Swann’s Way~Overture

Marcel Proust“For a long time I used to go to bed early.” This is the first line of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. It is the opening to Swann’s Way, the first volume, in the first section, which is called the Overture. Who is “I”? It is not Swann, who is but a character of the novel, albeit a major one. “I” refers to the person who is the “Narrator”, the first person of the novel, of whom we will come to know intimately, but who does not immediately (if ever) tell us his name. Is it Marcel Proust? Is In Search of Lost Time an autobiography? Proust, when speaking of his novel to people or writing of it in letters, would vehemently declare that it was not. And yet, the parallels are too great, the writing too personal, and the details too overlapping for it to be pure fiction. Proust will go on to write in that first paragraph of the Overture, while the Narrator is in a state of half-sleep: “…it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book…” As he comes more fully awake, he says: “…the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to apply myself to it or not…” I believe Proust is telling us here his relationship to the Narrator and the novel. He is the subject of the novel. Proust is the Narrator and the Narrator is Proust, but one is the conscious and one the unconscious, one the exterior and one the interior. The Narrator is Proust as he sees himself in dreams, or in a mirror, or as projected by a magic lantern. A translation, a reflection, a projection; much later in the novel, the Narrator/Proust will say: “…to write that essential book, a great writer does not need to invent it, since it already exists in each one of us, but merely to translate it. The duty and task of a writer are those of translator.”

So, to begin the translation: In the Overture, the Narrator is going to bed. But alas, his parents have company, Monsieur Swann, and because of this the Narrator may have to forgo his mother’s goodnight kiss. This is tragedy. One cannot imagine how tragic this is to our Narrator. And so he will tell us. At length. One of the publishers that Marcel Proust will approach with Swann’s Way will write, after reading the manuscript: “I may be as thick as two short planks, but I fail to understand why a chap should require thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.” It is more than this, of course, as Proust says, “…a great deal of moral experience, thought and pain…” are in these thirty pages. But Proust surely must have understood that what he was writing here, and the way he was writing it, were not within any reader’s, or writer’s, experience at this time. Even as prolific a writer as Andre Gide will famously (or infamously) turn down Swann’s Way when Proust submits it to the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, for whom Gide works. Gide will go on to regret this for the rest of his life, but…that’s another story.

Back to our story. While the Narrator is tossing and turning in bed, and devising ways to make his mother come up to give him his kiss, we are introduced to Swann and to the Narrator’s family: his mother and father, his grandparents, his great-aunts and to the family servant who is like family, Francoise. We also learn something of the village, Combray, the house in which they live and its garden, the time period, the food and wine, the weather, the furniture…and we also, in the telling and the reading of these characters and their stage, come to realize one of the reasons why Marcel Proust will come to be held in such high regard as a writer. He is a master of detail; not trivial detail but detail that reveals the innermost being of the people, the place, even the material objects, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. Even something as small as a madeleine.

Yes, the Overture ends with the famous madeleine scene. One of the best of Proust’s biographers, Jean-Yves Tadie, says that the “recurring theme of awakening is at the root of In Search of Lost Time“*. The Narrator has begun with his description of awakening from dreams, to actual awakenings in places like his childhood rooms, and will end with his awakenings to time and memories. How has Proust/the Narrator become such a master of detail, particularly of details of personality and place in his distant past? Is he just making it up? No, we are told how the Narrator is able to remember so much detail, and it has too much the ring of truth and substantiality behind it to be made up. “I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object…And so it is with our own past.” Proust/the Narrator has come to this belief through his discovery of a phenomenon he calls involuntary memory, which manifests itself to him through the taste of the madeleine in a spoonful of tea. This taste first brings to him a feeling of all-powerful joy, and the Narrator does not know why. He takes another taste, and another, and “…suddenly the memory revealed itself”. But this is no mere memory. This is something beyond voluntary recall, which is superficial and unreliable. It is as if one is actually transported to the place and the time from the past, and details that one could not have remembered through a conscious effort rise up spontaneously and in every sense: sight, smell, sound, feel. “…I felt {the memories} as if they were occurring simultaneously in the present moment and in some distant past…my apprehensiveness of death vanished at the moment I instinctively recognized the savor of the little madeleine, because at that moment the person within me was a timeless person…” Proust/the Narrator has had an epiphany, in which he is awakened to a way of existing outside of time, and consequently glimpses immortality.

Oh, one final note: the Narrator does get his goodnight kiss. As a matter of fact, he gets more than that, as his mother actually stays with him that night and they read a book together. So all ends well, tragedy is averted, grace is bestowed, but…tomorrow will come another night.

*Tadie, Jean-Yves. Marcel Proust~A Life: Pub. 2000, pg. 608.

By Mari Mann, 2007

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One comment on “Swann’s Way~Overture

  1. I do love your work here Mari. I think you have such exciting, creative ideas and want you to know what a difference you are making to the Soul Food community. Thank you so much for being you.

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