Proust 2020/2021: Swann’s Way (pp. 64–139)

On the one hand, I get a great deal of pleasure from the Narrator’s explanations of what used to give him so much pleasure in the works of the novelist Bergotte: 

. . . in [Bergotte’s] later books, if he had hit upon some great truth, or upon the name of an historic cathedral, he would break off his narrative, and in an invocation, an apostrophe, a long prayer, would give free rein to those exhalations which, in the earlier volumes, had been immanent in his prose, discernible only in a rippling of its surface, and perhaps even more delightful, more harmonious when they were thus veiled, when the reader could give no precise indication of where their murmuring began or where it died. These passages in which [Bergotte] delighted were our [Dr du Boulbon and the Narrator’s] favourites also. For my own part I knew all of them by heart. I was disappointed when he resumed the thread of his narrative. (131)

This description does not offer a full reflection of Proust’s novel, but it does teach us something about how to read the style and structure of the book. Almost the entirety of the first 139 pages of Swann’s Way, after all, has been a break-from-narrative, and it may be this quality that makes the novel so challenging to “get into.” The Recherche is almost all meditation, and the significance of these meditations for our Narrator (and for a France moving through all sorts of transitions in the background!) becomes clear only later—when we’ve read all of it (or enough of it to step back and access bigger formal clusters). 

Another related difficulty: there seems to be no plot in the usual sense of the word, and the Narrator only occasionally settles into a scene in these opening pages (e.g., interrupting his great-uncle and his attractive visitor; Swann’s interruption of the Narrator, which proves important to the next several hundred pages, etc., etc.). “Combray” is almost all invocation and meditation on truths and essences: Aunt Lèonie – the Church (especially its steeple) – lunches – the kitchen maid – Bloch – reading Bergotte – Swann and Gilberte . . . the move from topic to topic or theme to theme relies so little upon scenes or specific happenings, though this is not to say these topics / themes are random or unconnected.

This brings me to my “other hand.” What matters most, for the Narrator, is, I think, the careful, almost obsessive construction of a pattern or texture, both spatial and temporal. He’s capturing “the whole of Combray” (64). I tried to draw out the connections between the topics / themes of this week’s readings. It’s ugly and far from exhaustive, but it at least glimpses something of what I mean:

Mapping Figures / Topics from Proust Reading

All these aspects hang together in a remarkable portrait; they are layered together or woven together so carefully that tugging one thread will affect our view of the whole. The steeple, for instance, helps the Narrator organize how “Combray” signifies the room of Lèonie as much as it signifies the pleasure of reading in the garden as well as his obsession with theatre, his memories of Paris, the break between his family and his great-uncle (not to mention Bloch).

All the while Proust establishes a universe of details that he will later elaborate into significant meditations. Combray is, in short, a universe of details that fit together. Here’s just a few details that stood out, though I won’t offer any commentary:

  • Swann’s self-censorship (135–36; cf. 20)
  • The situation of casual anti-Semitism in the story of Bloch and his idiosyncracies (125–26)
  • The “happy discovery” of novelists (117); the experience of reading Bergotte vs. writing sentences that exhibit Bergotte’s qualities (130–33)
  • The Narrator as tattler (109, 128–29)
  • Loads of passages on love and covert sexuality throughout as well, though the Narrator does not present himself as very hip to the sexual codes at play

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