135Journals Book Club: Notes on Reading the first 21 percent of Proust.

26 Apr


Charles Haas was supposedly the model for Charles Swann (Wikimedia Commons)


One of the things I’ve learned from reading the first 21 percent of Proust (my Kindle tells me I still have 31 hours to go, so this is not very impressive), is that it’s important to know who’s who. So, I will start a list to help readers of characters who I have come across and what I know about them:


The Narrator: A sickly man, bad at sleeping, who remembers with painful exquisiteness of spending time in the fictional village of Combray in Northern France. He also was a sickly boy, and was very high strung. He loved nature, the beauty of gothic cathedrals, love. He was passionate about reading under the chestnut trees, and had a passion for certain actresses about whom he’d heard. He was also madly in love with a girl named Gilberte Swann, who was the daughter of his family friend, Charles Swann, an elegant Jewish man whom the family did not know was in high society in Paris, and his wife Odette.


Maman: His mother is a much-admired figure, generally very kind to him. She would read to him in a beautifully dramatic way that let the power of the prose come through. Although he was obviously a very dramatic, high strung child, he was a very loved one, both by her and his exasperated Papa.


Grandmere: She also loved her grandson deeply, and when they went to an excursion to the ocean near Balbec and he grew very sick, she tended him with great care.


Charles Swann: an elegant Jewish man whom the family did not know was in high society in Paris, so they treated him with a rather indifferent if friendly air. An entire section of the book is devoted to his tortured relationship with his future wife, Odette, who is not at all his style, and yet, he cannot resist her. Yet, when they are married, they seem fairly happy together (so far), although often they won’t be “seen” because Odette is not considered respectable in Combray. The section about their courtship is set before the narrator’s birth.


Odette Swann: The narrator is almost as fascinated by Odette as he is by her daughter. He notices each piece of clothing she wears the way he notices color, books, and the beauty of Gothic churches and their windows. Odette has a “salon” in Paris to whom she invites eminent people of a slightly more louche type than the ones offered by the more proper Madame Verdurin, who is another famous hostess.


Gilberte Swann: A mysterious girl who tortures the author by being alternately kind and unkind.


Bergotte: A famous writer whose particular style the author admires, despite the fact that he is made fun of by certain others for loving him. The narrator gets to become friends with him at Odette’s salons in Paris, to which he is invited when he is older.


Verteuil: A famous composer whom the author knows who wrote a suite that is very important to him. The narrator doesn’t know it’s the same Verteuil he knew from Combray who doted on his obviously lesbian daughter. The daughter’s lover moved in and after his death, the lover spat at Verteuil’s photo. The narrator spied on them together so he saw it, and it makes him think about the nature of human beings, how some thrive on sadism. Clearly, this is a boy who likes spying—and this quality comes through in his text.


The Guermantes family: This is the most aristocratic family in Combray. The narrator has romanticized ideas about them until he sees the duchess or countess or whatever she is in person and is surprised that she is not magically beautiful just because she is of noble birth.


So here are SOME of the people that populate the narrator’s world.


Writing Prompt: Who are a few of the characters that populate your world?

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