Tag Archives: Remembrance of things Past

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?

135 Journals Book Club: Notes on the journey of reading Proust (The First Six Percent)

25 Apr


Marcel Proust at age 15 (1887). I am so digging the bowtie. Definitely know what to give my boys for Christmas now. From Wikimedia.

Guess what I have on my Kindle Fire? That’s right, seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s strange and magnificent Remembrance of Things Past, or as it is now more accurately known, In Search of Lost Time (active, not passive, get it?).  I got it for free, and as it has long been one of my ambitions to find out what is so important about eating madeleines and to understand what the BFD is about M. Proust, I am actually starting to read it. This is going to take a while. I have read approximately a kajillion pages and my Kindle informs me that I have read six percent of the Seven Volume set, and only have 36 hours and 15 minutes to go. You would think that someone who had read six percent of something would not feel qualified to write a review. That is true. I am writing a qualified review. Because even at six percent, I feel as if I have learned a lot of things about writing, thinking, and the importance of detail.

 Fight now I will tell you what I’ve learned. The play-by-play, as it were. The narrator of the first book, Swann’s Way, is a high-strung, sensitive boy who dreams of being a writer, but doesn’t know what he wants to write. The first scene of the book is about his intense desire to have his mother give him a good-night kiss while she is busy entertaining their sophisticated and wealthy neighbor, M. Charles Swann. M. Swann has had an “unfortunate marriage” and the narrator’s family haven’t seen much of him recently, certainly not with his wife and daughter (especially because the wife is having an affair with someone else). But he is a lovely and generous man. The boy, remembered by the man he becomes, is semi-aware of the goings-on of the wealthier members of the town of Combray, the country village where the family has their second home, and where all of the action in the first six percent of the book takes place. A number of other characters are introduced—sickly Aunt Leonie, who enjoys lime-flower tisanes (and the narrator loves watching the lime expand in the water), the regal Guermantes family, an earthy and devoted maid, Francoise, and others. Throughout the pages, the narrator wonders about the nature of memory, the importance of small and specific moments. He includes lengthy descriptions of how


This is not a conventional book. His pages are not filled with dialog. But there is something compelling about this delicate boy who is constantly seized by violent awareness and sensation. He is almost skinless. The play of wind, the sight of flowers, afflict and attract him with an exquisiteness that is also painful. So do his own imaginings.


The power of beautiful things afflicts him. But it is those remembered things that have the most power. He says that nothing in the present can ever be as beautiful as those remembered things. That no flower will ever be as beautiful as the flowers he saw when he went on walks around the village of Combray with his father. And even then, at least on one occasion, he finds a kind of desperate relief from this sensitivity and observation by writing.


The memories of the past make me think. They make me want to write. It makes me want to remember exquisite moments.


The second part is about Charles Swann’s rather seedy romance with a floozy named Odette. Can’t say this stretch is giving me goosebumps the same way the first part did. But I have faith that things will come together.


And in the meantime, I will try to remember that even the most simple moments can seize you with a kind of violent beauty when they are remembered.


Writing Prompt: Oh please. You know what this is going to be. What is a haunting, excruciating moment you remember from your childhood?