Proust Read-Along: Swann’s Way Part One, Combray

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.

Proust Book

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?

Janell of An Everyday Life

tuesday in silhouette

Wrap up post on Parts Two and Three: May 15.

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

45 thoughts on “Proust Read-Along: Swann’s Way Part One, Combray”

  1. Isn’t it a marvelous book? Has he gone into raptures over the blooming hawthorns yet? Did that ever make me want to plant a grove of hawthorns in my garden.

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    1. Stefanie,

      Exactly how I felt. You see, after reading that passage, I went straight to Google to see if Hawthorn trees could grow here in my zone. It was just fascinating to read.

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  2. Well, Arti, I really admire you for plowing through this. I’m afraid Proust takes more brain cells than I have these days — although the language is quite lovely. It’s fun to ride along with you!

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    1. Jeanie,

      I must say, to my surprise, it has been a delight reading Proust. I never thought it would be so enjoyable, despite having to plow through page-long sentences. Yes, there are lots I didn’t get, but for those passages that I did, I’d thoroughly enjoyed them.

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    2. It took me 7 years to read (in English) the first time ( and I wept at the end), five years the second time and now I’m on my third reading – always with a fresh translation. I now think I understand it all (ha ha, I have another surprise coming no doubt). Have you noticed how often the final phrase or even final word in a (long) paragraph sums up the whole thing. Quality, sheer quality, all the way. But I have yet to meet anyone I can discuss it with, face to face – Christopher Hitchens’ death was a tragedy – where are they/you all? And I can never expain to anyone else why it’s so good – what do other people say when asked this question?
      East Leake, Notts, England. (That’s England, England)

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      1. Keith,

        I’ve just finished reading Within A Budding Grove (Vol.2), and I know I must go back to Swann’s Way to read it again before I even attempt to move on. I know much I’d missed and didn’t see or get. And I must try to see your perceptive observation about the last phrase of paragraphs. You’re absolutely right about the sheer quality of the writing… the sensitivity, the detailed psychological analysis, the shrewd observations of human behavior and the depiction of the heart. I know it will take me years to finish all seven volumes (if I ever can do it) mainly because I just have to go back and reread some more before I move on to the next.

        Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Yes, I’ve appreciated someone from England stopping by the pond here in Alberta, Canada, throw in a pebble or two and make some ripples. Hope to hear from you again.

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  3. I just read your past posts which I had missed. I was interested by your review of Before I Go to Sleep and then read the article about Clive Wearing and his amnesia – my husband who has been diagnosed with onset Alzheimer has no short-term memory. As for Proust as I told you I’ll read the series when I obtain all the books in French- now I have 3 only. Maybe next time I am in Paris I’ll try to find them at Gibert. I just finished “My Life in France” by Julia Child and was interested to learn more about her role at the OSS (where she met her husband Paul.) So I just finished another book about the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) called Sisterhood of Spies – The Women of the OSS by Elizabeth McIntosh (from the library) these women were real heroes- doing so much during WW2. I’ll see if I can find more accounts of what they did against the SS.

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    1. Vagabonde,

      Thanks for stopping by to ‘catch up’ on my posts. I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s condition. I hope you can find resources to deal with the condition. BTW, just learned recently that coconut oil is very helpful for Alzheimer’s, even reversing the symptoms. You may want to research on that.

      I totally understand your intention to gather all the seven volumes before starting it. That’s only natural, since it’s all one novel. It’s just me that I doubt I have the perseverance to go thru them all. However, I just might go and read another one or two volumes, because I really enjoy Proust’s writing, despite getting lost some of the time.

      As you know, I’ve finished the Bonhoeffer read-along, and from that bio, I’ve since read some other books with Holocaust setting such as Suite Française and In the Garden of Beasts. Your research and keen interest in the OSS is admirable… and I await your posts on that and your reading. Julia Child of course was quite a character. I was going to read her autobio. after watching the movie Julie and Julia.

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  4. I love your line: Surely unexamined lives are not worth living. Of course, all the lines of your review are meaningful, which I read wih fervor, but that one struck a particular chord.

    I’m currently on page 128, but it will not take me long to read that much again…now that my son has graduated from the Marine Corps this weekend and I can slow down a little bit. Like Proust did in writing this piece. I’ll post soon, my friend.

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    1. Bellezza,

      Well, I must not take credit for it, as you know that’s Socrates’ line. But anyway, that’s what I was thinking when I read through this first Part of In Search of Lost Time. And what’s amazing is he can regurgitate with such details and insights. We don’t have a name for the child, I don’t think, but later we know he’s Marcel. And I keep thinking this has to be autobiographical.

      Take your time to finish it. You can’t speed read Proust. And yes, Congrats to your son for graduating from the Marine Corps… and to Mom too! 😉

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      1. I have not abandoned ship, my friend. I have let this April time slip by, but I will join you in May for the rest of Swann’s Way. I’m listening to it, slowly, in the car as I drive to work. It seems the perfect avenue for me with this prose.

        I am struck by Marcel, the child, who doesn’t want to get people in trouble on purpose, yet he can’t help letting slip the things that he observes (such as his uncle’s girlfriend). Proust describes the innocence of childhood so sincerely.

        While I appreciate his yearning for his mother’s kiss, I can’t reconcile some of the more lurid fantasies he’s expressed for some woman in his dreams. As a child? Really? They are brief, and perhaps I’m misinterpreting them.

        The discussion with Swann about books was wonderful! I think that’s where I put most of my highlights in my Nook edition.

        We’ll resume thoughts in May, xo

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  5. Hey Arti,

    Where do I begin?

    Maybe by confessing that I’m planning to post reactions tomorrow — even though I’ve only read half of Part One… (reasons why I’ll address then) — and that I’m looking forward to reading your post afterwards. Life has been so busy. And Proust, so challenging. Until then…

    Janell

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      1. Arti,

        Thanks for reminding me of that bit on page 73. There’s just so much beauty breathing within these pages, it’s easy to lose it. Or grow numb to it.

        Unlike you, I’m unable to press on without spending precious time wallowing in what I can’t easily understand. Of course, the cost, is that I’ve fallen behind and may never catch up.

        But I can’t help but wonder what waits for us on the other side, post-Proust. It sounds as though you’ve plans to read all seven volumes — I added them to my Amazon Wish list earlier today, so maybe I’m making ambitious plans too… perhaps a tad overambitious, for one, who has only reached page 134…

        Onward march.

        Janell

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        1. Janell,

          Thanks for reading with me. You’d have known by now, I’m an advocate for slow blogging, and a practitioner of slow reading. I can fully understand yours, as well as all the other participants’ dilemma… Proust, or life? It’s ironic, isn’t it? Anyway, I don’t think I’d actively pursue to finish all of the volumes, but maybe just one more since it has such a beautiful title. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so far. I look forward to your future post when you’re all ‘caught up’. Have a good vacation with Proust as companion! 😉

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  6. I think if you have to spend your days in a cork-lined room, you’d probably manage the three pages on a piece of chocolate cake! Proust had a lot of time to think about stuff… I also think you’re quite right to read for what does catch your eye and tug at your mind. The further in you get, the easier it will all become, trust me!

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    1. litlove,

      I trust you… you probably had dwelt on it several times and had taught it. I look forward to the rest of Swann’s Way, and to the second volume after that… Thanks for stopping by and encouraging me to go past ambiguity and move on. 😉

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  7. I’ve been curious about Proust’s writing, but knowing how long his writings are I haven’t ever been curious enough to pick them up. I’m so glad I saw this post and the passages you shared – they are eloquent and full of beauty. I still don’t know when I’ll ever have time to read them, but at least now I have a better idea of what they’re like.

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    1. Alyce,

      This first Volume is a nice introduction, I think, into Proust’s mind. The ride may be slow, but the scenery is worth it. Thanks for stopping by.

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  8. Arti, I just made it through the first section, and I agree with everything you say – especially about the humour. It was such a surprise to me, because I imagined this book would be all sentimental/soppy, but it was so beautifully put together, yet sharp and observant.

    And I really love how this book has its own pace. I feel that you can’t force yourself through it, but you have to let it take you there. I’m meant to have started on the next volume according to my ‘schedule’ but I’m really enjoying taking it slow atm!

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    1. tuesday in silhouette,

      I’m so glad you’ve made it through and enjoyed it. It’s beautiful isn’t it, this first part entitled ‘Combray’? I’d never thought it would be ‘sentimental/soppy’, but my apprehension before I started reading was that it would be too philosophical and incomprehensible. Well, the genius of Proust’s is, yes, its philosophical insights are all embedded in enticing prose and in accessible thematic matters. And yes, there are places where the length of the sentence renders it incomprehensible, but then I’m already hooked by his characters and descriptions.

      Thanks so much for participating in the read-along. I’ll link your post here, and look forward to your sharing of Parts 2 & 3 come May 15.

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  9. Not unlike Proust’s madeleine, reading this instantly brought me back to a portable classroom in suburban California high school where my cantankerous french teacher (une vrai parisienne) waxed poetic about a passage by a writer who himself waxed poetic about cookies with a degree of fixation that my 17 year old self determined was positively unseemly for anyone above the age of 5.

    Looking back I imagine a bit was was lost in translation!

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    1. Jessica,

      I think that’s what makes Proust’s writing so powerful, able to evoke memories from deep within his readers. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment.

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  10. Proust is marvelous and I thank you for introducing him to me. narratives of simple things and just pouring the words is so enchanting. well stated, well done. congratulations.

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  11. What a great blogging project – especially as you could go on blogging about the books till kingdom come, there being seven of them.

    I have the first book downstairs, having started it once upon a time without finishing it. You have inspired me to pick it up again. Thank you.

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    1. Michael G,

      You’re so right… reading all seven volumes could well be a lifelong occupation for me, but I’ll just stick with this first one for the blog read-along… lots to do before kingdom come. BTW, like your Wikipedia page. 😉

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  12. Pingback: isactest1
    1. Claire,

      Thanks so much! Yes, read-alongs are great for ‘difficult’ books. You can see what I’ve read on the sidebar. I admit, I probably wouldn’t have read them if not for hosting a read-along. 😉

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  13. For the second time today I am being forced into admitting that I’ve never read Proust. Stephanie has just blogged about his poetry and maybe that’s where I should start. But I do have to read something by a man who dunks his madeleines in his tea. I am one of the world’s great biscuit dunkers.

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    1. Alex,

      Before I started this read-along a month ago, I hadn’t read a single page of Proust’s. So, we’re all in the same boat. But if for nothing else, just for the solidarity of all biscuit dunkers through the ages, do go for this first volume of In Search of Lost Time. The literary styling of Proust’s memory of Combray is as delicious as madeleines, or chocolate cakes. 😉

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  14. “Swann’s Way puts you firmly behind the eyes and into the mind of its characters. And so completely will you borrow their thoughts, feelings, and passion, that they become entangled with your own. This isn’t just a good book. It’s hard to define, sublime and infinitely underlineable; but ultimately, Swann’s Way is nothing short of a walking tour for the human mind.”

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    1. Adam,

      You’re spot on in your review of Swann’s Way. Proust is the most introspective and detailed observer of the human psyche I’ve ever read… of course, there’s lot I haven’t read, but this is definitely on top of all I’ve read. We’ll be posting our thoughts to wrap up Swann’s Way on May 15 for our Read-Along. You’re most welcome to stop by then and share with us your thoughts. I’d be glad to link your post on my blog. Hope to hear from you again.

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  15. Found your blog through Freshly Pressed… I started Swann’s Way half a year ago and haven’t finished (and I can usually devour books on a single night), though what I’ve read of it I’ve fallen in love with… passionately. I thought this was a strange thing but it’s comforting to know it’s not only me who finds it challenging. Your advice to “read through ambiguity, discard the expectations of clarity and congruity, accept incomprehension and press on” has been very much appreciated. Proust will definitely go back to my dinning table (a.k.a. office, studio, desk, sometimes-bed) and join its current conqueror Mo Yan. Looking forward to reading your posts!

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    1. Chatte Nocturne,

      Welcome! Yes, after finishing Vol. 1, I must say I’ve to adapt myself to read Proust, and yes, it can be highly enjoyable at times. I’ve just posted the last two sections of Swann’s Way. Feel free to stop by and comment. I’d be interested to read your thoughts on Mo Yan. All the best in your reading!

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      1. Thanks Art!

        I’ve actually been looking hard to get my hands on some Sarah Kane but apparently there’s not one book in sight here in Mexico. However my now recurrent stroll over bookstores and libraries has meant more books (yay!). This is how I finally convinced myself to read Mo Yan, which I’ve been looking forward to except the Nobel put off, once they give it to someone I feel the milk’s gone bad somehow. So I went in for my Red Sorghum and came out, amongst other stuff, with Freud’s Sister (didn’t actually walked out with his sister, but I don’t know how to type cursives on comments lol).

        Anyways, where I’m going with this is I already made a post on my blog that delt slightly with the abovementioned contemporary novel (wich you can check at notallaboutcats.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/for-the-100th-time/) *shamelessly self-promotes*, so I might as well do another one on Mo Yan’s. What I’ve seen so far is a remarkable influence by Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, only much more crude. I’ll let you know when I post that post!

        Chatte

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  16. Combray was a beautiful description of native soil. I enjoyed the part (p148) where he describes the lily undulating back and forth on the Vivonne’s current and compares it to maladies of neurasthenia sufferers, and further, an episode from Dante. I want a magic lantern like that.

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  17. Hi Arti, I’ve just started to read A la Recherche too and I’m still at the beginning. I’m charting my progress on my website, reading and re-reading the same passages from different points of view to get as much out of them as I can. I will be following what you’ve written to inspire my own reading. Perhaps we can share ripples? My first meeting is on http://frockfriday.co.uk/proust-book-group-meeting-1overture-and-combray/. Hopefully it might interest you. I look forward to new Proust posts with interest.

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    1. Isabella,

      Thanks for stopping by Ripple Effects and leaving your comment. It’s wonderful that you’re organizing a Proust reading group. You know, my post here was written more than two years ago. Combray is no longer fresh in my mind such that I’m afraid I won’t be much of a contributor to your discussions, but I’d definitely go visit your blog and check out the views posted there. Thanks for letting me know. 😉

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