Sunday Morning! “Swann’s Way” by Marcel Proust (Pt 1)
[Note: This is the second installment of Proust-blogging. Part 1 is here]
Do readers of Proust have an obligation to tell others how enjoyable — how much fun really — he is to read?
I’ve never really thought much about the misconceptions we might bring to Proust’s work, but they came to mind when I watched this delightful video of a reader in her twenties putting aside her preconceptions, reading his books, and gleefully geeking out.
I too first read Proust in my twenties and I also geeked out, something I did a lot of in those days. I can’t remember if I had imagined that Proust would be dry or dull or dreary; I think I might have come to him because I read that Henry Miller had aspired to be Brooklyn’s answer to Proust. It’s still a weird claim; I can’t think of two writers who make an odder couple than Marcel Proust and Henry Miller. There’s a bit of logic to it though, as both writers, at their best, are rhapsodists of the myriad joys and pains of everyday existence. When they get going, both of them overflow with delight.
And, to be truthful, many of us are at our most exuberant in our youth and well into our twenties; it’s probably the best time to read Proust. Part of what fascinates his narrator in these early passages of Volume 1, “Swann’s Way” is the intense effect that things had once upon him in his youth in Combray, how something as simple as a flowing river, or sunlight through a lace curtain could fully enrapture him. Proust’s great theme is the impression that things make upon our minds, many of which normally go unspoken. As we get older, they get forgotten.
Of course, the most famous example of this in Proust’s novel is the impression made upon the narrator by a cup of tea and a madeleine cake, which comes about sixty pages into “Swann’s Way”: now older and slightly desensitized, the taste of it offered by his mother in Paris, triggers a flood of sudden and involuntary memories of his younger days, when his perpetually ill Aunt Léonie would offer him the same combination from her bed in Combray. The reader should understand that these little shell-shaped cakes are really nothing special; it’s like being transported to your youth by a Twinkie. But, for the narrator, it’s as if the past lodges in certain sensations and objects, as he puts it, “like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping… and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” Earlier in the novel, Proust compares it to a pagan belief that spirits reside in items in the physical world; the god of a specific tree or river.
At once, he is transported back to that little French village and the reader is immersed in its bucolic slow-paced world like a, well, tiny sponge cake soaking up tea. Our hero recalls how all those things around him once “held in thrall a whole section of my innermost life,” starting with the steeple of the Church of Saint-Hilaire that “shaped and crowned and consecrated every occupation, every hour of the day, every view in the town” of Combray. From a distance, it looked like a painter’s fingernail scratch in the surface of the sky; as one approached, its bells broke up the monotony of the day, and its spires were the point to which one always returned.
At this age, everything seems to hover above the narrator. Imagine the camera panning down from the steeple to the young boy sitting alone reading, as he so often did at this age. As he reads, he finds opening a hidden recess inside himself, “in the depths of which I felt that I could bury myself and remain invisible even while I looked at what went on outside.” Many different ideas and impressions arise in his consciousness, from a conviction that the book, whatever it is, contains a hidden truth to which his inner self is reaching, to a feeling of a new horizon now laid over the real one around him. He finds that fictional characters often feel more real to us than real people; this is because, Proust explains, we only perceive a small section of other persons through our senses, while the novelist makes what is usually opaque in others perceptible to us. Our hero already dreams of becoming a writer, but for now, he cannot find his subject.
The social world of adults also hovers over the boy, as mysterious and severe as the scenes in the stained glass windows of the church. Social life will be Proust’s great theme as well; his novel is populated by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of characters moving across a vast archipelago of social circles. For instance, the engineer Legrandin, a bourgeois with strangely revolutionary ideas about the aristocracy and cultural erudition far beyond the requirements of his profession. He is the one who, charmingly, advises the young book-lover:
“You have a soul in you of rare quality, an artist’s nature; never let it starve for lack of what it needs.”
And then, there is the still-mysterious Charles Swann; we know that he, too, has a noble sensibility, but is somewhat on the outs from society due to his “bad marriage” to a wife who is supposedly making a fool of him with his friend the Baron de Charlus- this assumption will seem amusing to us in later volumes. Swann, too, will come into focus in the second half of Swann’s Way. For now, the narrator is more fascinated by Swann’s daughter Gilberte; he spots her from a distance while on a walk with his family and she seems to look at him with scorn, ensuring he will be utter bewitched. As Proust notes:
“The belief that a person has a share in an unknown life to which his or her love may win us an admission is, of the prerequisites of love, the one which if values the most highly and which make it set little store by all the rest.”
This will be the key to the rest of Swann’s Way and much of the later volumes. The mystery of why we love who we do will likely never be solved.
And, then, there is the music teacher Vinteuil, also whispered about in society over a wayward woman: his “boyish” daughter and the lady of ill-repute she has brought into his home: “He may be sure it isn’t music she’s teaching his daughter,” they whisper. The narrator is highly sympathetic to the musician and, after Vinteuil’s death, he will spy the young “sadist” alone with her lover, who is now instructing her to spit on her father’s portrait. Proust will note that true sadists are those “so truly sentimental, so naturally virtuous,” that all sensual pleasure appears wicked to them, and so they exaggerate their vices. An apt observation, and lest anyone mistake Proust for a prude or “In Search of Lost Time” for a stuffy literary classic, I would note that lesbianism and sadism will also be recurring themes.
As, clearly, will the theme of snobbisme, that great French vice. Legrandin will become a snob; Swann never will. The young narrator is already inheriting some of his family’s snobbishness without yet realizing how irrelevant their social hierarchy has become. Snobbism is always a little irrational, a neurotic attempt to fix the porous boundaries of reality. Something I think we have to remember when reading the novel is that this social milieu, which seems solid and eternal to the boy, will all-too-soon melt into air. Like all epics, this is elegiac. But it’s also sufficed with irony. More on this theme next week.
I said last week there were no superfluous details in the novel, but this is because the narrator invests everything with meaning, he makes everything sacred; his memory is one continuous hymn to existence. At least retrospectively; perhaps because “reality takes place in the memory alone,” the things of the past seem realer to our narrator than those of the present. And perhaps all things seem to be more meaningful when they’re behind us.
So reading this great novel of memory brings back my own feelings from twenty years ago. Little by little, as I read Proust, there returns to me that excess of feeling by which I used to make my way in this world, and which often seems to be so at odds with our daily way of life as to be a rebuke. Perhaps the first thing our joy runs up against is simple mortality; after all, no matter how we love the world, we have to leave it one day. And then loss, as our friends leave it first; or just leave us. We negotiate a thousand tiny surrenders with life and over time, we are numbed, immured, and have our harper senses worn smooth by steady friction against the rough surface of the world. You forget so much about what it was like to wake up excited to do and learn and experience more than yesterday; to take the fruit to your lips and suck down its juice.
And then, you return to something you once read in the grass on a summer day in the quad of your alma mater and it all comes flooding back to you. As Proust’s great novel teaches us, nothing is ever lost in the heart.
So, what are YOU reading, watching, playing, pondering, or flashing back to over your tea today?