In which I move from the bedroom into the drawing room and encounter magic lanterns, the arrival of Monsieur Swann, and some wonderfully snobbish maiden aunts.
I awake at dawn to the hoarse croaking of seagulls. It’s wonderful to be able to draw the curtains and look out at the sea. I go for a walk before breakfast, along the harbour side and down to Porthmeor Beach. The morning tide is still out, and there’s a long stretch of virgin sand, gleaming white and gold, with only two or three trails of footprints preceding me.
Emboldened by my first few pages yesterday, I pick up Proust again after breakfast. The Narrator, still presumably in a state of sleeplessness, recalls his childhood in Combray, a fictional village Proust based on the town of Illiers.
As a striking demonstration of the way life sometimes surrenders to the tyrannies of art, Illiers has now been renamed Illiers-Combray, in homage to its most famous holiday visitor, and no doubt to bolster the Proust tourist trade in the town. De Botton gets quite sniffy about this in the final chapter of How Proust Can Change Your Life, fuming about the cultural necrophiliacs who worship the relics from Proust’s universe. Like all self-styled cultural prophets, de Botton wants us to pour over Proust’s writings, not visit tacky restorations of his aunt’s house or buy overpriced madeleines from the bakery where Proust’s aunt reputedly bought hers.
De Botton has a point, I suppose – but I think it’s short-sighted to deny people the pleasure they take from visiting writers’ old haunts. Perhaps it’s a fallacy, but visiting St Ives made me feel closer to Virginia Woolf. At the end of Hermoine Lee’s marvellous biography of Woolf, she describes visiting St Ives, and standing in the gardens of the Stephen family’s old holiday home:
No convenient ghost is going to appear, casting her shadow on the step. However, looking away from the house… at the distant view from this island look-out, I can allow myself to suppose that I am seeing something of what she saw. My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.
It’s a lovely passage, that fuses some of de Botton’s middle-class embarrassment and self-admonishment, with the excitement of a devoted reader who seeks to make a physical connection with a writer she loves. I’m sure as hell visiting Illiers-Combray when I’ve finished this project.
But back to Proust. Today’s opening passage has a remarkable description of a magic lantern placed in the Narrator’s bedroom, “to distract me on the evenings when they found me looking too unhappy”. Proust describes how the lantern “replaced the opacity of the walls with impalpable iridescences, supernatural multicoloured apparitions, where legends were depicted as in a wavering, momentary stained-glass window.” Alas, the therapeutic effect of the lantern is lost, as it destroys the boy’s familiarity with the room – leading on from the previous passage about how habit soothes us into a state of half-forgetfulness. “The anaesthetising influence of habit having ceased, I would begin to have thoughts and feelings, and they are such sad things,” he says.
Those sad thoughts and feelings are, of course, the Freudian nightmare of the child Proust’s Mummy Love: his intense attachment to his mother, his grief at being separated from her when he goes to bed, and his various stratagems to get his mother to come to him. The Oedipal drama plays out just as Freud diagnosed it: the boy’s obsession with prolonging his mother’s goodnight kiss “irritated my father, who found these rituals absurd”, which in turn prompts his mother “to try and induce me to lose the need for it”.
I read these passages with a cringing sense of familiarity. I too was a clingy Mummy’s boy when I was a child, devoted to my mother and frequently panicked when I thought I was separated from her. What I remembered of those moments, as Proust does, was how quickly other adults, usually men, disapproved of this form of attachment, particularly in little boys, who, as I learned growing up, are supposed to be aggressive and unfeeling, not sissies. The fear lingering behind all of this, which Freud left us with, is that sissy boys with intense attachments to their mothers will grow into homosexual men. Proust’s life seems to prove the truth of that theory, though his understanding of his own experience is so emotionally resonant it’s hard not to want to indulge the child Narrator his longing for his mother.
The Narrator sidetracks at this point, introducing Mr Swann, an evening visitor who seems to exist only as the catalyst for the Narrator to go to bed. From the wisdom and experience of the adult Narrator’s viewpoint, we learn that Swann frequents fashionable Parisian society, something unknown to the Narrator’s family at the time “with the perfect innocence of honest innkeepers who have under their roof, without knowing it, some celebrated highwayman”.
Proust leaves his Narrator’s child angst behind and moves into some delicious social commentary, explaining that his bourgeois family subscribed to
“a rather Hindu notion of society… made up of closed castes, in which each person, from birth, found himself placed in the station which his family occupied and from which nothing, except the accidents of an exceptional career or an unhoped-for marriage, could draw him in order to make him enter a higher caste.”
And so the family drift unaware through polite conversation, unaware that Swann is a member of the Jockey Club and a frequent guest of the Prince of Wales, until they read one day in the newspaper that Swann is a lunch guest of the Duc de X, and owns a painting by Corot. The Narrator’s great-aunt sniffs disapprovingly:
“…anyone who chose his associations outside of the caste into which he had been born… suffered in her eyes a regrettable lowering of his social position.”
Swann is dispproved of because he has married a disreputable woman (referred to as a “cocotte”) who the Narrator’s family refuse to have in their house. But it appears their snobbery goes both ways. The Narrator’s amusingly judgmental great aunt, who is fast becoming one of my favourite characters:
“…had even stopped seeing the son of a lawyer we knew because he had married royalty and was therefore in her opinion demoted from the respected tanks of lawyer’s son to that of one of those adventurers, former valets or stableboys, on whom they say that queens sometimes bestowed their affections.”
Given what we know of Proust’s adult affections for working class men, it seems he wasn’t the only queen who bestowed his affections “beneath” him.
Though it all sounds like something out of a Wilde comedy, Proust has a more serious purpose in mind. He showcases his family’s snobbish inability to see Swann clearly, and Swann’s tendencies to make light of his social status, to advance a distinctly modern view of human nature:
“…none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go to look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others…. Even the very simple act that we call ‘seeing a person we know’ is in part an intellectual act. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and in the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly have the greater part.”
And so the Narrator talks of multiple versions of Swann, which echoes the sense we have of the multiple versions of the Narrator himself – the frightened clingy child and the older, wiser, insomniac adult who narrates the story.
I’m amazed by the ease and agility with which Proust moves between perspectives. All at once, he is the child Narrator growing more anxious as he is about to be sent to bed; the Narrator’s distracted mother, keen to make peace all round; Swann, a character still seen through others’ views of him, who nonetheless comes out with startling criticisms of newspapers, that “day after day draw our attention to insignificant things whereas only three or four times in our lives do we read a book in which there is something really essential”; and the deliciously narrow-minded great-aunts, who consider it bad manners to pay Swann a direct compliment for bringing them a gift and spend the evening throwing vague comments and glacial smiles in his direction. It’s all done with prose of gossamer lightness, but it achieves amazing depths. I’m clearly in the hands of a master.