Writing about Proust makes me nervous, just like the thought of reading him once did. But now I’ve read enough to know the reading is not so very, very difficult. And now’s the time to learn that writing about him isn’t so very, very difficult either.
For me, the trick to reading Proust is patience; I can’t read too many pages at once, or I’ll feel like I’ve got too much to absorb. What this means is that I’ll be reading Proust forever, which, at this early point at least, I’m thinking isn’t so bad. Because what a companion the narrator is turning out to be! I love following his thoughts wherever they lead, and they do lead all over the place, from one time to another, one story to another.
Most of the first section is taken up with the narrator’s memories of his childhood, and especially his childhood attempts to claim his mother’s attention – specifically, to make sure she gives him his goodnight kiss. The pain he feels when he can’t have her attention is overwhelming – I feel his despair and sadness very strongly. It reminds me that children, with very little experience of the world, have no larger context with which to understand their sufferings. The narrator as a child has nothing else in his life but his family; they are his universe, and when the universe doesn’t follow its regular patterns, it is, truly, a catastrophe. The novel begins with the narrator as an adult looking back on his childhood; this structure leads us to wonder what the true meaning of this childhood suffering is. Is it really that the child lacks a larger context with which to make sense of pain and loss, and when he gains one, this suffering at his mother’s absence will subside? Or does gaining a larger context change nothing, so that one’s childhood sufferings really become the defining moments of one’s life? This passage leads me to think it is the latter:
But for a little while now, I have begun to hear again very clearly, if I take care to listen, the sobs that I was strong enough to contain in front of my father and that broke out only when I found myself alone again with Mama. They have never really stopped; and it is only because life is now becoming quieter around me that I can hear them again, like those convent bells covered so well by the clamor of the town during the day that one would think they had ceased altogether but which begin sounding again in the silence of the evening.
In the midst of the child’s suffering, however, I found humorous scenes, particularly of the narrator’s great-aunts. When Swann gives the family a case of wine (for those of you not familiar with the novel, Swann is a friend of the narrator’s parents, and a frequent visitor at their house), the aunts thank him in a manner so obscure Swann could never recognize the thank you for what it was, but the aunts are confident they have done their social duty. They comically refuse to recognize Swann’s true social status, much higher than they give him credit for. One of the great-aunts:
Had him push the piano around and turn the pages on the evenings when my grandmother’s sister sang, handling this creature, who was elsewhere so sought after, with the naïve roughness of a child who plays with a collector’s curio no more carefully than with some object of little value.
This mistake leads the narrator to consider the uncertainty of identity:
None of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others. Even the very simple act that we call “seeing a person we know” is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part.
The “Swann” that the narrator’s family sees is very much their own construction – they see only parts of him, the parts they are comfortable with and that make sense to them – and the “Swann” that other people see will be very different.
Not only is our perception of other people incomplete, contingent, shaped by what we are willing and able to see in them and not what is really “there, ” but our perception of ourselves is equally uncertain. It is this idea that introduces the famous “madeleine” scene. About our relationship with our own past, the narrator says:
It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.
The narrator then goes on to discuss the madeline dipped in tea and the memories this suddenly and unexpectedly invokes in him. He has no control over these memories; they are involuntary, coming to him without any foreknowledge or effort on his part. Because of the tea and the madeleine, consumed at just the right time, memories flood him, memories that, as I understand it, he will spend many of the following pages describing. But he might possibly have missed this experience entirely; it is chance that allows us to access our own pasts, our chance encounters with objects that can suddenly unlock memories held unknowingly in our minds. When the objects that surround us do speak to us in this way, telling us something about who we are, then we can only accept it as a gift we are giving to ourselves – a gift of ourselves to ourselves.