Combray, Section 1
One of Marcel's most vivid memories of Combray involves his Aunt Léonie. Grief-stricken after the death of her husband, Léonie stays in bed all day with an acute case of hypochondria, hoping to earn the sympathy of her relatives by orally cataloguing her ailments. Indeed, Marcel would often overhear her whispering to herself, "I must not forget that I never slept a wink." He would always kiss her good morning and join her for her morning ritual of dipping a madeleine in tea. Before being eventually transferred to Marcel's family, Françoise took care of Léonie, doing everything from preparing her meals to discussing the townspeople that walked by her window. Eulalie, one of Léonie's friends, would come each Sunday afternoon to gossip about what had gone on during church.
This thought brings the narrator to the subject of Combray's church and its Gothic architecture. Marcel marvels at the series of stained glass windows and tapestries that line the interior of the church, each telling a different story of kings, queens, and saints. But the church steeple remains the most beautiful aspect of the church in the narrator's memory. He compares its break in the Combray skyline to the last-minute touch of an artist in a painting. He goes on to describe the different variations of colors that reflect off its roof tiles at different hours of the day.
Marcel relates how the only room at his grandparent's house that he was not allowed to enter was the study of his uncle Adolphe, in which he used to read. The growing Marcel loves the theater, carefully planning which plays he will go see while reading playbills on Paris streets. He hopes to discuss a play with his uncle one specific day, but there is another visitor at the house. Marcel does not realize that the guest is a prostitute and goes out of his way trying to impress her, even kissing her hand. His uncle is visibly embarrassed and sends Marcel away telling him not talk about their meeting with his parents. When Marcel innocently mentions what happened later that evening his father and grandfather end up having violent "words" with his uncle, whom Marcel never sees again. Because of Adolphe's shameful behavior, his study at Combray is closed up and no one is allowed inside.
Left with very few places to read, Marcel often takes his books outside into the garden. His passion for reading (matched only by his growing love of art and Italian frescoes, to which Swann introduces him) allows him to become "invisible" to the rest of the outside world as he hides with his books under a chestnut tree. He finds that books bring him closer to "Truth and Beauty," especially in the overwhelming power of their presence in literature in contrast to their scant appearance in the "real" world." Marcel finds fictional characters, for example, infinitely more sympathetic and understandable than any "real" individual of indefinite personality. Since the character in a novel is mainly the reader's own creation, he feels, the sensations and emotions evoked by the experiences of that character become so powerfully succinct and condensed that the reader learns more than he or she normally would from individuals in the real world.
Marcel's world of books suddenly expands when Swann and his friend Bloch introduce him to the writer Bergotte. Even though Marcel's grandfather makes fun of Bloch's Jewish heritage, he is a welcome guest at Combray until one day he jokes about Aunt Léonie's wild youth and the family no longer admits him into their home. But Marcel remembers Bloch fondly because they share a love for the writer Bergotte, whose archaic expressions Marcel admires. Marcel even finds himself weeping over lines of Bergotte's that resemble thoughts he confuses for his own. It turns out that Swann is actually a close friend of Bergotte, who spends a lot of time with Gilberte, Swann's daughter. Unfortunately, Marcel is not allowed to meet Gilberte because his family disapproves of Mme. Swann, who appears to be having an affair with Swann's friend M. de Charlus. Despite the world of differences that separates them, Marcel feels a strange closeness to Gilberte and her "unknown life."
Much like the previous section, the first part of this section, entitled "Combray," introduces the reader to a number of the major themes and characters in Swann's Way. Although Aunt Léonie never appears in the novel again, her almost comic obsession with dying foreshadows Marcel's own "nervous ailments" and concern for his "disposition" throughout Remembrance of Things Past. Léonie's spying out of her window is another characteristic that Marcel will acquire. Most of what Marcel will learn about the various "real" people in his life comes from spying on them through a window. Finally, Léonie's habit of dipping a madeleine into her tea will become the focal point of the narrator's attempts to conjure up the past. This passage about Aunt Léonie represents a perfect example of how Proust uses seemingly insignificant autobiographical details about peripheral characters to establish important thematic and stylistic considerations.
Another theme that Proust introduces in this section is the ability of books to transcend reality. Marcel is an avid reader and books soon become more of a reality to him than the outside world. As he soon realizes that his calling in life is to become a writer, Marcel devotes more and more of his time to reading. The books that the narrator mentions comment on the plot of the novel itself. His references, for example, to Oedipus Rex and François le Champi, which both involve a quasi-sexual relationship between a mother and her son, hint at Marcel's anxiety about his relationship with his own mother. Additionally, the author "Bergotte" is essentially a composite of the novelist Anatole France and the philosopher Henri Bergson. The works of both men inspired Proust to become a writer; his references to them illustrate his desire to be a novelist and a philosopher. Proust wore both hats in creating Swann's Way; in addition to telling a story, the narrator embarks upon a philosophical examination of reality and fiction.
Several important characters appear for the first time in this section. Madame Swann, or Odette, will become, along with her daughter Gilberte, a symbol of the tortures of love. Since neither Marcel nor the rest of his family is supposed to acknowledge their existence, these two women fascinate him completely. His grandmother's reference to Madame Swann having an affair with M. de Charlus will turn out to be an ironic misconception, since Charlus is actually looking after Odette for Swann to make sure that she remains faithful to him. That Swann refers to a servant as "Giotto's Charity" foreshadows his weakness for seeing women through the intermediary of paintings. Instead of falling in love with real women, he loves the idealized figures with whom he associates them.
The narrator's emotional description of the Combray church reveals Proust's love of Gothic architecture and history as well as his appreciation of modern art. Throughout the novel, he refers to countless medieval histories and romances, a number of which appear in the stained-glass windows and tapestries of the church. The young Marcel's interest in such figures as Francis I, Geneviève de Brabant, and the Duchesse de Guermentes stems from the images he sees of them in the church. Proust's fascination with the different churches and cathedrals of France and Italy is not so much an expression of piety as an admiration of the aesthetic and historical foundations that make these buildings such powerful symbols. Furthermore, the narrator's discussion of the church's gothic architecture and its changing form in sunlight is a reference to Claude Monet's impressionist paintings, specifically his variations on the Rheims Cathedral in different kinds of sunlight. Proust was a great admirer of Monet's work and sought to write in a manner similar to that in which Monet painted. One of Proust's major artistic goals was to synthesize both the subject matter and stylistic influence of Monet's painting in his writing.
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