by Marcel Proust
a new translation by Lydia DavisCombray
"If my mother was an unfaithful reader she was also, in the case of books in which she found the inflection of true feeling, a wonderul reader for the respect and simplicity of her interpretation, the beauty and gentleness of the sound of her voice." (p 42)
The opening book of In Search of Lost Time is Swann's Way. It in turn is divided into three sections, the first being Combray. We enter the world of the narrator as a young boy when he is trying to sleep while being interrupted by his thoughts. It is these thoughts, described as "reflections on what I had just read" that engage us on the first page of this first section of the first of many volumes. The young boy gradually returns to sleep only to find himself dreaming of the origins of woman from the rib of the first man. It may be that this is one way to view the beginnings of Proust's long tale as the origin of the story of one man's life from the imagination of our narrator as he remembers the events of his life as a young boy at the village of Combray in the house of his Aunt Leonie with his parents.
Why is it that reading generates in the imagination of the young boy such strong reflections that they interrupt his sleep? One way to answer this is to look first at the mind from which the imagination emanates. It is a mind described thusly,
"And wasn't my mind also like another crib in the depths of which I felt I remained ensconced . . . When I saw an external object, my awareness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, lining it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever directly touching its substance; it would volatize in some way before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body brought near a wet object never touches its moisture because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation." (p 85)
Marcel's mind (for Marcel is his name) is invigorated by his reading "from inside to outside, toward the discovery of the truth," reading that aroused his emotions as he experienced the dramatic events in the book. It is these emotions that bring with them an intensity that makes Marcel feel more alive than any other activity. He relates,
"And once the novelist has put us in that state, in which, as in all purely internal states, every emotion is multiplied tenfold, in which his book will disturb us as might a dream but a dream more lucid than those we have while sleeping and whose memory will last longer, then see how he provokes us within one hour all possible happiness and all possible unhappiness just a few of which we would spend years of our lives coming to know and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slowness with which they occur prevents us from perceiving them" (p 87)
It is not only reading that defines young Marcel, but also his relationships with people around him, not only his mother and aunt, but others including the faithful servant Francoise, the wealthy Jewish neighbor Swann, also Legrandin and Bloch who are introduced to him at Combray. Bloch is interesting in part because he introduces Marcel to the writing of Bergotte. It is Bergotte who above all others entrances the young boy.
"In the first few days, like a melody with which one will become infatuated but which one cannot yet make out, what I was to love so much in his style was not apparent to me. I could no put down the novel of his that I was reading, but thought I was interested only in the subject, as during that first period of love when you go to meet a woman every day at some gathering, some entertainment, thinking you are drawn to it by its pleasures. Then I noticed the rare, almost archaic expressions he liked to use at certain moments, when a hidden wave of harmony, an inner prelude, would heighten his style; and it was also at theses moments that he would speak of the "vain dream of life," the "inexhaustible torrent of beautiful appearance," the "moving effigies that forever ennoble the venerable and charming facades of our cathedrals," that he expressed an entire philosophy, new to me, through marvelous images" (pp 95-96)
Reading Bergotte yields a "joy" within Marcel that allowed him to experience "a deeper, vaster, more unified region" of himself. It is through such experiences of reading and the resulting flights of imagination that the reader is introduced to the book that to be read and understood must yield similar emotions for the reader. Yet it is not only reading that thrills Marcel in Proust's story but also, as can be seen from the description of Bergotte's novel, music and its even stronger impact on his imagination.
Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, trans. by Lydia Davis. Viking Press, 2003.