by Marcel Proust [translated from the French by Lydia Davis]
No doubt, by virtue of having forever indissolubly united in me different impressions merely because they had made me experience them at the same time, the Méséglise way and the Guermantes way exposed me, for the future, to many disappointments and even to many mistakes. For often I have wanted to see a person again without discerning that it was simply because she reminded me of a hedge of hawthorns, and I have been led to believe, to make someone else believe, in a revival of affection, by what was simply a desire to travel. But because of that very fact, too, and by persisting in those of my impressions of today to which they may be connected, they give them foundations, depth, a dimension lacking from the others. They add to them, too, a charm, a meaning that is for me alone. When on summer evenings the melodious sky growls like a wild animal and everyone grumbles at the storm, it is because of the Méséglise way that I am the only one in ecstasy inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the smell of invisible, enduring lilacs.
(Swann's Way, 189-190)
I'll probably regret this later, but may I share a personal anecdote with you? The morning after finally finishing Swann's Way, I was telling my boss about how much I'd loved it and how it was even more spectacular than I'd suspected it would be. After poking fun at myself for how ridiculous it was to be surprised by any of all this--In Search of Lost Time's first volume does have something of a reputation after all--I found myself almost tearing up talking about the many things that Proust does so beautifully in the novel. Thank God my boss is a bibliophile and understood the point I was feebly trying to make: this book got to me. Why it got to me would probably be more easily explained in person, of course, but I think the three things that stand out about it the most are Proust's skills as an observer, his unexpected humor, and that justly celebrated all-enveloping prose which wraps you up in its velvety grip. Examples. In Swann in Love, in the midst of the book within a book chronicling Charles Swann's tumultuous love affair with the not quite to be trusted Odette de Crécy (a segment itself surrounded by the first and third sections of the novel that focus on the narrator's childhood memories of life at Combray and his own first impressions of how the clingy love for his mother would eventually be joined by the romantic feelings felt for Swann's daughter Gilberte), the reader is party to an agonizing close-up of the highs and lows of that "holy evil" also known as love (239). Although the narrator proves himself to be an astute observer of the arts of deception and self-deception practiced by lovers everywhere, he saves one of his absolute best descriptive moments for Swann's non-romantic encounter with a footman at a party: "One of them, of a particularly ferocious aspect and rather like the executioner in certain Renaissance paintings which depict scenes of torture, advanced upon him with an implacable air to take his things. But the hardness of his steely gaze was compensated by the softness of his cotton gloves, so that as he approached Swann he seemed to be showing contempt for his person and consideration for his hat" (336). Just love those Proustian juxtapositions!
As if to demonstrate that the hilarity of this moment isn't incidental to his larger objectives in the novel, Proust provides us with at least two superb examples of elaborate and totally unexpected sources of humor that originate early on in Part I's Combray. In the first instance, a scene poking fun at both the hypocrisy of the family maid and the narrator as a young man takes place in which the beheading of a chicken as preparation for the evening meal ends with the servant frantically shouting "Vile creature! Vile creature!" at the unfortunate chicken, troubled by the animal's understandable resistance to its impending demise (124). Even after the chicken has been dispatched with, though, Françoise feels the need to insult it one more time. "Vile creature!" Over 150 pages later, with this amusing scene long forgotten, poor Swann himself will be labeled a "vile creature" by a third party, Mme. Verdurin, upset at his possessive streak in regard to Odette. This situation provides the narrator with an opportunity to reflect on the two characters' defensive need to justify themselves with "the same words which the last twitches of an inoffensive animal in its death throes wring from the countryman who is killing it"--and, by extension, to compare Swann's fate in love with that of the chicken's. Just brutal! In the second instance I wanted to talk about, the narrator finds a unique way to comment on the strange ways of his class by developing a parallel--this one some 50 pages apart--between the actions of a certain M. Vinteuil and the behavior of his daughter soon after his death. While I can't hope to do justice to the exquisiteness of the joke, the humor revolves around M. Vinteuil's strategic positioning of a piece of music on the piano just prior to the arrival of the narrator's family (he wants to be recognized for his musical talents while simultaneously affecting to be too modest to acknowledge them) and the daughter's parallel placement of a photo of her deceased father on a table in the piano room as she hears the sound of an approaching carriage bearing her lesbian lover. "Oh! That picture of my father is looking at us. I don't know who could have put it there. I've told them a dozen times that it doesn't belong there," Mlle. Vinteuil showily feigns, inducing a confession from "her friend" that she'd like to spit on the portrait of "the ugly old monkey" (165-167). The extended joke, not to put too fine a spin on it, is typical of Proust's pattern of finding humor in the weakest human frailties and propensities for deceit.
As for Proust's all-enveloping prose, that's thankfully "all too typical" of the novelist as well. In a work in which various places and objects--churches and the countryside in Combray, the Bois de Boulogne and the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and most famously the taste of a humble madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea--trigger powerful memories of the past and lead to meditations upon how our memories of the past interact with and transform the present, some of the most affecting writing within the entire novel concerns the narrator's youthful love of hawthorns. I love, for example, the exuberance and the extravagance of this recollection of a pink hawthorn pointed out to the narrator by his grandfather: "Inserted into the hedge, but as different from it as a young girl in a party dress among people in everyday clothes who are staying at home, the shrub was all ready for Mary's month, and seemed to form a part of it already, shining there, smiling in its fresh pink outfit, catholic and delicious" (143). So, so poetic, no? And I'm basically reduced to tears whenever I reread the young Marcel's farewell to the hawthorns, the precise moment where he talks about "putting my arms around the prickly branches," prior to his family's unexpectedly early return to Paris one year.
My mother was not moved by my tears, but she could not suppress a cry at the sight of my crushed hat and ruined coat. I did not hear it: "Oh, my poor little hawthorns," I said weeping, "you're not the ones trying to make me unhappy, you aren't forcing me to leave. You've never hurt me! So I will always love you. And drying my tears, I promised them that when I was grown up I would not let my life be like the senseless lives of other men and that even in Paris, on spring days, instead of paying calls and listening to silly talk, I would go out into the countryside to see the first hawthorns (148).
Given the narrator's association of hawthorns with the human and non-human symbols of his childhood past, has there ever been a better evocation of the innocence of youth paired with a foreshadowing of the loss of the young self to be found in adulthood? If so, I'd sure like to hear about it. In the meantime, even though it's early in the year, I suspect that I've finally found another title to add to my all-time favorites list. Absolutely brilliant and maybe even worth a good cry for all you sentimental types out there. (http://www.penguinclassics.com/)