we find out about his daughter. Through a series of broad hints and the innuendoes of Dr Percepied, a Combray resident we haven’t met before, we understand that there is something scandalous going on. Mlle Vinteuil’s musical friend seems to be exhausting her father: ‘I should never dream of thwarting the artistic vocation of a child; nor Vinteuil either, it seems. And then he plays music too, with his daughter’s friend. Why, gracious heavens, it must be a regular musical box, that house out there! What are you laughing at?’ Swann is broad-minded enough to invite them over, but nothing comes of it. This is episodic and I don’t think it matters if I have things in the wrong order. The narrator is taking us along the Méséglise way scene by scene, and I’m reminded of another oriental art form that Proust would have known, the scroll painting. Somewhere along the way is a picturesque little retreat where a young woman has come to forget – it’s that theme again – about her thwarted love.
The journey halts for a while in the church porch, where the statues of saints are clearly based on the country people of the region. We’re in Caritas territory again except, after descriptions of locals that the faces remind the narrator of, his thoughts of ‘a peasant-girl whom I might clasp in my arms’ prepare us later for descriptions of the uncontainable sexual yearnings of the adolescent: ‘my imagination drawing strength from contact with my sensuality, my sensuality expanding through all the realms of my imagination, my desire had no longer any bounds.’ He does that thing where this is briefly placed in the context of his later life, remembering a time when ‘one has not yet separated the fact of this sensual pleasure from the various women in whose company one has tasted it.’ We know where this is leading. From his room he can only see the tower in Roussainville, the village on the Méséglise way associated with these fantasies as, ‘faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which, I believed, might lead me to my death, even—until passion spent itself and left me shuddering.’ (Until now, I’d always thought that Bloom’s experience on the beach in Ulysses was the first description of masturbation in serious literature.)
Following this lonely sexual awakening, he gets to the Vinteuil house one evening. We’ve already been warned of the ‘sadism’ he finds there, and now he describes it. The narrator is given a kind of authorial omniscience we’ve encountered before as he places himself invisibly outside the open window. He doesn’t only overhear conversations; somehow he is privy to the thought processes that underlie the subtle interplay of teasingly sexual banter. Mlle V, all innocence on the surface, provokes her friend into spitting on the photograph of her father who has recently died. Mlle V looks wicked, but somehow the narrator knows that it isn’t true. For her, pleasure is inextricably mixed up with the idea that it must be evil – so she behaves sadistically. ‘She was able to delude herself for a moment into believing that she was indeed amusing herself in the way in which, with so unnatural an accomplice, a girl might amuse herself who really did experience that savage antipathy towards her father’s memory.’ I suspect that this kind of thing is something the narrator will return to.
Next. It’s time for the Guermantes way, which goes along the river near the castle mound in the town. In memory, he restores the town to its state as it was in his boyhood, but then he goes further. An elaborate simile makes him like a restorer of church interiors, able to see beneath the ravages of time to what the castle must have been like as a proud fortress. In fact, you can hardly move for similes and strong images as, I suppose, his awakening poetic consciousness forces him to render what he perceives into new forms. There’s the glass of a jar dipped into the river, ‘perpetually in flight between the impalpable water, in which my hands could not arrest it, and the insoluble glass.’ Tadpoles have been held, as it were, ‘in solution, invisible, but ready and alert to enter the stage of crystallisation’ when suddenly they are roused to movement.
The similes and references he chooses all serve to bind the narrative to this particular time and place. The water lilies perpetually trapped in an eddy remind him of Leonie’s life, apparently about to move on but never succeeding. Dowdy parts of the town left undecorated in the preparations for a celebration are like the everyday cutlery the kitchen staff wouldn’t put out for visitors. You never forget that this novel is a carefully crafted artefact. Thoughts about the unattainable source of the river he walks beside connect to Guermantes and the Duc and Duchesse, equally unattainable to him and therefore achieving a kind of mythic status. His similes are already familiar to us: they are figures in the church window, on tapestries, in the colours of the lantern slides that make his bedroom magical.
Crucially, his waking dreams about the Duchesse connect to his dreams of becoming a writer. He would go fishing for trout with her and ‘She would make me tell her, too, all about the poems that I meant to compose.’ And then, strictly within the context of an actual event (it’s the wedding of someone we’ve heard of), someone appears who is – is she? – the Duchesse, now referred to as Mme de Guermantes. As ever, his thoughts as a child are presented as seriously as his adult self can render, despite their absurdity. The spot on her nose reveals that, yes, this figure from his personal mythology is as real as the actress playing a fairy at one of the pantomimes he’s seen, and he has to check with the beadle that it really is her. There’s a quick rearrangement in the boy’s mind, as this living person assumes the mythic mantle of a figure he could only imagine previously. Her glance towards him, which he of course knows is random, makes him fall in love with her. Soon he is resenting anyone who dares to compare her beauty with that of Combray women whose names we recognise.
This section is all about the workings of the young artist’s mind. As we approach the end of it, it becomes about the way he is able to construct the only reality that he acknowledges as meaningful through dreams, memory and, in embryonic form, through writing. We’re already getting it with his memories of that crucial day at the wedding. Memory is a conditional thing, as he comes to realise. He remembers nothing and nobody from that day except Mme de Guermantes and the beadle who confirmed who she was. Moving on, he tries, somehow, to carry home experiences of other days as though they were goldfish from a fair – he’s fond of these watery analogies in this Guermantes section – but when he gets to his room there’s too much background noise, too much clutter in his mind. Until, that is…
…Dr Percepied picks them up in his carriage as they make their way home. The speed of the ride leads to what must be another famous set piece: the apparent movement of the church spires, converging and diverging from one another before, so suddenly that it’s a shock, the carriage arrives at the very door of one of the churches. But he doesn’t stop there, because now we get another description of the same experience, presented verbatim. He tells us he was able to write this on the rest of the ride, despite the motion of the carriage, and we can read the transformation, the embellishments. (I remember a particular simile about the spires as ‘maidens’ in the evening light.) This is the time when, for him, experiences are valued in terms of the words that he can use to describe them not only to himself at the time but in writing. They are, somehow, the same thing.
For some time now I’ve been reminded of the Romanticism of a century earlier. Here, surely, we have Wordsworth’s notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (1800), and the narrator’s presentation of the rapture of his small-scale experiences is as close as you can get to the egotistical sublime (Keats’ phrase describing Wordsworth’s poetry in 1818) without actually tramping through the Alps or over the high tops of the English Lakes. So far in this journal I have found it necessary to use the word ‘self’ eleven times. Ok.
But now they’re arriving back at the house – doesn’t Proust just love the armature of the chronological progress of a single day? – and it’s late. Which means, as we know all about from the Overture, that our boy isn’t going to get his kiss from Maman. It really does feel like we’ve come full circle, such patterns being a kind of leitmotif, and he’s desperate all over again. But he moves things on. Now, he is in a ‘zone of melancholy… totally distinct from that other zone, in which I had been bounding for joy a moment earlier, just as sometimes in the sky a band of pink is separated, as though by a line invisibly ruled, from a band of green or black.’ It’s as overwrought as that description in the Overture, and it feels as though Proust is putting something in place for later. This narrator, he seems to need to confirm, is not mentally strong; we remember that moment in the Overture when his mother first mentions his ‘nerves’, a watershed in his childhood.
He steps back for a moment for a kind of valediction. For the rest of his life, nothing comes close to the Guermantes and Méséglise ways. He can’t look at a view, can’t see a vase of flowers, without either comparing it with the benchmark that was set all those years ago or without it setting off some memory more significant than the new experience. If he finds a new face attractive it’s because he thinks for a moment he recognises it from this time. The memories are more real, in other words, than any other reality. ‘I would dream…’ he begins – but when, exactly? – of times and places that put everything in his (presumably) adult life into the shade. He can’t share this truth, because they are only for him. Anybody else would be mystified if he even began to explain it.
The chapter ends with an uncharacteristically comic presentation of the experience of waking up from one of his hyper-real dream memories into a room whose details he has reconstructed in his head: ‘the window, with its curtains, would leave the frame of the doorway, in which I had erroneously placed it, while, to make room for it, the writing-table, which my memory had clumsily fixed where the window ought to be, would hurry off at full speed, thrusting before it the mantelpiece, and sweeping aside the wall of the passage…’ and so on. This is reality, and the last few words of the chapter make it clear that there’s no place here for all those mental constructions, ‘put to flight by that pale sign traced above my window-curtains by the uplifted forefinger of day.’
You got that? Time to wake up.
Swann in Love – to where Swann and Odette become real lovers
I could imagine this as the first chapter of the novel. So far there have been no references to the Overture or Combray; in fact, the self-obsessed narrator of those two chapters has disappeared, except for the occasional reference, for instance, to ‘my’ grandfather. Otherwise we are getting all this from a conventional omniscient narrator, writing about Swann in the third person and, beyond some scene-setting with the ubiquitous ‘Verdurin’, told entirely from his point of view. (I wouldn’t be surprised, later, if the narrator were to explain his knowledge of the most intimate details of Swann’s inner life by describing long conversations they have in a future hinted at in previous chapters.)
The Verdurins, and especially the rather absurd Madame, are the armature for this section of the chapter. ‘To admit you to the “little nucleus,” the “little group,” the “little clan” at the Verdurins’, one condition sufficed….’ This is the opening of the chapter, and the condition is adherence to a Creed. This, as we discover scene by scene, is that nothing in the world is as interesting as the prospect of attending every single one of their nightly soirees. A hint to Mme V that there just might be something else to do is enough to have you banished and, because few women have been able to keep up the pretence, the ‘little clan’ is mainly composed of rather unimaginative men. (Dr Cottard is one that Proust singles out for attention from time to time. He is socially obtuse, a fact even the Verdurins themselves come to recognise long after it is obvious to the reader. All he brings to the circle is his elderly aunt.)
There is one loyal female disciple, described by the narrator as a ‘courtesan’, Mme Odette de Crecy. When she hints that a gentleman she has met ‘would very much like to be allowed to come’, it is the first time Swann’s name is mentioned. It’s as tortuous a route to the main subject as any in the novel so far, and soon the narrator is back-tracking again in order to show us how they met. (He’s already back-tracked once: this is all happening at around the time the narrator is born.) We discover that Swann has been an inveterate womaniser before now, and still is at the time when Mme de Crecy introduces him to the circle… but that she seems to offer him something new. What, exactly…?
…which is a question that takes Proust many, many pages to answer. In fact, underlying the sometimes convoluted psychology is a fairly straightforward story: Swann is used to ignoring class, status and any other convention when it comes to choosing the women he wants as his serial mistresses, and he is used to being utterly in control. We hear of how, when he is about to end an affair with a cook, having made great friends with her high-society family she works for in order to carry on the affair, the only person he chooses to tell is the cook. Her employers, who had considered him a friend, are mystified when his visits come to an end. He’s that sort of guy.
But he is unaccountably captivated by a woman who doesn’t tick the required boxes. She isn’t physically attractive in the ways he usually likes, and she doesn’t behave in the ways that would lead to the usual, familiar outcome. Even when they start to meet alone, there is no affair. They don’t even kiss…. All of which, inevitably – and I’m giving you the shortened version here – is what leads to his being so intrigued by her. Proust’s narrator likes to analyse in detail how the process works, how a man who still pays daily visits to the little cook can have all his expectations turned upside down in this way. Fine, let him. But it leaves Swann having to re-calibrate his approach to women. Typically, it’s in a parenthesis that ‘it was about the date of my own birth that Swann’s great “affair” began,’ and that it ‘made a long interruption in his amatory practices.’ What this means is that he behaves like a great number of men do when they become fixated on one woman. He stops seeing his friends, and his habit of dining almost nightly with the narrator’s grandfather comes to an end.
As usual, having leapt forward in time, our narrator then back-tracks to fill in the details. Swann does not get his introduction to the Verdurins, as he had intended, through the narrator’s grandfather. His reaction to a mention of them and their circle is to cry ‘On guard!’ because he refuses to have anything to do with them. He expects to see ‘some fun’ if Swann is going to join the circle of the man who has thrown in his lot, though not losing his ‘millions’ on the way, with ‘the riffraff of Bohemia’. (He’s obviously right. Odette must eventually become the ‘unsuitable match’ we first heard about in the Overture, the woman who will split his social life down the middle.)
So it’s Odette herself who introduces him, and a new routine begins. He pays the right compliments to Mme Verdurin’s protégé, a pianist who, by one of those coincidences that occur in novels, plays the very musical phrase that Swann was haunted by when he heard it once, and has been unable to find ever since. It becomes associated not only with these soirees, but with Odette herself. Later – and I’m jumping the gun here – despite the fact that she plays it ‘vilely’, it is the tune he always asks her to play. This association with a particular art-form is part of the narrator’s design. Odette has somehow got to him through a sense that is usually entirely separate from his sexual exploits, his aestheticism. Fairly early on ‘Swann remarked Odette’s resemblance to the Zipporah of that Alessandro de Mariano, to whom one shrinks from giving his more popular surname, now that “Botticelli” suggests not so much the actual work of the Master as that false and banal conception of it which has of late obtained common currency.’ This is a wonderful sentence, whose tone of snobbish exclusivity exactly matches the appeal she is beginning to have for him. He has a reproduction of the painting, and ‘as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he would imagine that he was holding Odette against his heart.’
He’s lost. For the first time in his life, he is obsessing over a woman he has no physical relationship with, and all his sexual feelings become sublimated. A chaste visit to her house for afternoon tea links her forever in his mind with her favourite flowers, the ‘cattleya’ orchids that fill the room. Every evening from now on, after an assignation with his little cook, he goes to the Verdurins to escort Odette home, until… the novelist takes over to bring matters to a head. One night she has already left, intending to go to a particular restaurant. Cue frantic search in what seems like every restaurant in Paris – all the while, of course, pretending to his long-suffering coachman to be perfectly nonchalant – until, ‘striding with haggard gaze towards his carriage, which was waiting for him at the corner of the Boulevard des Italiens… he collided with a person coming in the opposite direction; it was Odette.’
What could be more novelistically conventional? As they leave the restaurant quarter in his carriage, he arranges the ‘cattleyas’ in the way that has become customary with him. Ok. But this time, we later learn, the innocent-seeming action leads to her ‘complete surrender’, and it isn’t long after this that to ‘do a cattleya’ becomes their private nickname for sex.
Now, of course, he really is lost. From now on, he has a different routine, and his friends begin to regard him as a changed man. He is no longer the Swann they thought they knew, begging one or other of them for an introduction to some girl and talking about women in that usual way of his. And he always leaves early to be with – who? They don’t know that inside his head there is occurring a complete rearrangement of absolutely everything in order to accommodate the prime directive that he must keep Odette interested in him. The narrator, so omniscient as to be able to see in Swann’s behaviour what he can’t see himself, shows us exactly how the lover, whilst being able to see all that is lacking in taste and intelligence in Odette, defers to her in everything.
One last thing. The ‘little phrase’ that Swann obsesses over is by a little-known composer called Vinteuil. Swann, knowing only the rather absurd music teacher of that name, wonders whether he is a relative. Proust probably wants the reader to assume that the man we know about is actually the composer. He’s making a point, or continuing a point he made earlier, about men and their hidden lives.
To ‘there was no more talk of Swann at the Verdurins’’
Proust spends far more time describing the crisis that leads to Swann’s departure from the ‘nucleus’ than he does on the year or more during which he comes to regard Mme Verdurin as equal to, or better than, any of his society friends. We have known from the start that she is absurd and self-regarding, and are not taken in for a moment by Swann’s new habit of praising her to friends of his outside their circle. (‘I can assure you she has given me proofs of a nobility of heart, of a loftiness of soul….’) Nor are we taken in by the false reasoning through which he convinces himself that he is not treating Odette as a ‘kept woman’. Those little gifts of jewellery and flowers, those presents of five thousand francs (then six, then seven) are sent to her merely to keep him in her thoughts, somehow separate from any emotional attachment she might feel for him. As spring arrives, he thinks of how charming it must be at Combray… and he resolutely stays in Paris.
It can’t last, and Proust sows all the seeds of its destruction in a single evening at the Verdurins’. He does through a new character who ticks all the boxes which, increasingly, Swann does not. Odette introduces this newcomer, the ‘Comte de Forcheville’, and he is as impressed by the inner circle’s prejudices and laboured witticisms as Swann is not. Over 20-odd pages we see how Swann’s easy smiles are no longer going to be enough to confirm that he really does subscribe to the creed. He tolerates the conversation about second-rate novelists and playwrights, but Forcheville’s world overlaps Swann’s, and when he teasingly mentions people like ‘the Trémoilles’ that Swann likes to spend his time with the crisis comes. Swann doesn’t respond by calling them bores, or by telling the truth, that he hasn’t seen them since he entered the Verdurins’ circle. Instead, he defends them for their intelligence and good taste. (Proust has prepared us for this. Swann, while convincing himself how much he appreciates the Verdurins and their circle, has never lost his sense either of the value of the people he has known all his life or the enjoyment to be had from visiting their big houses.)
Mme Verdurin does her marble statue act, taking great pains to affect not to have noticed the grotesque faux pas. Swann is not immediately jettisoned from the circle, but it is clear from the Verdurins’ conversation afterwards that his days are numbered. ‘He’s not sincere. He’s a crafty customer…’ says Mme Verdurin, going on to describe how he must speak of them behind their backs – which as Proust points out for us, is exactly the habit of every man in the circle except Swann: ‘Had the truth been known, there was not one of the “faithful” who was not infinitely more malicious than Swann; but the others would all take the precaution of tempering their malice with obvious pleasantries….’ Swann doesn’t do this because he likes them and speaks freely. Oh dear.
During the same conversation Mme Verdurin mentions how ‘Odette seemed all out for Forcheville,’ a suggestion that definitely chimes with what the reader has seen of her behaviour during the evening. Perhaps even Swann has noticed it too, because the main theme for the rest of this section is his jealousy.
His affair with Odette has always been an evenings-only arrangement. For a year, what she has done during the day has been of no interest to him – until he is brought face-to-face with what he had always previously pretended not to think about: the possibility that there are other men in her life. Two incidents turn a vague unease, possibly brought about by her friendliness towards Forcheville, into something worse. The first takes place one night, after she has affectionately – and publicly – extracted a promise from him that he will come to her after his late dinner elsewhere. When he arrives she tells him she is unwell, and that ‘cattleya’ is out of the question. He goes home – and returns later, to discover that the light in her room is on. He tortures himself over the male voice he can hear inside and, after convincing himself that to knock on it would be folly, he knocks. It is answered by a stranger: it’s the wrong window. Crisis over.
As if. I think Proust is showing us how, whatever mental gymnastics we might be prepared to perform, deep down we know what we are trying to hide from ourselves. The second incident confirms it. One afternoon, contrary to his custom, he visits her house. Despite the footsteps he can hear, he is told that she is not in… so he returns an hour later. Ok. Odette, as Proust has been careful to establish previously, is very innocent in some ways. In her confusion, her efforts to add a grain of truth to her pretence that there was a good reason for her not answering end in her telling him that she was there all along and heard his knock. Other things in her behaviour tell him that she is protecting him from something else – and, sure enough, there is a ring at the door. Swann realises immediately that the caller has been sent away, and that he has stumbled upon something he has always hidden from himself until now.
But now he’s lost all over again. Amongst the letters that she innocently/deceptively gives him to post is one addressed to Forcheville, and through the thin paper of the envelope Swann is able to piece together the message she has written. Forcheville was with her when he called earlier, and Swann has to console himself with the idea that she writes more formally to the newcomer than to himself, and that she had invented some pointless lie about her uncle to cover herself.
From now on there is no chance of Swann glossing over Odette’s daytime activities. He begins to imagine everything she does with him, all those delightful little actions, being done during the daytime with somebody else. He can do nothing with her without thinking of the others who enjoy (gulp) the very things he has shown her. It’s torture. Out with friends he might forget for a while, but a word or gesture will bring him back to his mental pain. It never goes away. Thank goodness there’s always the promise of seeing her at the Verdurins’.
Hah. Proust has very carefully seen to it that Swann’s mental torture over Odette comes alongside his fall from grace with the Verdurin set. Before he’s excommunicated entirely, the Verdurins’ place is the setting for a couple more incidents to twist the knife. There’s one during which Forcheville reduces another guest to tears through sheer vindictiveness, and Swann watches Odette’s reaction. Before the other guest leaves, crushed, Odette is studiedly neutral in her reaction. She doesn’t seem to react at all, in fact… but then she does, showing Forcheville with her little smile that she is completely on his side. Later – it might even be the same evening – the Verdurins conspire to keep Odette out of Swann’s carriage, so that he has to go home alone. Odette complies with their plan.
It’s over with the Verdurins. Swann sends his coach-driver away and walks home, loudly berating himself for ever having taken them seriously. They have pointedly not invited him to lunch at Chatou tomorrow – Swann has seen the conspiratorial whispers – and Mme Verdurin’s final leave-taking is merely to hope that they meet soon. Soon ‘there was no more talk of Swann at the Verdurins’’ but, of course, it isn’t over with Odette. He’s seen her go off without him, sitting next to Forcheville, but in spite of all the torture ‘his love for Odette’ is a phrase that has never gone away in these pages. The only problem, as I see from the beginning of the next section, is that ‘that drawing-room which had brought Swann and Odette together became an obstacle in the way of their meeting.’
What’s he going to do now? I suppose he’ll have to marry her.
11 December 2019
After the Verdurins—to where I finally gave up…
…which is about another 25 pages. It continues to be extraordinary but, to put it simply, I’ve had enough. Do you really want to know why? Probably not. I can’t think of many things more dull than somebody’s reasons for giving up on something. But, for my own sake—I write these things for myself, after all—just a few lines.
It’s five years since I stopped my reading, and I’ve tried to start again more than once. I don’t give up often—I’ve read Ulysses, I’ve read Infinite Jest—but the circularity of Swann’s reasoning as he keeps coming up with new justifications started to make me doubt my own sanity, never mind his. He constantly redefines for himself what is acceptable, both in terms of his own hopeless infatuation for Odette, and of her tiresome combination of stupidity (his word) and manipulativeness. He can see her limitations more undeniably than ever, sees how two years have reduced her physical attractiveness, understands everything about her. Except he doesn’t. Everything he thinks he understands, for instance about the way she interprets his own behaviour, is wrong. In fact, these pages become a painstaking catalogue of how wrong two people can be about one another’s motives.
How could any of it be otherwise? Proust is always painstaking. He shows us exactly how Odette keeps proving her own unsuitability, how Swann is determined to convince himself that she isn’t unsuitable at all—even though he has long periods of perfect awareness that she is—and we are taken through it, step by wearisome, contradictory, self-defeating step. That’s why I’ve had enough. I found a few examples of what I’m talking about, but I’ve so had enough I’m stopping this, now.