Proust 2020/2021: Swann’s Way (pp. 139–224)

Lots of thoughts. Tough to formalize into sentences—or a sketch.

But perhaps the one major feature that stood out in these pages, structurally, was the way a minor detail can forecast, for Proust, without our knowing it, a major, or at least striking, event of broader significance for the Narrator (and the novel). I note this feature in previous posts, but here it became much more pronounced as one of the ways Proust manages the vast amount of detail.

1). Rain: pp. 140–41, 211–14. The section begins in Aunt Léonie’s room; she worries over the weather and what it might do to Mme Goupil. Many pages later, in the lovely bits about the first walking path (Swann’s Way), rain drops appear again as the Narrator describes taking shelter beneath the “dense thatch of leaves” of “Roussainville wood” (211).

What significance does rain have in this novel? In these first hundred or two hundred pages—especially in relation to the advice that comes from M. Legrandin re: patches of sky? Pg. 93: “Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life, little boy.”Pg. 168: “May you always see a blue sky overhead, my young friend; and then, even when the time comes, as it has come for me now, when the woods are all black, when night is fast falling, you will be able to console yourself as I do, by looking up at the sky.”

Of course, the section passage about taking cover also relates to the Narrator’s observational position as a spy and occasional voyeur. As a lookout. A feature of his character that becomes significant early in the novel re: M. Vinteuil and his daughter (157; cf. 224–33).

What meaningful connections does the novel invite us to make between the shelter of Léonie’s room (which she nevers leaves) and the sorts of furtive shelters from which the Narrator peeks at those around him? What’s weather got to do with it? Open sky?

2). Love of Hawthorns: pp. 155, 194–97. Interestingly, these passages about hawthorns lead into the first physical descriptions, respectively, of M. Vinteuil’s daughter—”boyish appearance” (157); “gruff voice”; “mannish face” (158)—and of Gilberte Swann (197–99).

Rather significant passages here on the phenomenon of love as well (cf. 200–01). I’ll come back around to love again in future posts.

3). Asparagus: pgs. 74, 79, 110, 134, 168–69, 173. The repeated references to asparagus seem largely inconsequential. However, they lead to the rather striking illustration of Françoise’s cruel streak. Her choice of asparagus, which seems odd but benign to the Narrator as a child, sets the stage for wrinkles in the relation between Françoise and the poor kitchen maid: 

. . . many years later, we discovered that if we had been fed on asparagus day after day throughout that summer, it was because their smell gave the poor kitchen-made who had to prepare them such violent attacks of asthma that she was finally obliged to leave my aunt’s service.

pg. 173

Section break. End of story.

In a novel that’s largely devoid of plot, the first time I read this section I had to put the book down in something like astonishment. On this read-through, I wrote a note in my margin: “dramatic conclusion to small, seemingly unimportant detail.” Why hadn’t the Narrator better prepared us? Or had he?


There’s so much more to note in this section: the references to Swann’s poor marriage (e.g., 157); the killer description of Legrandin’s body language (his “carnal fluency,” 174–75); the portrait of a family’s inside joke as an illustration of the structure of domestic life, part of a local code (153–54); the Narrator’s realization re: the radical separation between his emotional response and the responses he could come to expect from others (219); the description of Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way as organizational for the Narrator’s experience, his memory, his conception of his own brain, the peculiarities of his and his family’s habits, etc., etc. (188–89). And, of course, the power of names (200, 203)  and places (185)—clearly important, given later section headings—and the emergence of social codes that, as a boy, the Narrator had some variable power to understand (153–54, 176–77, 198–99, 205).

And the sudden shift from the summer of the asparagus to the autumn following Aunt Léonie’s death (which also entails news of the death of M. Vinteuil): pg. 215.

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