Reading these first 264 pages of Proust conjures up some of my own memories…
I was sitting in a graduate class. A fellow student was doing a presentation on phenomenology. He brought into class a chocolate cake, cut it and gave each of us a piece. We were to describe this particular act of ‘Eating chocolate cake in class’.
What elicited only single words or phrases from us, Proust could have written pages. Why, from pages 60 to 64 the narrator details his experience of eating four morsels of the little cakes ‘petites madeleines’, the uplifting sensation, the taste, the action of dipping them into tea before eating, and the diminishing enjoyment after each mouthful. Above all, he relays how the very act of eating these madeleines has evoked long-buried childhood memories of Combray:
… in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the waterlilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. (p. 64)
I don’t pretend to understand everything I read. Far from it. These first 264 pages of Proust’s seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time for me is a learning experience. I have to read through ambiguity, discard the expectations of clarity and congruity, accept incomprehension and press on. But an experience still, and surprisingly, an enjoyable one. An eye-opener too. Where have I read a sentence of 31 lines (p. 67-68) in such flowing prose, with such sensitivity and nuanced observations? And I must add, which I read at 1 a.m. I’m a quick study.
Sure, the unexamined life is not worth living. Proust must have plowed through his to the single second, and in depth too, as the madeleine-eating episode reveals. Insomnia sure has its benefits… arousing volumes of memories for the narrator.
From this first reading I’m surprised to find Proust’s subject matter comes from the mundane, from people and places in the village Combray where the narrator would go to stay for a period of time every year as a child. Even more a surprising delight is the loquacious way he describes the events, the people, the scenery, and the insights he can generate from the minutest observations.
A tiled roof is a tiled roof, okay, it looks more beautiful reflected on the river. But I was struck by how the narrator caught himself with speechless admiration, and ironically, articulating it with lucidity and humor:
The tiled roof cast upon the pond, translucent again in the sunlight, a dappled pink reflection which I had never observed before. And, seeing upon the water, and on the surface of the wall, a pallid smile responding to the smiling sky, I cried aloud in my enthusiasm, brandishing my furled umbrella: “Gosh, gosh, gosh, gosh!” But at the same time I felt that I was in duty bound not to content myself with these unilluminating words, but to endeavour to see more clearly into the sources of my rapture. (p. 219)
Indeed, humor is another surprising find for me. In several places I’ve put down on the margin of the page, LOL!
So, I’ve quickly learned to go past those passages and sentences that have lost me, but soon as I come to something I can comprehend, and do resonate, I’d stop and reread, savoring the beauty of that moment.
My favourite passages include the heartbreaking accounts of the child’s longing for his mother’s goodnight kiss, the description of the church St. Hilaire where he goes to Sunday mass, the pages depicting the river Vivonne and the hawthorn trees in Swann’s park, the child’s discussions with Swann on reading and books, and his frustration with writer’s block as he strives to write poetry as a youngster.
But there is one passage I must mention. That is about the child’s Mamma caring to talk with their house maid and cook Françoise, asking her little questions about her feelings for her own family:
Francoise answered, laughing: ‘Madame knows everything… [like] the X-rays that they brought here for Mme Octave, and which can see what’s in your heart’ — and she went off, overwhelmed that anyone should be caring about her, perhaps anxious that we should not see her in tears: Mamma was the first person who had given her the heart-warming feeling that her peasant existence, with its simple joys and sorrows, might be an object of interest, might be a source of grief or pleasure to someone other than herself (p. 73).
This, I think, is exactly what Proust has done.
Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, the village life, the kitchen and the table, the interactions and socializing, family relations, walking the country paths, the irises and the hawthorns… Reading this first part reminds me of paintings by Pieter Bruegel, or Van Gogh… and, not far from eating chocolate cake.
How’s your reading so far?