Hundred years ago, a manuscript of seemingly endless ramblings was rejected by esteemed publishers and forced its author to self-publish his work. This initial reception of his art would eventually be eclipsed by the depth and beauty that the world would come to recognise; but more significantly it would place him in a sphere reserved only for the greatest wordsmiths who, through unique renderings of imagined worlds and collected memories, transform the lives of those who encounter them.
In the centenary year of its publication, I found within reach the involuntary memories created by Marcel Proust, through his opus In Search of Lost Time.
The journey began with Swann’s Way, the first of seven volumes.
Proust has been accused of being tedious, lengthy and just plain difficult. The opening pages (and thirty to fifty more that follow, depending on the edition) of Swann’s Way will be reduced in meaning if described as a superfluous rendering of the act of falling asleep.
For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself: “I’m falling asleep”
To make that judgement would be an error too grave, for the appreciation of his masterful prose can only come from diving deep within. The length of his sentences that can sometimes cover half a page, if not more, is hardly the best lens through which to view his world. It is, instead, a work that will challenge a reader by expecting the same dedication and isolation from the outside world as Proust experienced while writing it. And yet we may remain only at the surface, enjoying his witticisms from a distance, never truly penetrating the inner workings of painful love, incurable jealousies or unreliable memories.
Swann’s Way begins in Combray, an imagined village modelled on Illiers in north-western France, which was the village of Proust’s childhood and was re-named Illiers – Combray in his honour. Through the eyes of an often self-deprecating narrator, we witness the shifting kaleidoscope of the darkness and the insolent indifference of a clock, telling time that remains forever fleeting. Alongside peeling the layers of memory one by one, Proust also conjures up before us the idiosyncrasies of the characters that inhabit and share moments of their life with his narrator. His grandmother,
…would take the opportunity to remove surreptitiously…the stakes of a rose tree, so as to make the roses look more natural.
His friend Bloch, on arriving late at dinner, behaves in a charmingly disagreeable manner by stating,
“I never allow myself to be influenced in the smallest degree either by atmospheric disturbances or by arbitrary divisions of what is known as time.”
Combray the place, as also the first part of the volume, symbolises the progression of time in the narrator’s life from childhood to maturity, providing a glimpse of his impressions and musings on love, life and relationships. He speaks of Gilberte, or Mademoiselle Swann, whom he first encounters here, in uncertain terms:
I loved her; I was sorry not to have had the time and the inspiration to insult her, to hurt her, to force her to keep some memory of me.
However, the reader is not led through a neat chronological corridor and instead finds private thoughts interspersed with others, for instance, scenes in the kitchen where the cook Francoise holds forth, and in whom the narrator recognises that
…apart from her own kinsfolk, the sufferings of humanity inspired in her a pity which increased in direct ratio to the distance separating the sufferers from herself.
The second part of this volume, rather simplistically titled Swann in Love, charts the history of the jealous love that gentleman Charles Swann harbours for courtesan Odette de Crecy. In his rendering of Swann’s tumultuous affair, Proust writes with unmatched flair and the authority of one who has studied the inner workings of a tortured heart.
Arriving late on one occasion at the house of the Verdurins, who never invited you to dinner; you had your “place laid” there, Swann is distraught at finding that Odette has left their home, not expecting him to visit that day.
Swann felt a sudden stab at the heart; he trembled at the thought of being deprived of a pleasure whose intensity he was able for the first time to gauge, having always, hitherto, had that certainty of finding it whenever he wished which…reduced if it did not altogether blind him to its dimensions.
This love finds expression through an imaginary violin and piano sonata by fictitious composer Vinteuil, which triggers a flurry of emotions in Swann whenever he hears it. The melody mirrors the pleasure he derives from love as much as it does the melancholy of his thoughts.
At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. And it had been a source of keen pleasure when, below the delicate line of the violin-part, slender but robust, compact and commanding, he had suddenly become aware of the mass of the piano-part beginning to emerge in a sort of liquid rippling of sound, multiform but indivisible, smooth yet restless, like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony…that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one’s nostrils.
All ‘respectable’ society, whom Swann has shunned during his quest for the flighty courtesan, is aghast at what he has been reduced to, as echoed by Madame des Laumes one night to her husband,
“I do feel it’s absurd that a man of his intelligence should let himself suffer for a woman of that sort, and one who isn’t even interesting, for they tell me she’s an absolute idiot.”
But Proust does not let that comment pass without appraising her as having
…the wisdom invariably shown by people who, not being in love themselves, feel that a clever man should only be unhappy about a person who is worth his while; which is rather like being astonished that anyone should condescend to die of cholera at the bidding of so insignificant a creature as the comma bacillus.
The tragedy of Swann’s love remains his inability to restrain himself from attempting every minute to make the movement that he knows will hurt him.
But when he is no longer unhappy and has returned to the self that existed before-Odette, he exclaims to himself, in the tradition of a tragic hero who has realised his folly at last,
“To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced by greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!”
Names are reminiscent of people, places and the moment in time that they inhabit. In the third part of Swann’s Way, titled Places-Name. The Name in the Moncreiff – Kilmartin edition, the narrator returns to visions of Florence, Venice and Pisa, with a feeling akin to the love for a person. The more real aspect of his life reminds him of the illness that would prevent a visit to these worlds and instead allows only a walk to Champs-Elysees. Here he finds himself drawn once again to Gilberte, who comes out to play there along with her governess who has a blue feather in her hat.
Her name, as that of her parents Monsieur Charles and Madame Odette Swann, when uttered around him, thrills the narrator and he longs to hear anything about them that he can link to an image or a thought.
He remains aware that the names and places of significance are a thin slice holding impressions of a particular time in his life and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.
To search for a plot in Proust is to make a futile expedition. Memory is the prism Proust holds up to make the journey back in time. In doing so, he opens the door to a world at once enthralling and exquisite; so that moving away requires more effort than the mere act of closing the book.
And perhaps on a Sunday morning many years from now, the memories of reading Proust will reveal themselves, like those of his narrator’s childhood, brought on by taking a sip of tea made viscous with floating crumbs of a madeleine.
- Why All the Fuss About Proust? (online.wsj.com)
- On Reading Proust (nybooks.com)
- How the Madeleine will help with remembrance of smells past (theguardian.com)
- The Way the Cookie Crumbles (slate.com)