No, I haven’t given up on this. I’ve been finishing up some other tasks, in a metaphorical desk clearance before spring term begins.
Roger Shattuck, in his helpful guide, Proust’s Way, advises us to “read with a kind of patient faith that Proust is not leading us down the garden path and that he will bring the sentence, the scene, and the book to a clear conclusion.” Shattuck suggests that Proust’s style forces a slow reading, to create “a season of the mind outside temporal limits.” I feel a bit better now about needing several years to complete this.
pp. 116-143. End of Combray. Start of Swann in Love. Let the story begin.
A couple of weeks ago a friend told me that he found Proust boring. I can see how a person would have that response. Combray isn’t easy. It wanders. The sentences are long. There’s no plot. Basically, 140 pages of this and that, with a whole lot about flowers and trees (quite a few hawthorns).
But the “this and that” turns out to be crucial for the rest of the novel, setting up relationships, yearnings, understandings, and expectations that I now get to follow as I move through the real story.
Combray ends where it begins, with the narrator (I’ll call him Marcel, just to make things easier) back in bed, connecting a taste (that tea, again) with memories of a time and place. As the sun rises (“the uplifted forefinger of day”) after a sleepless night in an unfamiliar bedroom, Marcel turns from detailed images of his childhood eden, to Swann’s story, and the tone of the writing shifts.
Combray is all “I” — with Marcel’s remembrances filling every page. But the third word of Swann in Love is “you”. Marcel grabs me and puts me right into the story. I don’t know how long he’ll be talking directly to me (I’ve read only the first paragraph), but the shift is almost shocking. It made me sit up.
A few brief notes.
1. Marcel doesn’t do a lot of explicit foreshadowing, but there was one sentence near the end of Combray that caught my attention. While introducing an odd scene between Mlle. Vinteuil and her lover, he writes
And it is perhaps from another impression which I received at Montjouvain, some years later, an impression which at that time was without meaning, that there arose, long afterwards, my idea of that cruel side of human passion called ‘sadism.’ We shall see, in due course, that for quite another reason the memory of this impression was to play an important part in my life.
OK, noted. I’ll keep an eye out for whatever it is that this memory links to. Marcel writes that the “one true cruelty” is “indifference to the suffering which [people] cause” — his final statement on that scene of sadism he accidentally witnessed.
2. Some great language: Buttercups, in French, are called boutons d’or (literally, buttons of gold). A carp, “crushed by the burden of idleness”, leaps from a river.
3. There’s a brief episode, where Marcel quotes something he wrote when he was young (perhaps 12 or so?), and his conclusion is that the writing helped him to relieve an obsession — in this case, with the changing views of three Martinville steeples during a drive he frequently took when young. The steeples disappear behind trees, then reappear after the road turns, but different in aspect and color. A bit like one’s memories.
And that’s as close to symbolism as I care to get at this point.
Stay tuned for the next installment, wherein we meet Swann and find out (I hope) who his mysterious love is.
Reviewing this post, I’m amused by my sense that the “real” story will finally get going. It does, but not in the way I had expected.