Read an Excerpt
From Elizabeth Dalton’s Introduction to Swann’s Way
Swann’s Way is a novel of the rediscovery of experience through memory, of desire and disillusionment, and of the development of an artistic vocation. In its best-known scene, perhaps the most celebrated in modern literature, the narrator tastes the madeleine, the little cake dipped in tea that opens the magical gates of time and memory.
A beautiful and fascinating novel in itself, Swann’s Way is also the introduction to the great seven-part work Remembrance of Things Past, which is a kind of paradise of the novel, one of the greatest works of fiction of the twentieth century. The French title of the larger work, À la recherche du temps perdu, actually means “In Search of Lost Time,” suggesting, as the English title does not, the narrator’s mental and moral activity in search of the meaning of his experience in time.
As Swann’s Way begins, the narrator, a man apparently in early middle age, describes sleepless nights and fragmentary dreams in which bits of his past drift through his consciousness. Amid memories of illness, of lonely nights in strange rooms, of illusory loves, he wakes in darkness, no longer sure where or even who he is. Frightened and disoriented, he is rescued by another kind of memory, “like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being,” the “involuntary memory” lodged in the body that will eventually give him access to a forgotten past. In recalling the various scenes of his life, his thoughts return again and again to the village of Combray, where he spent childhood vacations with his family. In these memories, he finds the deepest layer of his “mental soil,” the very source of his being.
As the seven novels are actually all parts of one longer novel, broken somewhat arbitrarily into volumes by the requirements of publication, so Swann’s Way is also made up of parts. The first two could stand alone, although juxtaposed in one volume they illuminate each other. The first section, “Combray,” is concerned with the narrator’s childhood world, whose characters and events are the source of everything to follow, and with the powerful experience of memory that revives this forgotten past. The second section, “Swann in Love,” set in Paris about ten years before “Combray,” is the account of a love affair of Charles Swann, an important figure in the narrator’s childhood, whose experience prefigures his own later life. In the third section, “Place-Names: The Name,” which moves forward in time to a point slightly later than the Combray years, the narrator reflects on the idealized and unreal essences contained in the names of places, develops an adolescent passion for Swann’s daughter, and says a premature good-bye to the world of his youth—premature because he will reenter that world in subsequent volumes.
The structure of Swann’s Way is obviously not that of the classical nineteenth-century novel, which generally follows the chronological order of the events of a plot. In Proust’s novel, however, blocks of writing are juxtaposed, added on, loosely connected, forming a chain of episodes and reflections related in an intuitive and subjective rather than a logical or chronological mode. This structure emerged from Proust’s struggle to find a form for his work, a new and personal kind of novel that could combine fiction, autobiography, and reflections on art and society. The form of “Combray” in particular is based on Proust’s distinctive way of writing about different experiences in nearly self-contained sections linked by association rather than along a single line of narrative. The second section, “Swann innnnnnnnnnnnnn Love,” does follow a single narrative line, but the force that drives it is neither chronology nor plot, but the demonic energy of erotic obsession.
The novel’s structure has been compared to that of a musical composition, held together by recurring motifs of theme and imagery. Another analogy, to some form of vegetation, is suggested by the gardens and flowers that bloom profusely throughout “Combray” and find their way into the other sections as well. The lush, tangled narrative lines, with their buried horizontal connections that disappear for a time and then reappear, are like the roots of plants running underground.
In the classical Aristotelian structure of Western drama and fiction, incidents are organized in a plot that accumulates tension, leading to a climactic resolution. But in Proust’s novel, episodes are added on without adding up, without ever achieving a totalizing structure of meaning, what the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, in his semiotic study Proust and Signs, calls “the pseudo-unity of the Logos” (p.111; see “For Further Reading”). If the classical structure is envisioned as pyramidal, building up to a final revelation of meaning, Proust’s structure looks more like a web, with incidents all on the same plane. Or perhaps the structure is like that of a labyrinth, the maze of experience in a world without final meaning. Indeed, the topography of Combray and its surroundings forms a kind of labyrinth, with its two meandering paths, Swann’s way and the Guermantes’ way, that lead the narrator along the paths of experience—nature, sex, snobbery, hypocrisy, and so on—without ever connecting with each other or reaching their mysterious end points.
The structure of the novel also evokes an image of the labyrinth of consciousness, which is explored in a style almost as complex and ramified as the mind itself. In Swann’s Way there is a passage describing the phrases of Chopin, “those long-necked, sinuous creatures, . . . so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by seeking their ultimate resting-place somewhere beyond and far wide of the direction in which they started, the point which one might have expected them to reach, phrases which divert themselves in . . . fantastic bypaths,” but which always find their way back to their appointed conclusions. In an essay on Proust in Études de style, the critic Leo Spitzer has pointed out that this passage could apply as well to Proust’s own sentences, those extraordinarily strong and flexible instruments for the representation of mental life in all its layered complexity.
Although it goes further than its predecessors, Proust’s rigorous and nuanced dissection of the psyche is rooted in a rich strain of psychological analysis in French literature—the self-examination of Montaigne’s essays, Racine’s probing of the passions, the painful self-revelations of Baudelaire—as well as in a French tradition of revealing autobiography, including Rousseau’s Confessions and Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe (Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb). The dark and obsessional quality of sexual passion and the strange juxtaposition of elements in the souls of Proust’s characters—the mixture of timidity and sadism in Mlle Vinteuil, for instance—suggests his affinity for Dostoevsky. But his main source was his understanding of himself. Like Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, Proust analyzes above all his own psychic life.