“Even on the errands we had do to behind the church, where we could not see it, everything seemed to be arranged in relation to the steeple, which would rise up here or there between the houses, perhaps even more affecting when it appeared that way, without the church.”
by Dennis Abrams
The photo is a view of Illiers, and, in the background, the steeple of Saint-Jacques. It was to Illiers that young Marcel Proust and his family would go to visit family at Easter, and it was this church that became the basis for the fictional Saint-Hilaire. In 1971, on the centennial of Proust’s birth, the town of Illiers officially changed its name to Illiers-Combray, a remarkable example of reality giving way to fiction, or, perhaps, of fiction dissolving into reality.
Davis: 49-68; Moncrieff: 65-91
As the story “proper” begins, we meet aunt Leonie, getting a brief glimpse of her life on Sunday mornings prior to Mass and of her comic relationship with Francoise. We wind our way through Proust’s first extended piece of description, that of Saint-Hillaire.
1. The gossip and observation of life in Combray through Leonie’s bedroom window. Davis: “…in Combray, a person ‘whom one did not know at all’ was a creature as scarcely believable as a mythological god…” In fact, “One knew everybody so well, in Combray, both animals and people, that if my aunt had chanced to see a dog pass by ‘whom she did not know at all,’ she would not stop thinking about it and devoting to his incomprehnsible fact all her talents for induction and her hours of leisure.”
2. The similarity between Leonie, who keeps to her bed due to illnesses imaginary or otherwise, watching and evaluating the world from above, and both the fictional Marcel and Proust himself.
3. The importance and symbolism of Saint Hillaire. There will be more to come, but note the connection between the madeleine, “the little scallop shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe religious folds…” (Moncrieff et al), and the real St. Jacques, a way station on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Scallop shells are connected to the church (they are the emblem of St. James, or, in French, St. Jacques); and on page 63 of Davis, we read of the tomb of Sigebert’s daughter “on which a deep scallop — like the mark of a fossil — had been dug.”
What other connections are you beginning to see? What were your thoughts and reactions to St. Hillaire? To Aunt Leonie watching the world go by? to the relationship between Leonie and Francoise?
I would also like to add this: a comment left on a previous post by Eric Karpeles, author of Paintings in Proust.
“I think it is very important, however, for clear distinctions to be made to readers from the start, and that we are all careful to identify the subtly harmonious trio of voices talking us, accompanying us, through the novel.
We know (1.) the writer of this novel is Marcel Proust. (For purposes of reading the novel, we probably know too much about the author, and many of our received ideas are limited or simplistic.) Proust has created not only (2.) a fictional character named Marcel, but also (3.) an ostensibly omniscient narrator who is this same fictional character Marcel, but a more mature manifestation of him.
Now in the quote from “Proust was a Neuroscientist” quoted above, while Lehrer is speaking about Proust the artist, we must not confuse him with Marcel the character, as Lehrer himself seems to do:
Of course, once Proust began to remember his past, he lost all interest in the taste of the madeleine.
Proust is not writing about what happened to him; rather it is his creation, his character Marcel who has had this remarkable memory-unlocking experience. It is Marcel who is remembering his past, not Proust. (Proust rarely forgot anything.) Dennis is right in the identification in his comment:
the world of Marcel’s childhood is once again open to him
I think we must be very careful not to substitute the writer Proust for the character Marcel, or Marcel for Proust, as if they were one and the same. Charlotte Bronte was not Jane Eyre, nor was Stephen Dedalus James Joyce. This reader suggests that you try and put Marcel Proust the novelist out of the picture as much as possible while reading the novel, especially if it is your first time. The madeleine itself was baked in the oven of his singularly creative imagination and put into the hands of his sympathetic and credulous character, but try and remember you’re reading one of the great novels, not a memoir. Proust was as much philosopher as novelist and he was far more knowing than Marcel, or, for that matter, than any of us.”
If I have confused the issue for anybody, I apologize. To make things clear, in my posts, “Marcel” indicates the protagonist of In Search of Lost Time. “Narrator” refers to the mature narrator of In Search of Lost Time. “Proust” refers to the real Marcel Proust, the author of the novel In Search of Lost Time. When one of the authors I cite, such as Jonah Lehrer confuses the issue, I will attempt to clarify.
Today’s reading — Davis; p. 68 “As we returned home from Mass…” through top of page 82 “…ever seeing him again.” Moncrieff; p. 91 “On our way home from mass…” through p. 110 “not one of us ever set eyes on him again.”