Remembrance of Proust #1

52b9023f1408769f6b5a5183eef7ff8aFrom July 2010: My first go, I was able to read only 40 pages in a week, finishing the Overture and progressing just a few pages into Combray. Proust forced me to read slowly, as I struggled to unlock the meaning of almost each sentence. I’m used to modern English sentences, short and direct, leaving the reader no doubt of who did what. Even 19th and 19th century authors like Jane Austin and Laurence Sterne take pity on a reader and relieve us with dialogue and sparkling wit. Proust, on the other hand, weaves phrases in and out, interrupts himself with parentheticals, is rarely funny, and thinks nothing of separating subject and verb with masses of words and images that made me lose track of his point. Dialogue is almost nonexistent. But if you read Proust hoping for Austen or Sterne, Dickens or Brontë, you’ll be disappointed. And so: that first post on RoTP.

Here’s a typical sentence:

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weather, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.

I reread and re-reread to be sure I haven’t missed anything. Sometimes I try to speed up, thinking perhaps that the details are distracting me from the larger point, but it turns out the details ARE the larger point.

The first section of Swann’s Way, “Overture”, is a slow meditation on those moments of confusion we have when we begin to waken after a sleep, when our minds stagger about, wondering where we are, even who we are. For Proust, these moments include a quick recall of every room in which he has slept — leading him to think of the houses in which those rooms were located, and the people who inhabited those houses. We meet the narrator’s parents and grandparents, Monsieur Swann (who seems to be unhappily married), and a couple of sweet aunts who can only obliquely thank Swann for some bottles of Asti because it would be vulgar to say anything explicit. They’re so oblique, in fact, that Swann is only confused by the comments they make.

The famous scene of the madeleine dipped in the tea (Moncrieff translates tilleul as “lime-flower tea”, but it may be better known as “linden tea”) occurs near the end of the novel’s first section, after the long meditation on beds and houses and friends and family. It’s a lovely moment, but more drawn out than I had expected. The narrator needs more than one dip to be able to make the full connection to a particular memory, but when it comes, he is taken back to his aunt’s two rooms at Combray, and the novel can begin in earnest.

But to finish the quote above, which ends the Overture:

And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and 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.

The perfection of that image — the “crumbs of paper” taking shape in water  — redeems all the hard work of reading Proust.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
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6 Responses to Remembrance of Proust #1

  1. simon682 says:

    This feels very familiar. It took me a lot of fumbling and frustration and feeling lost in this huge ocean of words before I too began to get these redeeming images. I think (but not with certainty) that I enjoyed volume one. The fact that it was four years ago and I haven’t yet opened volume two may suggest otherwise.

  2. J says:

    I am glad you are doing this, because, I don’t think I could have gotten to the “crumbs of paper” imagery. The book would have been returned to the library.

  3. calmgrove says:

    Proust’s writing sound to me to be the equivalent of listening to a boxed set of, say, Mahler’s symphonies on a loop — ineffable but extremely daunting. These quoted passages contain such exquisite images but so densely packed that I would need to spend an inordinate time pausing and savouring the details; and then when would I have time to read all the other literature I’ve promised myself? I’m almost persuaded though …

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      I’m reluctant to recommend anything this huge, a type of reading that is several steps above “commitment”. But give me a few more posts, Chris, to strengthen (or weaken), the argument.
      Also, a lesson I learned when reading Ulysses: other books don’t get in the way of finishing a huge tome; often they complement the longer text. I’m trying to decide what to pair with Proust — medieval history might be just the thing.

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