Swann’s Way

by Elyse Graham, Steven Hobbs, and Laura B. Marcus

Swann’s Way, the first installment of Marcel Proust‘s seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, was published in 1913.


by Elyse Graham

The famous opening passage of Swann’s Way, in which the narrator describes his periodic experience of emerging from sleep without a clear sense of where he is or his present age, requiring a moment of struggle to situate himself and reclaim his identity, hints at the sense in which what follows will concern itself with coming into oneself, finding one’s identity, awakening, on many different levels.

The awakening self that the narrator chooses to begin his larger narrative is the one in his childhood home in Combray, which he sketches in wicked detail and crowns with an entertaining portrait of one Aunt Léonie, an ancient and eccentric invalid who, as F.C. Green says, enjoys all the advantages of ill health with few of the unpleasant symptoms. (Although Proust sketched this character partly as a sly libel on himself, as a church artist, relishing the chance to play the sinner, renders himself as one of the devils in his portrayal of hell, he was not above taking advantage of his illness, telling friends, for instance, that his eyes were too weak to read their books.) But all this is merely preparation for the novel’s main action investigating a malady of a different kind, which comes into view in the final third of the novel, a self-contained novelette titled “Swann in Love.”

“Swann in Love” chronicles the misplaced infatuation of Charles Swann, a friend of Marcel’s family, over a coquette named Odette de Crécy. Proust’s congenitally cynical view of love, which much of his writing treats not as recognition but as illusion, allows him to relate the plot of the romance with the minute attention and inverted dramatic scale of a clinician following symptoms, even using terms like “disease” and “convalesce.”[1] A collector of art, a connoisseur, something of a dilettante, Swann lets aesthetic sentimentality overwhelm his judgment of Odette, who he decides resembles one of the sylphs from Botticelli or Watteau, with the inaccessible glories of those painters at last “united in a creature whom he could possess” (SW, 238). As this line suggests, Swann’s dilettantism loads the gun of his aestheticism. The collector’s response to the beauty of art, Proust remarks, is to want to possess it, whereas the artist loves beauty with disinterest; it is the glamour of art, rather than its essence, that pulls Swann into his affair, and eventually into a disastrous marriage (SW, 227). In Proust’s calculus, Swann’s error is not so much the failure to love Odette for herself, but rather directing at a living person the imagination and largeness of feeling that can only find compensation in art.

Many critics have compared the novelette to an overture, remarking that its structure sketches the Recherche in miniature. Marcel, who tells us the story as he has heard it from others, since its events happened before his birth, will recapitulate many of the mistakes and adventures of his older counterpart. As a study of change over decades, the story also gives the novel’s first sustained experience of the theme of the passage of time. (In later volumes, Proust will complicate the passage of personal time by offering the comparison of historical time, working into the narrative events such as the Dreyfus Affair and the war.) The scene in the novel that everyone remembers, of course, is a confrontation with time’s passage of the most personal kind, which takes place when Marcel dips a shell-shaped cake called a madeleine into a cup of linden tea. When he takes a bite, the taste releases a storm of lost memories from his childhood, a resurrection of the past that brings with it a mysterious and indefinable ecstasy.

In this early part of the narrator’s journey toward adulthood, the major movement is one from the closed and intimate circle of the family to the brink of a larger world, one that abounds with strangers and new kinds of relationships, as Barry McCrea has argued.[2] The flow of Marcel’s earliest memories describes a realm of timeless routine, with the part that each family member plays in the round of daily activity wound into clockwork predictability, and with a perpetual manifestation of the sacred enclosed, as far as the son is concerned, in the bedtime kiss that his mother gives him each night. When, on one night in particular, a visit from Charles Swann prevents Marcel from receiving the kiss, breaching the intimate rite and nearly driving the boy to despair, a painful awareness of disruption and change seems to enter at the back of this invader from the outside world. Much later, while peeping in the window of a recently deceased townsman, M. Vinteuil, Marcel witnesses a scene that so disrupts his conception of possible relationships that he has just then no way to process it: Vinteuil’s daughter and her lover, another woman, taking turns spitting on a photograph of Vinteuil, for pleasure.

These incidents, and others like them, set up themes of inheritance, profanation, and the bewilderment of natural and unnatural orders that will resurface throughout the novel. And yet Proust’s reluctance to lay out the structure of his world immediately, his intuition that knowledge only comes with wandering, means that over the path to come, our understanding of how these themes operate will meet many reversals. The ending of Swann’s Way, Proust told a friend, is a point of suspension rather than closure, one that will be shown, when the larger span of the work puts all in perspective, to have led the reader to a misleading conclusion: “In this first volume you have seen the pleasurable sensation the madeleine soaked in tea gives me—as I say, I cease to feel mortal etc. and I can’t understand why. I’ll explain it only at the end of the third volume. The whole thing is constructed this way” (SL, 3:233).

Literary Expression of the Unconscious

by Steven Hobbs

Marcel Proust never suffered from writer’s block—far from it. Isolated in his cork-lined room, he churned out pages with an almost religious zeal. Often, he broke engagements with friends and family to write. Working from bed—using his knees for a desk—he wrote all night and slept during the day, growing increasingly reclusive. His rapidly decreasing health helped to further isolate Proust from the outside world, leaving him alone with his pen, paper, and past. This debilitation also served as a grim reminder of time’s fleetingness, fueling his fervent literary output.

Proust’s obsessive writing practice suggests a darker desperation, one that points to an overwhelming anxiety far beyond a writer’s typical frustration with language or plot. Proust’s anxiety stemmed from what he termed involuntary memory. Through sensory response to an object or smell, he was often helplessly transported to memories of his childhood, memories that—in the eclipsing shadow of his mother’s death in 1905—he was desperate to reclaim. His inability to physically experience the people and places that memory, through the senses, conjured in his mind produced a paralytic disquietude. His mother never appeared bodily. He was unable to feel the warmth of her skin. She had gone to a place forever veiled, a place to which he could not follow. Proust, in turn, understood that his elusive past must serve as the subject for his fiction. Thus, he already had his source material. Yet, he was unable to find the key to unlock his story. In the preface to Contre Sainte Beuve, he states, “Everyday I attach less and less importance to the intellect. Everyday I realize more that it is only by other means that a writer can regain something of our impressions, reach, that is, a particle of himself, the only material for art.”[3] This frustration with the limitations of literature—specifically the traditional novel—propelled Proust to seek a transcendent, sensual experience through literary expression. In Swann’s Way, he employs a particular first-person narrative stance that substantiates an exploration of the unconscious. Proust, therefore, discovers that, through reordering and recreating memory, it is possible to reclaim the past.

When considering Proust and the anxiety of involuntary memory, one is reminded of the literary landscape in which he dwelled. Echoes of this anxiety, of course, are easily heard in the novels of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. The well-known quote from Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses affirms this collective anxiety: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.”[4] For Stephen, the past is a horror. The death of his mother and the subsequent guilt that he carries is the impetus for his inner turmoil. Proust, however, like the narrator of Swann’s Way, views the past through a decidedly different lens. For him, the nightmare is his inability to reclaim or regain the past. The present moment—and the future—is the nightmare for they resound with what will never again appear: his mother. The eternal absence of a loved one is torturous and inescapable. Proust, then, would amend Stephen’s aphorism and say, “History is a dream from which I hope never to wake.”

In early 1909, Proust experienced a transformative moment that gave him the necessary key to access his subject matter and express it properly in fiction. Normally a coffee addict, Proust made an unusual request for tea. His housekeeper, as was customary, brought toast as well. Once he dipped a bit of toast into the tea and put it to his lips, the unconscious memory of his childhood came rushing back. He vividly recalled the days when his grandfather often offered him tea-soaked toast. The remembrance filled him with pleasure. Through a series of similar moments, Proust saw the connection of involuntary memory to the subject matter of his fiction.[5] On July 4, he stayed up for over sixty hours, feverishly writing, and experienced a wave of inspiration that directed him down the proper path to creating Swann’s Way—the first part of his vast opus, In Search of Lost Time. He realized, in recalling his own “tea and madeleine” experiences, that the novel itself could be a vast unconscious memory.

In Swann’s Way, plot—in the traditional sense—is secondary. For Proust, a linearly structured narrative form is not possible for such an expansive exploration and expression of his unconscious—especially one that is recreated and reordered. “His entire technique,” Auerbach explains, “is bound up with a recovery of lost realities in remembrance, a recovery released by some externally insignificant and apparently accidental occurrence…the world of his childhood emerges into light [and] becomes depictable.”[6] Thus, the story of Swann’s Way traverses back and forth in time, resisting reference to time or the outside world. The first-person narration, in turn, often feels very child-like: a child knows—or cares—little about time or what is transpiring outside of his self-centered world. This narrative technique initially engenders deference with the reader, as the story often feels intimate and confessional. Also, as the narrative unfolds, there is an immediate exploration of the digression, which, though often tedious, creates a curious tone of suspense—especially for a seemingly plot-less book. Moreover, the initial comparisons to moments before and after sleep ready the reader for the dreamy, fog-like quality of the plot and the prose. We also discover that the narrator, like the author—and, perhaps, the reader—is forever disappointed in the present moment. This discontentedness appears early on, as the narrator wakes to find himself in his dark, unpleasant bedroom. On the second page, he likens the experience to that of a displaced invalid. He writes,

“The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to start a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens, in a moment of illness and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight showing under his bedroom door. Oh joy of joys! it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute; he can ring, and someone will come to look after him. The thoughts of being made comfortable gives him the strength to endure pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; someone has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him any help.”[7]

The reader, then, is quickly made aware that the present, for the narrator, is a horror, and that no one will come to his aid. The narrator must seek comfort inwardly. Thus, to quell anxiety, he meditates on memories of his past childhood, specifically his bedroom at Combray. Though he admits that the room also once produced anxiety, it is nonetheless superior to his present existence since Combray, at least, intimates his mother’s presence. In the present, the narrator’s mother does not come to kiss him goodnight. He is left alone, forced to find her in a dreamlike fog of memories. It is clear, then, that Proust is, by no means, concerned with holding a reader’s attention by way of a traditional plot structure. Rather, he intends to attract the reader in a deeper, more meaningful way.

To further reveal the exploration of the unconscious, the narrator, at times, adopts the first-person plural perspective, dissolving into his family. This conspicuous absence usually occurs when the narrator somewhat approves of—or is at least indifferent to—the family’s actions. He writes, “We knew the people with whom [Swann’s] father had associated, and so we knew his own associates, the people with whom he was in a position to mix.”[8] Here, the reader sees the narrator in happy accord with his family as they kindly discuss Swann. This presents the narrator with the opportunity to dissolve into the canvas of his own memories. However, the point-of-view shifts back to the first-person singular when he observes the family behaving badly toward Swann, whom he greatly admires, perhaps, for his ability to appear or disappear with little consequence or concern. In this way, Swann also reflects the concept of involuntary memory as he often appears unexpectedly at the house in Combray. The narrator overhears his family’s negative comments about Swann and his wife—which, of course, sets the reader up for the following section, “Swann in Love.” He states, “And so, no doubt from the Swann they had built up for their own purposes my family had left out, in their ignorance, a whole crowd of the details of his daily life in the world of fashion, details by means of which other people, when they met him, saw all the Graces enthroned in his face.”[9] This technique of a narrator’s absence and presence allows Proust to, as it were, have his madeleine and eat it too. He is able to move in and out of remembered moments both as character and commentator. Considering this mode, Malcolm Bowie states, “Whether the narrator looks outwards or inwards, he studies hard to become centreless and characterless in this way and to become, in Keats’s phrase, ‘a thoroughfare for all thoughts.’”[10] Proust’s narrative stance, then, allows him to harness involuntary memory and thereby uncover the unconscious subjectively as well as intersubjectively, providing the reader with multiple perspectives while still maintaining, unlike Ulysses or To the Lighthouse, a constant first-person point-of-view.

Proust also adapts the memories of others—given by others—and synthesizes the narrator’s experience with it. In this way, the narrator, like the author, is able to disappear to observe and discover himself. This conspicuous absence of the narrator pervades “Swann in Love.” While still related in the first-person, the narrator, like the reclusive Proust, disappears for almost the entirety of the section, projecting himself onto Swann, creating him, as it were, in his own image. He relates—and relates to—Swann’s woebegone love for Odette, a love that, in the end, is unattainable, and that mirrors the narrator’s own seemingly impossible quest to obtain lost time. The narrator, at the end of “Combray,” reveals his source material for “Swann in Love.” He states, “…and, by an association of memories, of a story which, many years after I had left the little place, had been told me, of a love affair which Swann had been involved in before I was born…and those which were actually memories of another, from whom I had acquired them at second hand…”[11] This section offers the reader a vast patchwork—though more traditionally narrated than the rest of the novel—memory of Swann. Similar to the first-person plural shift earlier in novel, the removed narrative stance allows the narrator to disappear and express, through projection, his own dissatisfaction and dissolution onto Swann’s obsessive and warped love for the uninspiring Odette. Swann’s subsequent descent into anxiety mirrors the narrator’s own decline and eventual retreat from society.

Proust is aware of the demands that his singular narrative stance and prose style of tedious digression places on the reader. To detract from the technical tedium of the narrative, he often peppers the pages with beautifully poetic metaphors and similes. These moments, however, are not mere ornamentation. They perform a double-duty: an aesthetic achievement as well as a further expression of the narrator’s exploration of the unconscious. A memorable example of this duplicity comes when the narrator’s mother desires to converse with Swann alone about his daughter. Her father-in-law, though, appears and foils her plan. Describing the incident, the narrator states, “My mother had to abandon the request, but managed to extract from the restriction itself a further refinement of thought, as great poets do when the tyranny of rhyme forces them into the discovery of their finest lines.”[12] Like the narrator’s mother, Proust is similarly constrained by the tyranny of time and involuntary memory, thus, by means of reclamation through literary expression, he believes he can be all the more poetic. This limitation with which he is working allows him to refine his own writing and recreate himself through the narrator as the narrator recreates himself through the character of Swann. Thus, Proust is able to reclaim through re-creation.

Proust, then, re-imagines his own formative experience with involuntary memory as the narrator mirrors the affair with toast and tea. Here, the narrator, in the present, receives tea and “petite madeleines” from his mother—Proust recreates the scene the way he desires it: with the implicit presence of his mother. Upon putting the tea-soaked morsel to his mouth, the narrator is carried back to his childhood when his aunt often gave him tea-soaked madeleines for a treat. As the narrator attempts to recreate the experience sensually, he fails, and the memory fades. It is only later that he, like Proust, realizes that his “quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself.”[13] The narrator, therefore, looks inwardly to recreate and reorder memory. Proust, in the same way, wields this narrative space to manipulate his real-life encounters with involuntary memory. In so doing, he soothes his own inner anxiety and fulfills his assertion that he can use literary expression to regain the past.

By the end of Swann’s Way, the narrator confesses his total dissatisfaction with the present—especially when held up against the past. He goes for a walk where, as a young boy, he once played and observed the finely dressed women. Futilely, he seeks a vision of this former pleasure. However, he is presented with a cold, impersonal wasteland of disquietude as he drifts through the city. He states, “I sought to find them again as I remembered them…they had long fled, and still I stood vainly questioning their paths.”[14] The disappointment is significant. In the moment, the narrator confesses, “how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory.”[15] This sentiment, then, substantiates the narrator’s necessary retreat to literary expression of the unconscious in order to regain lost time. Instead of withering under the horror of involuntary memories of loved ones forever buried, the narrator—and, by extension, Proust—embraces the unconscious and wields involuntary memory to recreate his past. In Proust’s singular literary exploration of the unconscious, the past blossoms, and the intoxicating fragrance transports him to a world previously considered unsalvageable.

Narration and Self

Critics differ in their appraisal of the autobiographical elements of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. The overt similarities between the author and his narrator are undeniable; the latter shares his given name, recalls nearly-identical memories, and expounds similar philosophies to those of his creator.[16] And yet Proust, it seems, made a conscientious effort to distance himself from Marcel in several key details – perhaps most prominently those relating to the former’s homosexuality.[17] Regardless of the exact relationship between Proust and Marcel, the fictional narrator serves as his author’s mouthpiece in the exposition of a theory concerning the tensions present in that very relationship. Marcel, like his own narrator, is a narrator himself; thus he is able to fulfill a quasi-automimetic role in two directions, both in relation to the author who created him and to the self (or rather, selves) he creates in his own writing. Investigating the second of these two relationships, we can read the objectification of the author – that is, the self-enacted transformation of the author into the subject of his own fiction – as the realization of the author himself. The protagonist of a story enjoys an enviable stability of character, an enduring reality noticeably absent in the pervasive transience of the world. The narrator seeks this stability for himself, and the fruition of this search he finds in the task of literary self-creation. Throughout the novel, however, the truthfulness of art and narrative seems undermined by the very fact of its endurance in time, thus calling into question the efficacy of the narrator’s mission.

Swann’s Way begins in hypnagogic hallucination. “…I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading,” Marcel muses, “but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V.”[18] The mind of the narrator, acting independently of his will, absorbs him into its own imaginings. There is a marked passivity in this phenomenon – accompanied by and tied to a questioning of the fixedness of identity. To the narrator’s dreaming mind, there is no doubt of selfhood, but there is also no doubt that the nature of that selfhood is inherently a historical figure, an inanimate object, even an abstract concept. Despite the absurdity of these fantasies, they “did not offend [his] reason.”[19] The concrete – if transient – self, therefore, is the creation of a mind working under the direction of a mysterious force: literature, perhaps, or else a veiled interior impetus unknowable to the willing ego.

But the aware yet unreflective self of this dream does not endure. Eventually, Marcel recalls, “the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to apply myself to it or not.”[20] The narrator’s revelation of his independent existence from the world of his dream frees him from pure objecthood at least, sheer lifelessness at most. And yet the opening and widening of this subject-object gap does not prohibit its transcendence. For though the narrator is now granted will where once he lacked it, that will can be directed towards the bridging of the divide between himself and his dream. He is still “free to apply [himself]” to his dream, to submit himself to that narrative. It is here that the creative process is born.

For Marcel, it is the delicate interplay between the unwilled apocalyptic phenomenon and the willed process of narration that gives birth to the creative event. Apocalyptic is meant here in both its literal and its literary senses. On the one hand, the apocalyptic phenomenon is a “lifting of the veil,” the revelation of something either forgotten or as yet unrealized; its instigator is a force independent of the creator. It is also apocalyptic in the more conventional sense, as a rupture in the natural progression of time.

The most famous of these phenomena in Swann’s Way, as well as the most literarily significant, is the “madeleine episode.” Once again, Marcel is the passive recipient of an unknown impulse. Or perhaps more accurately, he is the both the recipient and the product of this impulse, for he says “this new sensation [had] the effect… of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.”[21] Once again the narrator obliquely expresses some uncertainty as to the fixity of his selfhood vis-à-vis this mysterious power and its product. The experience of eating the tea-soaked madeleine reveals something ineffable to him and about him. He “had ceased… to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”[22] Already he intimates that the experience has freed him from the oppression of reality and its temporal constraints, lending him an ontological weight all his own. His selfhood no longer rests within the milieu of the world of things, nor is it bound to that world.

Marcel understands instinctively that this revelation is bound up with something else, but that something does not come to him immediately. He tries unsuccessfully to repeat the experience. But ultimately, what the madeleine reveals to him is not that “something” he is seeking, but the gap between himself and that something. “I put down the cup and examine my own mind. It alone can discover the truth. But how? What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, which it alone can make actual, which it alone can bring into the light of day.”[23] The process of creation, this “bringing to the light of day,” is a collaborative effort between the muse trapped in the object and the would-be creator who unintentionally releases it. There is a delay between Marcel’s first taste of madeleine and the revelation of his childhood memory of a similar experience. In the interim period, he found that “ten times over [he] must essay the task, must lean over the abyss.”[24] He had to search in his own mind to bring up the memory that hovered just beyond the bounds of his consciousness. During this period, Marcel is truly “in search of lost time.”

But he does not unearth the memory, rather “the memory reveal[s] itself.”[25] The narrator is once again the passive figure. The recognition of the madeleine’s taste calls up a complete image of his childhood home at Combray and its accompanying details, much as his nighttime reading would induce hypnagogic hallucinations inspired by the same events the works narrated. And for a brief moment, Marcel is ensnared by this memory, transported back into the setting of his youth. But by the end of the first part of “Combray”, he has become narrator again; there is distance between himself and the product of his imaginations. As with his dreams, he has the power to “apply himself” to this fantasy even after he has achieved some narrative distance from it. The second part of “Combray” begins with a relatively objective description of the Combray of his childhood, of his family, their relations, and so forth – all of which are interspersed with direct references to the temporal gap between their author and themselves. Marcel regular cites the differences between affairs as they were then and how things “seem to [him] now.”[26] But he quickly loses himself in the narrative – loses himself, and, it seems, finds – or creates – himself.

Proust does not shy away from complicating the reality of the past and its relationship to the author. Reminiscing on the flowers of Méséglise, he comments that, “whether it is because the faith which creates has ceased to exist in me, or because reality takes shape in the memory alone, the flowers that people show me nowadays for the first time never seem to me to be true flowers.”[27] Yet at the close of Swann’s Way he remarks on “how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed.”[28] In the former he privileges the reality of the past over that of the future; in the latter, the exact opposite. Furthermore, the latter statement seems to indicate the narrator’s role as a “searcher” in reality, whereas the former implies the possibility – perhaps a possibility now extinguished – that the narrator may have the power to create his own reality.

Perhaps the appeal of the past, then, is its silence – its inability to fight back against one who would plunder it as an archaeologist or create it as an artist. It reveals itself to Marcel, but immediately must submit to his pen. Yet at the same time, Marcel would submit himself to the past. The first part of Combray, at least, is autobiographical. The narrator becomes the object of his own narration.

Even as a boy, or so it seems to Marcel-the-narrator, Marcel has a predilection for enmeshing his life experiences in literature. Proust’s own biographer comments on the significance of reading in the life of the writer: “Biographers often forget that in a writer’s life, the books that he or she has read may be more important than the people they have met; they may tell us everything there is to know about some chance hostess, yet nothing about Racine or Balzac.”[29] Marcel himself does not make this mistake; his own description of childhood is riddled with references to works of fiction. He recalls even before the madeleine episode the magic lantern that used to project stories and images in his room. “I cannot express,” he remembers, “the discomfort I felt at this intrusion of mystery and beauty into a room which I had succeeded in filling with my own personality until I thought no more of it than of myself. The anaesthetic effect of habit being destroyed, I would begin to think – and to feel – such melancholy things.”[30] Despite the superficial unpleasantness of this memory, it carries overwhelming significance in the life of the writer; it is exactly in this moment, when he himself is swallowed by a story, that he is jarred out of anesthesia. His aesthetic sense is awakened, and it is that sense which will shape not only his childhood but his memory of it.

This aesthetic – which eventually developed a particular taste for the literary – provided the lens through which young Marcel viewed the world. “It is true that the people concerned in [these books] were not what Francoise would have called ‘real people.’ But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a real person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of real people would be a decided improvement. A real person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to day, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift.”[31] This literary power rears its head most noticeably during the episode in which Marcel first sees Mme de Guermantes. His disappointment at the commonality of her physical appearance fades when he narrates her into a story. “Great and glorious before the days of Charlemagne, the Guermantes had the right of life and death over their vassals. The Duchesse de Guermantes descends from Genevieve de Brabant.”[32] The context of myth and legend, helpfully supplied by the narrator’s mind, transforms the plain woman into the romantic figure of his imagination.

It is noteworthy that Swann himself exhibits similar behavior, though his artistic taste runs to the visual while Marcel’s runs to the literary. Swann’s gaze transforms serving maid into Giotto’s Charity, Marcel’s friend Bloch into Bellini’s Mahomet, and Odette de Crécy, his own femme fatale, into Mariano’s Zipporah.[33] There is no implication that the young Marcel mimicked this behavior of Swann’s; perhaps, then, this is a deliberate instance of narrative doubling of the protagonist. While Marcel and Swann, like Marcel and Proust, are clearly distinct personalities, Marcel, like Proust, seems to write some of himself into his narration of Swann’s life. Ultimately, this tendency of Swann’s ensnares him in the fantasy of his own creation, thus subtly hinting at the dark side of the aesthete’s enchantment of the world. By that very facility which transforms the world into art is the artist himself ensnared in his own work. Briefly, at the end of “Swann in Love,” it appears that he is released from this fantasy. His strange dream, ending with the suggestive departure of Napoleon and Odette and Swann’s comforting of the strange young man in the fez, serves as a bridge between the imagined and the real worlds in much the same way as Marcel’s hypnagogic hallucinations at the outset of Swann’s Way. Also similarly, Swann himself is doubled in the dream. “So Swann reasoned with himself, for the young man whom he had failed at first to identify was himself too; like certain novelists, he had distributed his own personality between two characters, the one who was dreaming the dream, and another whom he saw in front of him sporting the fez.”[34]

There may be no clearer explication of Proust’s treatment of self and art than this describing Swann’s dream. Considering his own literary doubling (vis-à-vis Marcel the narrator), and the further literary doubling of Marcel the narrator (vis-à-vis young Marcel and M. Swann), it is difficult not to read the above passage as a wry commentary on his own work. But for all his preoccupation with self-creation in literature, Proust concludes Swann’s Way on an ambiguous note with regard to this theme. Or rather, perhaps, he concludes with a generally pessimism towards the possibility of creating reality in art. Like Swann confronting Odette after his dream, and also like his childhood self seeing Mme. de Guermantes for the first time, Marcel’s visit to the haunts of his youth only fills him with disappointment. The reality in no way measures up to the imagined fantasy. The bitter truth destroys the beautiful narrative. The verity of art and the efficacy of the artist are called into question. And the reader is left to wonder whether the narrator can recapture this new reality in prose, or whether the harshness of this world will forever suck from him “the faith that creates.”

Novel’s Reception

by Elyse Graham

When Swann’s Way first appeared in 1913, it met a muted and generally bewildered response. The war was by now the major concern of the French public, and indeed, soon wartime privations would shut down publishing houses altogether, holding back even the notional completion of the next volume for years. The critics didn’t particularly mark the novel’s originality, since it seemed to fall under a familiar category, “souvenirs de jeunesse,” but they registered a classically French distaste for what seemed to be a lack of system and organization. A few praised the pleated cream of the writer’s style, remarking that his way of interfolding images from the landscape and the imagination creates striking hallucinatory effects.[35] Praise was less audible in the reviews of the publishers that had rejected him earlier, to whom Proust had sent copies, hoping perhaps for a sportsmanlike truce or, better still, public remorse. The critic for the NRF politely demolished the novel, opening with the dismissal of Swann’s Way as a leisure outlet, the work of a man with clearly a lot of time on his hands, and concluding, almost with a regretful shake of the head, that “his book is not a novel,” only an obsessive and interminable prose poem.[36] But ten days later, Proust received a letter from the NRF’s founder, André Gide, that must have been more heartening to read: “My dear Proust, For several days I have not put down your book; I am supersaturating myself in it, rapturously, wallowing in it. Alas! why must it be so painful for me to like it so much?” Turning the writer away was now, the editor said, “one of the most bitterly remorseful regrets of my life” (SL, 3:225-26).

  1. ↑ Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin Books, 2002): 242-43. Hereafter cited as SW, with page number.
  2. ↑ McCrea, Barry. “Modernism’s Family Values: Genealogy, Kinship, and Form in Modern Narrative.” Diss. Princeton U, 2004.
  3. ↑ Painter, George D, Marcel Proust: A Biography (Random House, 1958), 129.
  4. ↑ Joyce, James, Ulysses (Random House, 1963), 28.
  5. ↑ Painter, George D, Marcel Proust: A Biography (Random House, 1958), 130.
  6. ↑ Auebrach, Erich, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton University Press, (2003), 541.
  7. ↑ Proust, Marcel, Swann’s Way (Penguin Books, 1998), 2.
  8. ↑ Proust, Marcel, Swann’s Way (Penguin Books, 1998), 14.
  9. ↑ Proust, Marcel, Swann’s Way (Penguin Books, 1998), 17.
  10. ↑ Bowie, Malcom, Proust Among the Stars (Columbia Univeristy Press, 1983), 21.
  11. ↑ Proust, Marcel, Swann’s Way (Penguin Books, 1998), 188.
  12. ↑ Proust, Marcel, Swann’s Way (Penguin Books, 1998), 22.
  13. ↑ Proust, Marcel, Swann’s Way (Penguin Books, 1998), 43.
  14. ↑ Proust, Marcel, Swann’s Way (Penguin Books, 1998), 433.
  15. ↑ Proust, Marcel, Swann’s Way (Penguin Books, 1998), 433.
  16. ↑ Jean-Yves Tadié. Marcel Proust. (New York: Viking, 2000). 40-41.
  17. ↑ Philip Kolb. “Proust’s Letters.” Yale French Studies. No. 71. 1986. 199.
  18. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terrence Kilmartin. (New York: Modern Library, 1992.) 1.
  19. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 1.
  20. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 1.
  21. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 60.
  22. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 60.
  23. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 61.
  24. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 63.
  25. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 63.
  26. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 65.
  27. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 260.
  28. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 606.
  29. ↑ Jean-Yves Tadié. Marcel Proust. 52.
  30. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 11.
  31. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 116.
  32. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 246.
  33. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 110,134,316.
  34. ↑ Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. 540.
  35. ↑ Douglas W. Alden, Proust and his French Critics (Los Angeles: Lymanhouse, 1940): 12-17.
  36. ↑ Henri Ghéon, review of Swann’s Way, Nouvelle Revue Francaise (1 January 1914); reprinted in Leighton Hodson, Marcel Proust: The Critical Heritage (New York: Routledge, 1997): 99-101.