These notes cover pp. 1 - 186 of Volume One, Swann's Way, in the Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
Well, we had a very lively discussion on Wednesday night about the first half of the "Combray" chapter.
Here are a few of the topics we covered:
1. Proust's Shifting Narrative Voice
In her opening presentation, Barbara noted how Proust's narrative voice shifts between many different ages and perspectives. The writing moves seamlessly, for example, from capturing the anguish of a young boy, desperate for his mother's goodnight kiss, to the more considered reflections of a grown man, looking back on the incident, even making judgments about it.
Interestingly, we never know the exact age of the narrator as we read through the succession of scenes in this chapter, and the resulting fluidity (in French I gather this would be called "mobilité"?) gives us the sensation of experiencing the events for the first time, but over again, as strange as that sounds.
Already we see the theme of time and memory coming out, even in the very form of the novel. Due to this fluidity of narrative voice, everything we read in Proust is both immediate and removed. In this way Proust introduces us to the theme of lost time and its possible recovery, even before we are introduced to the events, the plot, the characters...
2. How We Read Proust
Don mentioned that he feels somewhat hemmed in, or controlled, by Proust's prose, even while he adores it. He declared that he had to learn early on "to read Proust on his terms, not mine."
I may have misunderstood the meaning of this assertion, but I spoke up to say that it didn't match my experience. Contrasting Proust with another writer, Nabokov, and his closed circle of beauty and perfection and tricks of tone and timing, I argued that I am finding Proust's narrative voice surprisingly generous and open to interpretation. It is true, of course, that there are enormous amounts of detail and plenty of digressions, but so far I have felt very free to make my own associations and discoveries along the way.
Don, would you consider explaining your position in the comments below? I suspect that I did not fully appreciate your sense of being "on Proust's terms" as you read.
3. On "Affectation" in Proust
As we talked more about Proust's tone, Heather pointed out that there are certain moments of affectation that cannot be ignored, such as the scene where the young Narrator, leaving Combray, bids a tearful farewell to his beloved white and pink hawthorns:
"Oh, my poor little hawthorns," I was assuring them through my sobs, "it isn't you who want to make me unhappy, to force me to leave you. You, you've never done me any harm. So I shall always love you" (SW, 204).
Some discussion followed about whether this was a knowing affectation, intended to be comical, or whether it might be a product of the translation, or whether it represented an act of emotional transference.
4. Emotions, Passions, Pathos in Proust
Some in the group felt that the young Narrator's confusion about his identity in the opening pages, his feeling of being suspended above an "abyss of non-being," was, in a word... overwrought.
Yann, for one, was put off by it, as he read in a center seat on a United Airlines plane. Lea wanted to exclaim, while reading about the tears of the Narrator over the missed goodnight kiss: "Get over it!" Dirk, though gaining a new appreciation for his own son George's emotional state surrounding bedtime, agreed that the boy's concerns are really misplaced and need to be outgrown.
Once again, for some reason (lack of sleep the night before? general touchiness?) I found myself in the role of staking out a defensive position. I argued that this is too dismissive of the true emotional chaos and outright terror lurking beneath our daily lives. Rather than seeing the Narrator as overwrought emotionally, I see him as a truth-teller, unable to suppress what most of us have learned to suppress through habit and social convention.
My case: The abyss of non-being is there, all the time, whether we choose to face it or not. As we go about our days, we are inundated by sensations and exposed to the friction of other people's difference and different perspectives. Our identities, as a result, are constantly changing, and our separations are always serious.
Certainly, leaving the busyness of the day and heading off to "our room," alone, to bed, into darkness, with the anticipation of hours upon end of unconsciousness, makes us long for some comfort, any comfort. For many of us, now as parents, this may come in the form of the nightly ritual of tucking our kids in one last time before we brush our teeth. For Proust's Narrator it is a simple kiss from his Mamma. Is that too much to ask? And the rupture of that ritual casts him into the abysss.
This is not to say that his tears should be accomodated. Perhaps his mother was right to refuse these after-bedtime visits in most cases. We do need to confront and shape our fears, to learn to soothe ourselves, to become "independent" (one of EB's stated goals for our children). But neither is it overblown to have these feelings.
Here was where I declared that one thing I love about this novel is that it rests in sadness. I took a moment to read aloud to the group Proust's line, referring to the sound of his sobs while he lay in his mother's arms: "In reality their echo has never ceased" (SW, 49).
5. A Memorable Reverie
Dirk, at this point, gave an eloquent description of his own experience of this ineradicable sadness in the state of the world, when he described laying in bed with a lover and knowing that morning would come soon and she would leave him. He talked about how he wanted to expand the moment, capture every sensual detail, hold the night and the woman close to him, but that he was also aware of how the hours, tender and fragrant, were steadily slipping away...
As middle-aged parents of young children, many of us listened with a mixture of admiration and amazement at his reverie, wondering about the details of his life.
6. The Lesson of the Lady in Pink
Jeff noted how he saw Proust's Narrator as representing a kind of humanism, expressed by his non-judgmental view of people. With this in mind, he read aloud to us from the Narrator's description of his visit, as a young man, to his uncle's Paris apartment.
When the Narrator encounters there a lady in pink (who is scandalously unaccompanied, casually eating a tangerine), he comments on her ability to make beauty out of insults:
"She had taken some casual remark of my father's, had delicatedly fashioned it, given it a 'turn,' a precious title, and embellishing it with a gem-like glance from her sparkling eyes, tinged with humilty and gratitude, had given it back transformed into a jewel..." (SW, 107)
This got the group into a discussion of the theme of cruelty in this first chapter.
7. The Theme of Cruelty in Proust
Some examples of little cruelties we encounter in the Combray chapter: Aunt Léone teasing the grandmother about her husband's drinking... The Narrator's parents ending relations with his uncle after the pink lady incident... The snobbery of M. Legrandin, the treatment of M. Vinteuil, or for that matter, the Narrator's family's avoidance of M. Swann's wife... The banishment of the Narrator's friend Bloch because of his aesthetic commitments -- which the parents dismiss as madness and imbecility... The little digs and demands directed by Aunt Léone at Francoise the servent, and in turn by Francoise toward the kitchen maid...
Cruelty is subtle but unavoidable, whenever people meet and talk in Proust. Thus the high-mindedness of some of the Narrator's reflections -- his frequent state of aesthetic rapture, his sensitivity, his empathy for others -- is undercut from the beginning with this awareness of people's propensity towards meanness.
In my contrarian mode, provoked by his theme, I circled back ot challenge Lea on her dictum that a kid needs to "get over it" and go without the kiss. You may be right, I suggested, that it is best to have clear rules and not indulge, but can we be so sure that we don't do these things in a way that is partly a pattern of inflicting suffering on purpose? Don't our own wounds lead us, too often, to reproduce wounds on others? Lea was kind enough not to be offended (she knew my questions were directed as much at myself as at her).
Pascale made the point here that in French culture there is a high premium placed on children being "normal", a kind of right way to carry yourself, to eat, to converse, and that any deviation from this expectation is criticized. It's all in the best interests of the child -- so the thinking goes. But what if Rousseau was right, I wondered, when he argued that the state of nature -- the state of a child -- is the harmonious one? "Man was born free," Rousseau insisted, "and everywhere he is in chains." What if our "grown-up" rules are more problematic and conflicted -- more abnormal -- than we realize?
Heather observed that this is exactly the struggle, taking place every day within each of us: the motives behind our actions cannot be disentangled. Our needs, our impositions on others, our urges to lash out... as well as our genuine concern, our attempts to help, even our love for one another... they are all tied up together, in one big knot.
8. Back to the Question of Sadness
One of the more intriguing lines of conversation of the evening took off at the very end. Some French conversation was taking place in whispers, and I asked those speaking to share what they were saying with the rest of us. It turned out that the theme of sadness, discussed above, did not sit well with some.
They saw sadness, yes, but did not agree that the novel rests on it, as I had suggested earlier in the discussion. This got us talking about the American, can-do sensibility, and its rejection of sadness (think Disneyland). We speculated that perhaps Americans are, counterintuitively, more drawn to the sadness in Proust precisely because it is so absent from our usual discourse. The French have Babar le roi, and all the rest, with their many shocking, sad, events, from an early age.
We have, what... Curious George?
Everything works out in American fairy tales. Even in the classics. After all, Huck Finn makes it down the Mississippi and survives to tell the tale... True to Hollywood, in Casablanca Rick does the right thing and sees Ilsa to the plane, sparking the "beginning of a beautiful friendship."
For the French, on the other hand, well, there's poor Madame Bovary swallowing arsenic... oh, and there's The Plague.
For a moment the group honored this dark strain in French culture uncritically. But I couldn't help myself. I had to jump in again.
I argued that the French too are hiding from the chaos, trying to control it. Americans may try to sweep messy, tragic, ugly things out of sight, it is true, but the French try to explain it all away with Reason.
Think Descartes, trying to separate his mind from his body in a small room in the country and therefore work out the whole of philosophy. Think the whole Continental metaphysical philosophical tradition (Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Existentialism, Foucault, etc.), trying to give us true propositions, immutable laws. Even when saying that there is no meaning they do it definitively!
Perhaps Proust's sensibility sits somewhere in between the French-Continental tradition and the Anglo-American one -- somewhere in the middle of the English Channel. (After all, he did gain his first following in the 1920s in Bloomsbury and the English-speaking world, and only later made his way back to critical acclaim in France...) In this view, Proust may be somewhere closer in spirit to the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith, who knew that the primary source of all of our actions are our sensations and emotions ("Reason," wrote Hume, "is the slave of the Passions.").
Anyway, we don't have to turn to philosophy to recognize that Proust does not seem so enamored, as are his so many of his fellow French even to this day, by the power of reason to order and stratify reality. He knows that at the heart of things there is pain and loss and disillusionment -- feelings before thought.
Yet neither is he ready to brush these feelings all under, to keep a "stiff upper lip" to say that we must merely carry on in a hopeless, dogged British way. Or turn a blind eye to them in a pragmatic, business-only, count-it American kind of way. Based on our reading so far, it strikes me that Proust consistently refuses to let us subordinate sadness (the French way?) or dismiss it (the English and American way?). Instead, he asks us truly to look at it, confront it, open ourselves to it.
What do we do then? Can it be made tolerable? Can it be redeemed? Well, we'll have to keep reading to find out.
9. "Thicknesses" in Art
One last thing that was discussed that cannot be skipped: Florence talked about the actual words, the rhythm of the sentences. Renée talked about the music of the language.
We discussed how the ideas of the novel are always, thankfully, hidden, softened, reflected in the silvery stream of the sentences. Which is of course what makes it such an amazing work --makes it art.
As Proust's Narrator's grandmother insists, a photograph of Chartres Cathedral in the plain light of day is not an effective way to express its beauty.
You need something closer to an engraving... made after a painting of the Cathedral... on a foggy day... at twilight... -- several "thicknesses" added on -- before you get anywhere near the truth of a thing (SW, 54).
Whatever else one can say about it, I think we can all agree that In Search of Lost Time does not lack in "thicknesses" added on...
It was a pleasure to discuss some of them together on Wednesday night!