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For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: "I'm falling asleep." And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This belief lived on for a few seconds after my waking; it did not shock my reason but lay heavy like scales on my eyes and kept them from realizing that the candlestick was no longer lit. Then it began to grow unintelligible to me, as after metempsychosis do the thoughts of an earlier existence; the subject of the book detached itself from me, I was free to apply myself to it or not; immediately I recovered my sight and I was amazed to find a darkness around me soft and restful for my eyes, but perhaps even more so for my mind, to which it appeared a thing without cause, incomprehensible, a thing truly dark. I would ask myself what time it might be; I could hear the whistling of the trains which, remote or nearby, like the singing of a bird in a forest, plotting the distances, described tome the extent of the deserted countryside where the traveler hastens toward the nearest station; and the little road he is following will be engraved on his memory by the excitement he owes to new places, to unaccustomed activities, to the recent conversation and the farewells under the unfamiliar lamp that follow him still through the silence of the night, to the imminent sweetness of his return.
I would rest my cheeks tenderly against the lovely cheeks of the pillow, which, full and fresh, are like the cheeks of our childhood. I would strike a match to look at my watch. Nearly midnight. This is the hour when the invalid who has been obliged to go off on a journey and has had to sleep in an unfamiliar hotel, wakened by an attack, is cheered to see a ray of light under the door. How fortunate, it's already morning! In a moment the servants will be up, he will be able to ring, someone will come help him. The hope of being relieved gives him the courage to suffer. In fact he thought he heard footsteps; the steps approach, then recede. And the ray of light that was under his door has disappeared. It is midnight; they have just turned off the gas; the last servant has gone and he will have to suffer the whole night through without remedy.
I would go back to sleep, and would sometimes afterward wake again for brief moments only, long enough to hear the organic creak of the woodwork, open my eyes and stare at the kaleidoscope of the darkness, savor in a momentary glimmer of consciousness the sleep into which were plunged the furniture, the room, that whole of which I was only a small part and whose insensibility I would soon return to share. Or else while sleeping I had effortlessly returned to a period of my early life that had ended forever, rediscovered one of my childish terrors such as my great-uncle pulling me by my curls, a terror dispelled on the day-the dawn for me of a new era-when they were cut off. I had forgotten that event during my sleep, I recovered its memory as soon as I managed to wake myself up to escape the hands of my great-uncle, but as a precautionary measure I would completely surround my head with my pillow before returning to the world of dreams.
Sometimes, as Eve was born from one of Adam's ribs, a woman was born during my sleep from a cramped position of my thigh. Formed from the pleasure I was on the point of enjoying, she, I imagined, was the one offering it to me. My body, which felt in hers my own warmth, would try to find itself inside her, I would wake up. The rest of humanity seemed very remote compared with this woman I had left scarcely a few moments before; my cheek was still warm from her kiss, my body aching from the weight of hers. If, as sometimes happened, she had the features of a woman I had known in life, I would devote myself entirely to this end: to finding her again, like those who go off on a journey to see a longed-for city with their own eyes and imagine that one can enjoy in reality the charm of a dream. Little by little the memory of her would fade, I had forgotten the girl of my dream.
A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a second the point on the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken. If toward morning, after a bout of insomnia, sleep overcomes him as he is reading, in a position quite different from the one in which he usually sleeps, his raised arm alone is enough to stop the sun and make it retreat, and, in the first minute of his waking, he will no longer know what time it is, he will think he has only just gone to bed. If he dozes off in a position still more displaced and divergent, after dinner sitting in an armchair for instance, then the confusion among the disordered worlds will be complete, the magic armchair will send him traveling at top speed through time and space, and, at the moment of opening his eyelids, he will believe he went to bed several months earlier in another country. But it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was deep and allowed my mind to relax entirely; then it would let go of the map of the place where I had fallen asleep and, when I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was; I had only, in its original simplicity, the sense of existence as it may quiver in the depths of an animal; I was more destitute than a cave dweller; but then the memory-not yet of the place where I was, but of several of those where I had lived and where I might have been-would come to me like help from on high to pull crossed centuries of civilization in one second, and the image confusedly glimpsed of oil lamps, then of wing-collar shirts, gradually recomposed my self's original features.
Perhaps the immobility of the things around us is imposed on them by our certainty that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our mind confronting them. However that may be, when I woke thus, my mind restlessly attempting, without success, to discover where I was, everything revolved around me in the darkness, things, countries, years. My body, too benumbed to move, would try to locate, according to the form of its fatigue, the position of its limbs so as to deduce from this the direction of the wall, the placement of the furniture, so as to reconstruct and name the dwelling in which it found itself. Its memory, the memory of its ribs, its knees, its shoulders, offered in succession several of the rooms where it had slept, while around it the invisible walls, changing place according to the shape of the imagined room, spun through the shadows. And even before my mind, hesitating on the thresholds of times and shapes, had identified the house by reassembling the circumstances, it-my body-would recall the kind of bed in each one, the location of the doors, the angle at which the light came in through the windows, the existence of a hallway, along with the thought I had had as I fell asleep and that I had recovered upon waking. My stiffened side, trying to guess its orientation, would imagine, for instance, that it lay facing the wall in a big canopied bed and immediately I would say to myself: "Why, I went to sleep in the end even though Mama didn't come to say goodnight to me," I was in the country in the home of my grandfather, dead for many years; and my body, the side on which I was resting, faithful guardians of a past my mind ought never to have forgotten, recalled to me the flame of the night-light of Bohemian glass, in the shape of an urn, which hung from the ceiling by little chains, the mantelpiece of Siena marble, in my bedroom at Combray, at my grandparents' house, in faraway days which at this moment I imagined were present without picturing them to myself exactly and which I would see more clearly in a little while when I was fully awake.
Then the memory of a new position would reappear; the wall would slip away in another direction: I was in my room at Mme. de Saint-Loup's, in the country; good Lord! It's ten o'clock or even later, they will have finished dinner! I must have overslept during the nap I take every evening when I come back from my walk with Mme. de Saint-Loup, before putting on my evening clothes. For many years have passed since Combray, where, however late we returned, it was the sunset's red reflections I saw in the panes of my window. It is another sort of life one leads at Tansonville, at Mme. de Saint-Loup's, another sort of pleasure I take in going out only at night, in following by moonlight those lanes where I used to play in the sun; and the room where I fell asleep instead of dressing for dinner-from far off I can see it, as we come back, pierced by the flares of the lamp, a lone beacon in the night.
These revolving, confused evocations never lasted for more than a few seconds; often, in my brief uncertainty about where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed any better than we isolate, when we see a horse run, the successive positions shown to us by a kinetoscope. But I had seen sometimes one, sometimes another, of the bedrooms I had inhabited in my life, and in the end I would recall them all in the long reveries that followed my waking: winter bedrooms in which, as soon as you are in bed, you bury your head in a nest braided of the most disparate things: a corner of the pillow, the top of the covers, a bit of shawl, the side of the bed and an issue of the Débats roses, which you end by cementing together using the birds' technique of pressing down on it indefinitely; where in icy weather the pleasure you enjoy is the feeling that you are separated from the outdoors (like the sea swallow which makes its nest deep in an underground passage in the warmth of the earth) and where, since the fire is kept burning all night in the fireplace, you sleep in a great cloak of warm, smoky air, shot with the glimmers from the logs breaking into flame again, a sort of immaterial alcove, a warm cave dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat with shifting thermal contours, aerated by drafts which cool your face and come from the corners, from the parts close to the window or far from the hearth, and which have grown cold again: summer bedrooms where you delight in becoming one with the soft night, where the moonlight leaning against the half-open shutters casts its enchanted ladder to the foot of the bed, where you sleep almost in the open air, like a titmouse rocked by the breeze on the tip of a ray of light; sometimes the Louis XVI bedroom, so cheerful that even on the first night I had not been too unhappy there and where the slender columns that lightly supported the ceiling stood aside with such grace to show and reserve the place where the bed was; at other times, the small bedroom with the very high ceiling, hollowed out in the form of a pyramid two stories high and partly paneled in mahogany, where from the first second I had been mentally poisoned by the unfamiliar odor of the vetiver, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and the insolent indifference of the clock chattering loudly as though I were not there; where a strange and pitiless quadrangular cheval glass, barring obliquely one of the corners of the room, carved from deep inside the soft fullness of my usual field of vision a site for itself which I had not expected; where my mind, struggling for hours to dislodge itself, to stretch upward so as to assume the exact shape of the room and succeed in filling its gigantic funnel to the very top, had suffered many hard nights, while I lay stretched out in my bed, my eyes lifted, my ear anxious, my nostril restive, my heart pounding, until habit had changed the color of the curtains, silenced the clock, taught pity to the cruel oblique mirror, concealed, if not driven out completely, the smell of the vetiver and appreciably diminished the apparent height of the ceiling. Habit! That skillful but very slow housekeeper who begins by letting our mind suffer for weeks in a temporary arrangement; but whom we are nevertheless truly happy to discover, for without habit our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless to make a lodging habitable.
Certainly I was now wide-awake, my body had veered around one last time and the good angel of certainty had brought everything around me to a standstill, laid me down under my covers, in my bedroom, and put approximately where they belonged in the darkness my chest of drawers, my desk, my fireplace, the window onto the street and the two doors. But even though I knew I was not in any of the houses of which my ignorance upon waking had instantly, if not presented me with the distinct picture, at least made me believe the presence possible, my memory had been stirred; generally I would not try to go back to sleep right away; I would spend the greater part of the night remembering our life in the old days, in Combray at my great-aunt's house, in Balbec, in Paris, in Doncières, in Venice, elsewhere still, remembering the places, the people I had known there, what I had seen of them, what I had been told about them.
At Combray, every day, in the late afternoon, long before the moment when I would have to go to bed and stay there, without sleeping, far away from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom again became the fixed and painful focus of my preoccupations. They had indeed hit upon the idea, to distract me on the evenings when they found me looking too unhappy, of giving me a magic lantern, which, while awaiting the dinner hour, they would set on top of my lamp; and, after the fashion of the first architects and master glaziers of the Gothic age, it replaced the opacity of the walls with impalpable iridescences, supernatural multicolored apparitions, where legends were depicted as in a wavering, momentary stained-glass window. But my sadness was only increased by this since the mere change in lighting destroyed the familiarity which my bedroom had acquired for me and which, except for the torment of going to bed, had made it tolerable to me. Now I no longer recognized it and I was uneasy there, as in a room in some hotel or "chalet" to which I had come for the first time straight from the railway train.
Excerpted from Swann's Way by Marcel Proust Excerpted by permission.
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|A Note on the Translation||xxi|
|Suggestions for Further Reading||xxiii|
|Part II||Swann in Love||193|
|Part III||Place-Names: The Name||397|
1. Time is a central concern for Proust, appearing first in the title and last as the final word of the novel. What is his vision of the past? Does he have a vision of the present? The future? Can the Narrator be said to be living in the past? Is he like the White Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, with "jam tomorrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today"?
2. The renowned translator of Proust, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, originally grouped the opening section of In Search of Lost Time under the title "The Overture, " which includes two famous passages, the good night kiss and the evocative taste of the madeleine. Does this seem apt? If so, how might this fifty-odd page beginning prefigure what will transpire later? What would you expect to follow, given that an overture usually introduces the main themes of a musical work? What does it suggest about Proust's conception of literature and music?
3. The episode of the good night kiss strikes some readers as odd or contradictory: the Narrator's need for a kiss seems almost infantile, while his power of observation seems extraordinarily precocious. Considering that he is sent to bed at eight o'clock, how old do you think the Narrator is? Is it significant that his father suggests the Narrator be given the kiss he craves, whereas his mother is reluctant, saying "We mustn't let the child get into the habit . . ."? Is the fact that the Narrator succeeds in getting the kiss he wants a good thing or a bad thing? Why?
4. "The whole of Proust's world comes out of a teacup, " observed Samuel Beckett. Indeed the episode of the madeleine dipped in tea is the first (and most famous) of numerous instances of"involuntary memory" in the novel. A recognized psychological phenomenon triggered by smells, tastes, or sounds, involuntary memory vividly reproduces emotions, sensations, or images from the past. Why do you think readers and critics universally consider this scene to be pivotal? What does the Narrator think about the experience of involuntary memory? What might its function be in the scheme of In Search of Lost Time?
5. Another emblematic theme involves the recurring "little phrase" of music by Vinteuil that catches the ear of Swann at the Verdurin's salon and steals into his life. How do Vinteuil's compositions stir both Swann and the Narrator? In Proust's scheme of things, is music a higher art than painting or writing because it can produce involuntary memories? How does involuntary memory affect writing and painting? Is it unrelated to art except as a necessary catalyst?
6. In "Combray" we are introduced to the Narrator's family, their household, and their country home. Since Paris is the true heart of upper-class France, why do you think Proust chose to begin In Search of Lost Time elsewhere? What do we learn from the Narrator's description of his family's life and habits? Is the household dominated by men or by women? Does the Narrator's account seem accurate, or is it colored by his own ideas and preoccupations?
7. A madeleine dipped into a cup of tea first impelled Proust into the "remembrance of things past." Though Proust was a gourmet in his youth, in the final years of his life he subsisted mainly on fillets of sole, chicken, fried potatoes, ice cream, cakes, fruit, and iced beer. Consider how food and culinary happenings - from meals at the restaurant in the Grand Hotel in Balbec to dinners at La Raspelière and the Guermantes's in Paris - form an integral part of the work.
8. Swann's Way and the Guermantes Way are presented as mutually exclusive choices for promenades, with Swann's Way given primacy of place at the novel's outset. Where, metaphorically speaking, does Swann's Way seem to lead? What are the aesthetic signposts and milestones the Narrator points out? What does the landscape around Combray represent?
9. "I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature, " Proust once said. In his description of the area around Combray - and in many other places in the novel - the Narrator describes churches, and particularly steeples. Indeed, Howard Moss cites the steeple as one of Proust's most important symbols. In religious architecture, the steeple represents man's aspiration toward God, and by inference toward Art, the Proustian religion. What else might it suggest? Does it have a counterpart in nature?
10. Proust and the Narrator share an appreciation of gardens and flowers - Proust himself was eager to visit Monet's celebrated garden - and in a sense, all Combray can be seen as a garden. What associations does this evoke? How does the Narrator respond to natural beauty? What do flowers mean to him? How do we know?
11. Proust's work is filled with "doubling" - the most obvious being the identification of the author with a fictional self of the same name but with somewhat different characteristics. Is Swann a double of the Narrator? What qualities do they share? In what ways do they seem different? What is the importance of the fact that Swann is a Jew?
12. Louis Auchincloss questions the use of a fictional first person named "Marcel, " who is but isn't Proust. Marcel claims that he is neither a snob nor a homosexual, yet he is obsessed with both. Would Proust have strengthened Marcel's viewpoint by making it that of the young social climber that he himself so clearly was? Did he enhance or detract from Marcel's credibility by casting him as one of the few heterosexuals in the book? Does it matter that Marcel regards "inversion" as a dangerous vice? Did Proust?
13. "Swann in Love" might be thought of as a dress rehearsal for the Narrator's own performance, and Swann's passion for Odette establishes a model for various other love relationships that appear later in the book. Proust believed that all emotions and behavior obey certain psychological laws. E. M. Forster maintained that "Proust's general theory of human intercourse is that the fonder we are of people the less we understand them - the theory of the complete pessimist." Do you agree? How does Swann's love affair reflect this? What conclusions does the Narrator draw from his perception of Swann's experience? In what way does this differ from Swann's own view?
14. The Balbec sequence of Within a Budding Grove gathers a group of the novel's principal characters, many for the first time: Robert de Saint-Loup, the Baron de Charlus, and Albertine, to name three of the most important. Others begin to emerge in their true significance, like Elstir the painter. Why do you think Proust chose to bring them together in Balbec? In what ways does Balbec echo or amplify Combray? Is the little "society" of Balbec a preview in microcosm of Paris?
15. While writing In Search of Lost Time Proust often rummaged through his vast photographic collection of Belle Époque luminaries as a means of stimulating his memory. "You could see that his thoughts were following a kind of underground track, as if he were organizing everything into images before putting them into words, " recalled his maid Céleste Albaret. Indeed, the Baron de Charlus, in Within a Budding Grove, speaks of the special importance of photographs in preserving an unsullied moment of time past, before it has been altered by the present. Discuss how Proust used photographs in the story - just as he exploited the technology of trains, cars, and airplanes - as symbols of passing time.
16. In his landmark essay on Proust, Edmund Wilson praises the broad Dickensian humor and extravagant satire that animate vast sections of In Search of Lost Time, yet he goes on to call it "one of the gloomiest books ever written." Can you reconcile Wilson's remarks?
17. Critic Barbara Bucknall maintains that "no Proustian lover really cares at all for his beloved's feelings." Is this true? Would the Narrator agree? Would the author? Are there any happy or satisfied couples in In Search of Lost Time? Or is love in Proust inevitably a prelude to misunderstanding?
18. "Proust's stage [is] vaster than any since Balzac's, and packed with a human comedy as multifarious, " said Edith Wharton. Discuss Proust's depiction of the elaborate hierarchy of French society - from the old nobility of the Faubourg to la haute bourgeoisie, from rich and cultivated Jews to celebrated artists - that forms the great backdrop to In Search of Lost Time. What cracks appear in the aristocratic world of the Guermantes that make us realize it is slowly crumbling? What forces stand ready to propel Mme. Verdurin and her bourgeois salon upward on the social ladder? In recording this change is Proust, in fact, chronicling the birth of modern society?
19. The title Sodom and Gomorrah functions on many levels. What does it suggest about the nature of society? What new areas does it open up? How does the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah relate to Proust's characters? Since the very nature of In Search of Lost Time involves looking backward, should we expect a parallel between the Narrator and Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt?
20. Critics agree that Sodom and Gomorrah opens a new phase of In Search of Lost Time. If the first three volumes represented the Overture and the first movement of Proust's great composition, with Balbec as an interlude, then the second movement begins here. What seems different? In what ways have the Narrator's preoccupations changed? Are these changes reflected in Proust's style or tone?
21. The Narrator's explicit initiation into the nature of homosexuality occurs while he is waiting in the courtyard of the Duchesse de Guermantes to observe the pollination of her orchid, from which he is distracted by Charlus and Jupien. What is the effect of this particular juxtaposition? Since flowers and insects have already been established as symbols of eros in nature, is this a veiled comment on the "unnatural"? Is the Narrator observing the two men in the same way as he observes the flower? Is his unconcern with being a voyeur connected to the writer's role as an observer of the world in all its aspects? Edith Wharton found the scene offensive and deemed it a lapse in Proust's "moral sensibility." Why?
22. Many crucial sexual scenes in Proust, including the one just mentioned, are witnessed through the "lenses" of windows, which become a commanding metaphor in the novel. Consider how Proust first introduces the window device by way of the magic lantern slides in Marcel's bedroom at Combray. How are windows analogous to Proust's notion of viewing life through a telescope, an instrument that propels images through dimensions of both space and time?
23. The Captive and The Fugitive show the Narrator acting out his own version of the grand passions he has observed so keenly and dispassionately in others. But when it comes to his own affairs, Howard Moss says that the Narrator's greatest lie is that he is objective with respect to Albertine. To whom is the Narrator lying, the reader or himself? Is he aware of his lack of perspective? If he is mistaken about one of the most important relationships in his life, can readers trust his observations about other subjects and people?
Posted July 21, 2000
If there is a better book to read on a desert island then tell me. This book is meant to be read leisurely and slowly. Its prose produces a hypnotic effect with its elaborate detail. You will never see love treated in a more delicate but at the same time more analytical manner. The detail can get a little overwhelming at times but in the end its worth it. this book is not for the casual reader. I would not say it was the greatest book I have ever read but maybe i'll change my mind after I read the other volumes.
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Posted February 8, 2010
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