I’m starting to worry that these posts won’t be enough to ease me back into the story when I rejoin it in just a few weeks. Even in 30 pages, only a little bit happens, but so much is there to be pondered. Imagine, if you will, an atom: too tiny to see, but a tap from a special hammer unleashes tremendous power. That’s Proust’s writing. It reminds me of the Charles and Ray Eames film, Powers of Ten (watch it here): a world in a grain of sand.¹
It finally happened. At last, this story has captured me, and now I can eat up huge chunks of Proust’s massively thick prose as though these were pieces of dense European bread layered with butter, cheese, and apricot jam.
I’ve been reading for nearly 6 decades, and I’ve come to know that all books require an initial contract of faith: I believe that this writer will, at some point, give me a good reason to keep going. Usually that point comes somewhere within the first chapter or so, but occasionally I may have to wait for 50+ pages. And, yes, sometimes I give up, but not after giving the writer a fair chance.
But I promised to read Proust, so I didn’t give up (I was tempted to do so at least 8 times over the past 4 weeks), and I’m glad now, because yesterday I hit that magical point: page 101. I suppose, in a 2200-page novel, that’s about right — the equivalent of page 10 in a 200-page novel.
It was at this point that M. Legrandin displayed the most astonishing form of snobbism ever conceived. Let me see if I can give a short version (Proust’s, of course, goes on for pages):
Legrandin is a friend of the narrator’s family whom they see occasionally around Combray, their village near Paris. Lately, the narrator has noticed that Legrandin would snub them if he was walking with women of a higher class. But if he was with no one, he would happily talk with the narrator’s family, mostly flowery nonsense about Nature, etc.
So, the narrator’s family is thinking of sending the boy with his grandmother to Balbec, and they decide to ask Legrandin if he has acquaintances there; they know that his sister lives there, but they don’t want to be so crass as to directly suggest an introduction.
Legrandin stonewalls, and in answer to the father’s question, “Have you friends, then, in that neighbourhood, that you know Balbec so well?”, Legrandin answers:
I have friends all the world over, wherever there are companies of trees, stricken but not defeated, which have come together to offer a common supplication, with pathetic obstinacy, to an inclement sky which has no mercy upon them.
The father persists:
That is not quite what I meant…. I asked you, in case anything should happen to my mother-in-law and she wanted to feel that she was not all alone down there, at the ends of the earth, whether you knew any of the people.
But Legrandin will not be pinned down:
There as elsewhere, I know everyone and I know no one…; places I know well, people very slightly. But, down there, the places themselves seem to me just like people, rare and wonderful people, of a delicate quality which would have been corrupted and ruined by the gift of life.
Legrandin goes on for another 20 lines in the same manner, then ends with advice that Balbec may be too much for the young and sensitive narrator and that perhaps he shouldn’t go at all. “‘No Balbec before you are fifty!’ he called out to me, ‘and even then it must depend on the state of the heart.'”
A character so deserving of ridicule, and so perfectly drawn for us. That’s my kind of writing.
As for the rest of this section, I was right in believing it’s meant as a stage setting for the rest of the book — its scenes as well as its themes. I haven’t yet pinned down all the themes, but here are the ones that stand out: love from afar (the narrator’s for various unattainable girls and women), love for the wrong person (Swann and Vinteuil each make this error), class consciousness, aging and death, idealized childhood, and a few more but it seems silly to go on. Already the list is looking cumbersome, but I have faith in Proust’s ability to deal with all of them.
Two critics* say that the section on Combray is like “the first circle of a spiral which rises toward the final revelation of Le Temps Retrouvé“. I’m happy to report that I’m now caught in that spiral.
*Germaine Brée and Carlos Lynes, Jr., eds., Combray, Appleton, 1952.
¹William Blake, Auguries of Innocence.