Like Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust believed that of all literary forms, the novel most fully reveals the temperament of its writer. As George Painter’s exhaustive biography of Proust demonstrates, there are innumerable, indeed seemingly endless, parallels between the lives of Marcel Proust and Marcel, the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past.
Remembrance of Things Past
While the novel reveals much of Proust’s character and values, it is not an autobiography but a work of fiction in which the raw materials of personal experience and remembrance are transformed by the imagination into art of the highest order. Rather than yield to the temptation of a biographical reading of the novel, it is perhaps more profitable to concentrate on the development of the themes and to note the techniques that Proust employs to create his vision of humankind in their emotional, moral, and aesthetic worlds.
Like Dante and Honoré de Balzac before him, Proust creates a vast and teeming world, depicting the immense social changes that took place in French life between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the post-World War I era. While Remembrance of Things Past focuses on the wealthy bourgeois and nobility of Paris, it by no means excludes other classes. The detailed and sympathetic characterizations of Jupien the tailor, Françoise, and Aimé, the headwaiter at the Grand Hotel, testify to the social range of the novel. Given the work’s considerable time span and its scope of social inquiry, it is not surprising that Proust is able to develop a variety of themes: the Dreyfus affair, homosexuality, the difficulties of love, the growth of the artist, the vanity of society, and so on. By doing this, Proust invests the worlds of Paris, Combray, and Balbec with solidity and seriousness. Each thematic concern is ultimately registered on the growing consciousness of theprotagonist, Marcel; all themes are subordinated to the dominant thematic concern of the novel: Marcel’s attempt to overcome the disappointments of love, the false social expectations and the faulty imaginings and appearances that separate him from reality. With the aid of memory, prompted involuntarily by physical stimuli, Marcel ultimately defeats time, and through art, he finds the joy that has eluded him in love and social life. It is difficult, therefore, to understand Wilson’s characterization of the novel as “the gloomiest book ever written”; while Proust’s world is obviously complex and borders on the tragic, the existence in it of a sensuous and moral art belies the charge of pessimism.
The need to give structure and unity to a work as thematically ambitious as Remembrance of Things Past was a major challenge for Proust. While Wilson may have been off the mark thematically, his observation that the novel’s structure is symphonic, a series of shifting images with “multiplied associations,” is accurate. In so describing Proust, Wilson, like other critics, emphasized Proust’s debt to Symbolism specifically and Romanticism generally. Proust’s appreciation of introspection, his attentiveness to and enthusiasm for the natural world, his awareness of the power of the subjective and unconscious, and his use of image as symbol—all are variations on themes and techniques developed by nineteenth century French Romantics. Proust’s affinity with the Symbolists was reinforced by his appreciation of the metaphysics of Henri Bergson, who was one of Proust’s professors and a cousin by marriage. Although Proust denied any debt to Bergson, he, like Bergson, appreciated the role of intuition as a source of knowledge. Bergson also believed, as Wallace Fowlie has pointed out in his book A Reading of Proust (1964), that the capacity of an object to stimulate the memory lies in the individual himself, not in the object. By embracing the Symbolists and Bergson, Proust aligned himself clearly with those who resisted a purely scientific interpretation of reality.
Proust employs a variety of specific means to give shape to his world. Most important, perhaps, is the organization of Remembrance of Things Past into three major quests undertaken by the protagonist, Marcel. The first is the quest for love, a search that prompts much subjective analysis by the protagonist. In contrast, the second quest, Marcel’s emergence into society, draws upon Proust’s brilliant and often comic observations of both manners and morals. The quest for love begins with young Marcel’s desperate desire for a goodnight kiss from his mother, a desire frustrated by Swann’s call on his parents. Marcel’s subsequent infatuations with Gilberte, the Duchess de Guermantes, and Albertine are paralleled by other, equally vain quests for love by Swann for Odette, Robert de Saint-Loup for Rachel, and Baron de Charlus for Morel. The quest for love is symbolized in part by Swann’s Way, one of the two paths that leads young Marcel and his family from their home in Combray to the outside world. The other road, the Guermantes Way, symbolizes the quest for society that leads Marcel from the secure world of family, servants, and neighbors in Combray to the drawing room of Odette Swann and, later, to a higher echelon of society symbolized by the salon of the slightly déclassé “bluestocking” Madame de Villeparisis. From there, Marcel finds his way into the much sought-after world of the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes and ultimately to the most socially exalted milieu of all, the soirees given by Prince and Princess de Guermantes.
In the same way that Swann’s Way and Guermantes Way are finally united when Swann’s daughter marries a Guermantes, these two quests, one private, one public, come together in mutual disillusionment. What saves the novel from utter despair is the persistence of those things that are not defeated by time and human vanity: Marcel’s memories of his grandmother’s selflessness and love, his involuntary recollection of sensations that produced great happiness, his realization of the eternity that lies within art. Thus, failure in the first two quests allows for success in the third: Marcel’s pursuit of a career as an artist. The quest for art, initially overshadowed by love and society, is hinted at, however, by the presence in the novel of three artists who, in spite of their foibles and miseries, have created enduring works of art: the novelist Bergotte, the painter Elstir, and the composer Vinteuil. Indeed, although the emphasis shifts from book to book, all three quests figure in each of the seven novels that together make up Remembrance of Things Past.
Swann’s Way, the chronicle of Marcel’s childhood, begins and ends with memories of the protagonist, the mature Marcel. The first memory, recounted in a section called “Overture,” is preceded by a description of the disorientation and pleasure that come from awakening in a darkened room at night. This sensation is one that Marcel has learned to relish, because it leads him to recall other rooms, particularly those of Combray, his childhood home. Marcel recalls the particular evening when Swann called on his family. Wealthy, Jewish, suave, and sophisticated, Swann visits Marcel’s family frequently when he is home from Paris. Swann’s visit upsets Marcel because it interrupts the ritual of his mother’s nightly kiss. In his room, young Marcel grows so desperate that he sends Françoise, the cook, to deliver a note to his mother. His mother does not come until Swann leaves, but Marcel’s stern father suggests unexpectedly that she sleep in Marcel’s room to comfort him. The triumph of Marcel, touching yet disturbing in its power to manipulate, proves to be paradoxical. Even though he possesses his mother’s attention, Marcel senses that such happiness, such a moment of unexpected success, is fleeting. “I knew that such a night could not be repeated.” One function of this incident is clear: Marcel’s quest for love has a most ambiguous beginning.
Immediately following the famous scene of the mother’s kiss, Proust draws a crucial distinction between two types of memory. The first is voluntary, or recollection associated with intellect, “an exercise of the will.” Voluntary memory is largely sterile and in vivid contrast to the sensations created by the second type, involuntary memory. Proust makes this distinction clear by recounting the episode of la petite madeleine, or little cake. The adult Marcel comes home on a winter day to tea and cakes. The crumbs in the spoon of tea give him exquisite pleasure, much to his surprise and delight. Initially puzzled by the sensation, Marcel suddenly recovers the memory: His Aunt Léonie had once given him tea and madeleines. An entire vision of forgotten elements of Combray surges over him. The incident is charming in itself, but it also anticipates a larger movement in the novel, Marcel’s quest for the source of artistic inspiration.
Having resurrected memories of his youthful home in the madeleine incident, Proust logically moves to the next section, titled “Combray.” Here emerges Marcel’s childhood as it is shaped by family, an occasional school friend such as the pugnacious Bloch, and his reading of novels, particularly the works of Bergotte, an acquaintance of Swann. While Proust has been accused of being careless, casual, and prolix, the Combray section indicates quite the opposite. The characters and the quest motifs and themes are introduced without diverting the reader’s attention away from the immediate concern, the characterization of Marcel’s early years. Like Charles Dickens, Proust creates characters that seem to have their own independent lives. The bedridden Aunt Léonie, for example, delights the reader with her quixotic pursuit of local gossip, yet her attachment to her sickroom clearly anticipates Marcel’s own frequent retirements to his bed.
The Combray section also introduces the two “ways” that will influence Marcel’s life, Swann’s and Guermantes’. These two walks, the first represented by the lover Swann and the second by the socially prominent Duchess de Guermantes, will be the symbolic means by which Marcel will come to know the world outside Combray. While walking Swann’s Way, Marcel first sees Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, who will be the object of Marcel’s first quest outside the confines of family. In an irony that is distinctly Proustian, Gilberte, standing under the pink hawthorns, makes an obscene gesture that to Marcel has the appearance of anger and rejection. The adult Marcel discovers that the reality was quite the opposite: Gilberte’s youthful intentions were entirely sexual. This misreading of appearances emerges as one of the novel’s central themes.
The Combray incidents are followed by what may seem an unlikely sequel, a novel within a novel titled “Swann in Love.” Although audacious technically, its position within the larger work is logical and effective. Swann’s affair with Odette contributes to the whole in terms of both style and theme. Proust reveals first of all his flexibility in use of point of view. The entire episode is told by an omniscient narrator; Proust recognizes that there is no way that either the youthful or the adult Marcel could be privy to the history of Swann’s romance. Focusing on the sophisticated Swann also allows Proust to characterize the social world of Paris that Marcel will someday pursue. Of particular interest is Proust’s use of the Verdurins and their “little nucleus” of friends. Not only do they enlarge one’s knowledge of the teeming social life of Paris, but also they form a comic, ironic backdrop for Swann’s tender love. Comically vulgar, the Verdurins are on the bottom rung of the social ladder—bohemians, as Marcel’s grandfather calls them. Madame Verdurin will ultimately become much more than a backdrop, however; she will marry the Prince de Guermantes and prove herself to be the most vivid example of the immensity of the social change that occurs in the full novel’s fifty-year time span. Another theme, similar in its social character, is also introduced in “Swann in Love.” It occurs in a passing comment made by Oriane, the Princess des Laumes, about Swann’s being a Jew. While apparently irrelevant in the early part of Remembrance of Things Past, the question of anti-Semitism, raised by the Dreyfus affair, later divided France profoundly.
This section’s title indicates the primary focus of “Swann in Love.” Swann’s obsession with Odette, replete with ironies and contradictions, foreshadows Marcel’s own loves; Swann is indeed the archetype of the Proustian lover. Whether heterosexual or “inverted” (Proust’s term for homosexual), the lover chooses as his object someone who at best only obliquely shares his values. Swann—a member of the Jockey Club, a friend of the Prince of Wales, a man whose eye is so sensitive that he sees reflections of Giotto’s Charity in a kitchen maid, the very spiritual and artistic father of Marcel—is also a man who seeks after prostitutes. He is continually vulnerable to “the sight of healthy, abundant, rosy human flesh.” Similarly, the elegant, manly Robert de Saint-Loup is obsessed with the plain, whorish Rachel, and the Baron de Charlus freely spends his social, moral, and emotional capital on the unscrupulous grandson of a valet, Morel. While Odette de Crécy is no ordinary courtesan, she nevertheless has little of Swann’s sophistication and sensibility. Once Swann has possessed Odette physically, their love is composed of lies, infidelities, perhaps lesbian sexuality on Odette’s part, and jealousy and obsession on Swann’s. Most significant, “this malady, which was Swann’s love,” will afflict Marcel as perniciously in his quest of Albertine.
A particularly brilliant scene, Swann attending a soiree at Madame de Sainte-Euverte’s, illustrates both the function of Swann in the larger work and the tightly woven texture of Proust’s art. Wishing to leave a drawing room—a room off-limits to Odette—Swann is irritated that he has been entrapped by the beginning of a musical piece. He soon recognizes a series of notes that proves to be a phrase from a sonata by the fictional composer Vinteuil, the same piece Swann had earlier called the national anthem of his love for Odette. Swann’s experience as he listens to the piece foreshadows Marcel’s most profound discoveries: involuntary memory as the source of revelation and disappointment in love. As he listens, Swann “could see it all: the snowy, curled petals of the chrysanthemumthe address ’Maison Dorée’ embossed on the note paperthe frowning contraction of her eyebrows.” From the moment he hears the sonata, Swann knows he can never revive his love for Odette.
Not only does Swann’s epiphany, rooted in involuntary memory, foreshadow Marcel’s in the final volume of the novel, but also it indicates how Proust develops a number of themes simultaneously. The party at Madame de Sainte-Euverte’s is also fine social satire, one of Proust’s major concerns. The important theme of music, represented by Vinteuil, is present. The works of Vinteuil will eventually play as large a role in Marcel’s life as in Swann’s. Most important, Swann is, as Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature (1980), calls him, “a kind of fancy mirror of the narrator himself,” one who “sets the pattern.” Significant, too, is the pervading sense of paradox and irony that attends Swann’s realization of love gone stale. The scene unobtrusively knits together elements of plot and theme that preceded it, renders them with clarity in a fully realized present, and anticipates further enrichments of plot and theme to come. The scene does not conclude Swann’s concern for Odette; their love goes through death throes described in images of disease and decay. As “Swann in Love” ends, it appears that Swann and Odette have separated permanently; as it turns out, however, only Swann’s love has been lost.
Swann’s Way concludes with a section titled “Place-Names: The Name.” The reader has reentered the world of Marcel’s childhood, now set in Paris. Thematically, even in matters of plot, this last section is still clearly connected to “Swann in Love.” Marcel wishes to travel; the names of Venice, Florence, and Balbec are magical to him. Because of his health, however, Marcel is forced to remain in Paris. While playing in the Champs-Elysées, he meets Gilberte, Odette, and Swann’s daughter, the same girl he had seen in Combray. Initially, Gilberte is kind to Marcel; she gives him an agate marble and an essay by Bergotte on Jean Racine. Gilberte’s enthusiasm is in contrast to Marcel’s, however, much as her mother’s feelings had been for Swann. Marcel is aware that he loves alone, but he still maintains his keen interest for her parents. He tries to imitate Swann’s mannerisms, and when Gilberte chooses not to be available, he watches the resplendent Odette walk along the Allée des Acacias. In this same locale twenty years later, the adult Marcel makes the closing observations of Swann’s Way. On a somber November day, Marcel finds that “vulgarity and fatuity” have replaced the standards of elegance that Odette had set years before. More important, Marcel is led to reflect on memory and its relationship to reality: “The reality that I had known no longer existed.” The sadness of Marcel as he feels the onslaught of fugitive time is not yet assuaged by the knowledge that time can, in fact, be regained with all of its color and truth. All he knows is that physical space, in this instance the Bois de Boulogne, does not contain the reality of the past. Marcel can remember Odette, but he experiences none of the ecstasy associated with involuntary memory. Thus, the melancholy tone of these closing pages indicates clearly that Marcel’s goals of love, society, and an artistic vocation have not yet been achieved.
Within a Budding Grove
Even though Marcel’s exact age is not stated, Swann’s Way concerns itself generally with the years of Marcel’s childhood, while Within a Budding Grove develops his adolescence. A sign of Marcel’s increasing independence is his frequent visits to the drawing room of Madame Swann, whom Marcel’s parents will not receive, despite their warm feelings for her husband. Thus, the first long chapter of Within a Budding Grove is titled “Madame Swann at Home.” The second, somewhat shorter section, “Place-Names: The Place,” and the third and concluding chapter, “Seascape, with Frieze of Girls,” depict Marcel’s first venture away from his parents. Even though his grandmother accompanies him for reasons of health to the seaside hotel at Balbec, Marcel experiences considerable freedom. He mingles with the lower classes, young women, the members of the aristocratic Guermantes family, and the Impressionist painter Elstir (who, like the composer Vinteuil, is a composite of several real artists), all of whom contribute to his largely unconscious search for the real. Indeed, appearances still make their claim on Marcel, but new realities begin to make themselves felt.
In spite of Within a Budding Grove’s concentration on Marcel’s life apart from parental influence, its first great scene occurs within the confines of the family; furthermore, it is one of the few scenes in which Marcel’s father emerges with much clarity. The occasion is a small dinner for the Marquis de Norpois, a distinguished member of the Foreign Office (Marcel’s father is Permanent Secretary there). While Norpois reappears frequently in later novels, his primary function at the dinner is to introduce subtly the themes that will find elaboration in subsequent scenes. Marcel’s career as a writer, the major concern of Remembrance of Things Past, is first discussed openly at the dinner. Norpois champions the vocation of writer, an important gesture, because Marcel’s father has opposed it. In the hands of Dickens, Norpois would be the archetype of the good uncle who intervenes on behalf of a young boy beset by an incompetent or hostile father figure.
While Proust’s method of characterization does seek out the type in the individual, as Swann sees the Botticellian possibilities in Odette, the type is always fully rounded, almost to the point of contradicting the type. Françoise is the good, faithful servant, but her limitations are never ignored. Similarly, Swann is the connoisseur, yet, as Norpois points out, since his marriage to Odette he has at times played the parvenu. In the case of Norpois, while he promotes Marcel’s writing career, he nearly cuts it short by agreeing with Marcel’s falsely modest assertion that his first writing exercise was “childish scribbling.” Norpois goes on to attack Marcel’s beloved Bergotte, judging him precious and an “evil influence.” In a manner typical of him, Proust makes twofold use of Norpois’s literary remarks. They obviously frustrate and antagonize the sensitive Marcel; they also contain many of the objections that Proust’s own novels met critically. Norpois particularly dislikes “all those Chinese puzzles of form,” saying that “all these deliquescent mandarin subtleties seem to me to be quite futile.” Ironically, when Marcel soon thereafter meets Bergotte at Odette’s, he is immensely disappointed and recalls Norpois’s assessment. Marcel’s lofty vision of the novelist, inferred from his work, is mocked by Bergotte’s disappointing physical qualities and his snobbery and ambition.
In addition to its effect on Marcel’s writing career, Norpois’s conversation reminds the reader of other topics and themes. Norpois’s personal political credentials are established by his recollections of service to France under reactionary and radical governments; later he appears as the most reasonable of the anti-Dreyfusards. While Swann’s Jewishness is not mentioned by Norpois, he does provide the missing exposition on Swann’s marriage, and the reader is once again reminded of the love theme, which is reinforced by Norpois’s insistence that Marcel be allowed to see the famous actress Berma perform as Phèdre in Jean Racine’s great play. Norpois also plays a minor but important role in Marcel’s growing social awareness; his influence extends from Odette’s drawing room to the court of kings, yet he will not honor Marcel’s simple, enthusiastic request that he mention his, Marcel’s, name to Odette.
Before his journey to Balbec, Marcel does find admittance to Odette’s salon. Marcel himself describes his time spent at Swann’s house as a stage in his movement upward in society. Ironically, it was Marcel’s quest for love, not society, that originally attracted him to Swann’s. His first visit comes after Gilberte invites him to tea following his attack of asthma. He continues to call, but Odette takes more pleasure in his presence than does Gilberte. Finally, while coyly refusing to see Gilberte, Marcel remains faithful to Odette, among her chrysanthemums and coterie of bourgeois acquaintances. Marcel discontinues his visits when he learns another fact of love: Absence breeds forgetfulness. He still visits the Bois de Boulogne, knowing the exact time when Odette walks there, the very personification of Woman as she strolls with her mauve parasol, followed by Swann and his friends from the Jockey Club. This particular vision of Odette leads the adult Marcel to conclude that one’s memories of “poetical sensations” are much greater than one’s memory of suffering.
Two years pass before Marcel takes the 1:22 train to Balbec with his grandmother. The summer and fall Marcel passes there greatly increase his knowledge of society and, to a lesser extent, his knowledge of love. Although he longs to die when he first sees the unfamiliar room in the Grand Hotel, habit and the presence of Françoise and his grandmother soon make this new world bearable, even pleasurably exciting.
The much-desired world of society appears at first to be closed off to Marcel. He must resign himself to the presence of chattering, vulgar provincials and disdainful members of the local aristocracy. Circumstances, however, prove kind, and an accidental meeting between his grandmother and the Marquise de Villeparisis, her old schoolmate, slowly opens up a new world to Marcel. The Marquise is a member of the distinguished Guermantes family, and she proves to be an indispensable step in Marcel’s movement to the very top of the social hierarchy. To demonstrate her fondness for Marcel, she takes him on carriage rides about the countryside. Proust identifies her closely with the arts; her family owns paintings by Titian, and her father entertained Stendhal. She herself will write a highly regarded memoir. She is also, unbeknown to Marcel, the Marquis de Norpois’s lover. Madame de Villeparisis illustrates one of the central principles of Proust’s world: A character’s identity cannot be known at once; time will unfold its secrets, and the reader comes to see, as Nabokov has put it, that Proust’s characters wear a series of masks.
Madame de Villeparisis also introduces Marcel to her nephews, two characters who figure prominently in the evolution of a variety of themes, including love and the analysis of society. Marcel’s first impression of the handsome, elegant Robert, Marquis de Saint-Loup, is negative. His apparent insolence, however, masks a generosity that conquers both Marcel and his unpretentious, socially indifferent grandmother. The other, older nephew, Palamède, Baron de Charlus, wears an even more impenetrable mask. To characterize the Baron for Marcel, Robert relates an incident that illustrates both the Baron’s virility and his hostility to inversion; Robert clearly is unaware that the Baron, who has stared fixedly at Marcel, is, in fact decidedly homosexual. Robert also points out with some family pride that the Baron, who moves with ease in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the pinnacle of Parisian society, has a list at the Jockey Club of two hundred members to whom he would not permit himself to be introduced.
The Baron will play one of the central roles in Marcel’s drama. His two major functions, furthering Marcel’s social awareness and explicating the homosexual theme, are joined by a third: His formal social demeanor provides a vivid contrast to the crude behavior of Bloch, Marcel’s Jewish friend. Part of Marcel’s social education is his exposure to the Bloch family as well as to the Guermanteses. Lest Proust’s portrayal of the vulgarity of the Blochs be seen as anti-Semitic, however, one must recall that Proust’s mother and her family, whom he loved and honored, were Jewish, as were many of his closest friends. As in his treatment of other minorities—ethnic, social, and sexual—Proust proves to be compassionate without indulging in apologies or sentimentality. No character would have been more offended by the Bloch family’s lack of decorum than the Jewish Swann. Also, Robert’s Jewish mistress, Rachel, while seen as manipulative, “had opened his mind to the invisible, had brought a serious element into his life, delicacy into his heart.”
While Marcel finds pleasure in his new acquaintances at Balbec, his attention is most avidly focused on a band of young girls whom he sees about the town and countryside. He meets them through an unexpected source, the famous painter Elstir. Marcel’s easy access to Elstir brings to mind one of the most frequent criticisms of the novel: The young, inexperienced Marcel makes a quick conquest of almost everyone he meets, from duchesses and novelists to lift boys. The reader’s only direct clue to Marcel’s charm is found in The Guermantes Way, when Marcel wittily entertains Robert’s friends at the army town of Doncières. Marcel is usually passive both in tête-à-têtes and in society. Elstir nevertheless takes Marcel seriously enough to deliver a stirring monologue on aesthetic matters and the nature of wisdom. Marcel, however, seems more concerned with the failure to appear of a young girl who occasionally visits Elstir’s studio. Marcel does eventually meet this young girl, Albertine. His immediate response to her is distinctly Proustian: The real Albertine is less than the imagined one. Following an innocent courtship that thrives on games played in the sand dunes with a band of girls, Marcel chooses Albertine to be his love interest. When Marcel makes advances toward her, however, she repulses them, and Marcel’s initiation into the larger world of Balbec ends, as does Swann’s Way, on a melancholy, cool note. The novel has, however, furthered Marcel’s quest for love and prepared for his entry into the salons of Parisian society.
The Guermantes Way
The Guermantes Way begins with a mundane fact, but one crucial to the success of Marcel’s dual quest for love and society. Marcel’s family has moved to the Hôtel Guermantes, the Paris residence of the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes and Madame de Villeparisis; there, too, is Jupien’s tailor shop. While it is conceivable that Marcel might have made his way into the most distinguished drawing rooms of Paris without this change, it clearly makes Proust’s plotting easier, even though plot is, perhaps, comparatively a lesser concern in such an expansive, comprehensive work as Remembrance of Things Past. Proust’s keen psychological analyses, his brilliant use of metaphors to give depth and clarity to his themes, his elegance of style, and his sense of comedy are his chief virtues. Perhaps of all the novels of Proust’s epic, The Guermantes Way best illustrates the truth of such a proposition.
The key organizing principle of...
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