Proust 2020/2021: Swann’s Way (pp. 1–64)

[I’ve been collecting my 2020/2021 Proust notes in this Google Doc, but I thought I might post them here bit-by-bit and let myself add / review when I have time. See more about my return to Proust here, including links to my Deleuze / Proust citation project. In this first smattering of notes, I just try to pin down a few features of the opening pages that stood out to me as I began my yearlong trek through A la recherche. Note: Page numbers refer to the Modern Library edition of In Search of Lost Time (the Moncrieff–Kilmartin–Enright translation).]

1). Density / Complexity of Comparisons and Feelings. I’ve always admired the richness of affect in Proust: how he captures an incredibly specific and yet (I think) relatable feeling by introducing fold after fold through comparisons and metaphors. Ex:


. . . I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now further off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, showed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller is hurrying towards the nearby station; and the path he is taking will be engraved in his memory by the excitement induced by strange surroundings, by unaccustomed activities, by the conversation he has had and the farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp that still echo in his ears amid the silence of the night, and by the happy prospect of being home again. (1–2)


I’m reminded of Woolf’s early memory in the nursery at St. Ives, listening to the sound of the wind and waves, noting the modulation of light and movement of the blind and its acorn—all of which marks a feeling that she expresses, “It is almost impossible that I should be here.” The Narrator’s expression is, admittedly, denser, but both link a sensuous cue (here the distant train) to a complex feeling. What I love so much about this passage is how the feeling becomes fuller, more nuanced and ribbed with each additional detail. 

What emotions mark our moments of hurry? Proust demonstrates that several emotions can inflect each other as they become composed together in an imagined or lived scene: joy, excitement, uncertainty, sadness, and expectation—all rippling through the chain of images, memories, and time cuts Proust arranges in his opening Overture.


2). Habit / Event: The first sentence of the novel broaches a seemingly directionless meditation on the regular phenomena of falling sleep / awaking. It also captures the clockwork-like oddities and idiosyncracies of his family’s collective and individual character. Against tracing out patterns and repetitions of habit and routine, we find another pattern that emerges from the randomness of these meditations, namely, the occurrence of a specific non-repeatable event.

We find a range of “first times”:

  • Pg. 3: “the dawn of a new era” after he gets his “curls . . . cropped from [his] head”; he used to suffer from “that old terror of my great-uncle’s pulling [these] curls”
  • Pg. 50–51: the rather tame memory of strategizing how best to get a goodnight kiss from his ultimately results in an epiphany:

    “. . . thus for the first time my unhappiness was regarded no longer as a punishable offence but as an involuntary ailment which had been officially recognised, a / nervous condition for which I was in no way responsible”; he experiences “the dignity of a grown-up person, brought . . . to a sort of puberty of sorrow, a manumission of tears”
  • Pg. 55: his experience reading / listening to George Sand this same night is also a first: “I had not then read any real novels”; a rather important moment in the life of someone who aspires to write the very novel we’re reading
  • Pg. 60ff.: of course, the closing segment: the experience of the “petite madeleines”

3). Minor Detail / Major Person–Place–Event: This time through the Overture I noticed how the Narrator anticipates the major preoccupations of this opening section (and the whole volume), casually noting them pages before focusing and elaborating on them. We get the sense that any small detail in this massive novel or any association might expand to the size of a volume.

The Narrator mentions waiting for his kiss as early as pg. 6 (“Why, I must have fallen asleep before Mamma came to say goodnight”), returning to it on pg. 15 (“My sole consolation . . .”), before really fixating on this desire starting on pg. 29 (“. . . on the evenings when . . . M. Swann [was] in the house, Mamma did not come up to my room”).

The same narrative pattern structures the appearance of Swann (whose name titles the volume as well as the entire second part of the volume) and his powerful connection with the Narrator. Pg. 16: “Our ‘people’ were usually limited to M. Swann . . . his unfortunate marriage”; pg. 24: “. . . even now I have the feeling of leaving someone I know for another quite different person when, going back in memory, I pass from Swann whom I knew later and more intimately to this early Swann”; Pg. 39–40: “. . . I imagined that Swann would have laughed heartily at [my agony] if he had read my letter and had guessed its purpose; whereas, on the contrary, as I was to learn in due course, a similar anguish had been the bane of his life for many years.”

Speaking of which: another minor detail that will have major significance: Swann and his wife: pg. 16; pg. 45; etc.


4). Reading: The description of reading on pp. 54–56 is absolutely exquisite.


5). Reflection / Memory: Just some lovely passages on reflection and memory. They give me goosebumps.

Pg. 9: “. . . as a rule I did not attempt to go to sleep again at once, but used to spend the greater part of the night recalling our life in the old days . . . remembering again all the places and people I had know, what I had actually seen of them, and what others had told me.”

Pg. 24: “I pass from the Swann whom I knew later and more intimately to this earlier Swann . . . as though one’s life were a picture gallery in which all the portraits of any one period had a marked family likeness, a similar tonality . . .”

Pg. 49: “But of late I have been increasingly able to catch, if I listen attentively, the sound of the sobs which I had the strength to control in my father’s presence, and which broke out only when I found myself alone with Mamma. In reality their echo has never ceased; and it is only because life is now growing more and more quiet around me that I hear them anew . . .”

Pg. 59–60: “And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.”

Pg. 60: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me . . .”

Pg. 64: “. . . the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

Reading on . . .

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