Thursday, 13 September 2018

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

I read Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s seven volume novel Remembrances of Things Past, about five years ago. Then I could not make an investment of time and attention that is required for reading the entire set of seven volumes (which consists of about 3000 pages). Now I am seriously thinking of finishing the six volumes that I couldn’t read earlier.

The title of Proust’s novel is inspired by the Shakespearean sonnet: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought; I summon up remembrance of things past.” Proust loved music, and the first chapter of Swann’s Way, titled “Overture,” is designed to serve as an introduction to the drama that follows in rest of the opera (in this case the novel). “Overture” ends with the famous madeleine scene in which the narrator (Proust) offers a perspective on involuntary memory which contains the essence of the past.

Here’s an excerpt:
And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks' windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. 
And once I had recognised the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
In the above scene the involuntary memory of the narrator comes back while he is eating tea soaked madeleine, and he finds himself reminiscing the time from his childhood when he used to eat tea soaked madeleine with his aunt.

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