Davis: Pages 169-178; Moncrieff: Pages 233-245
by Dennis Abrams
Walking along the Guermantes way. The Vivonne, water lilies. The remains of the chateau of the old Counts of Combray. A young woman burying herself in the ‘vacation house,’ “One sensed that, in her renunciation, she had deliberately withdrawn from places where she might at least have glimpsed the man she loved, in favor of these places which had never seen him.” The Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes imagined as figures in a tapestry. The linking of de Guermantes and Combray. Marcel’s dreams of Mme. de Guermantes lead to the realization that he wants to be a writer, but needs a subject. The powers of Marcel’s father.
While the last few pages, with its look at Marcel’s feelings for Mme. de Guermantes, his first hint to us that he wants to be a writer, and his faith in his father’s abilities to make everything all right are wonderful, I have to admit that the long description of the walk itself, at least for me, was fairly rough going. I found myself, probably for the first time in the book so far, wishing that Proust would just get on with it. But then, after reading the following passage in Malcom Bowie’s book Proust Among the Stars, in which he finds more meaning in one single sentence than I would have imagined possible, I found myself forced to reconsider my position.
“The narrator describes the Vivonne at the moment when its stream begins to accelerate on emerging from the grounds of a local property:
‘How often I have watched, and longed to imitate when I should be free to live as I chose, a rower who had shipped his oars and lay flat on his back in the bottom of his boat, letting it drift with the current, seeing nothing but the sky gliding slowly by above him, his face aglow with a foretaste of happiness and peace!’ (Moncrieff, et al)
The overall design of the plot may be absent from this sentence, but the underlying emotional teleology of the book is not. The narrator describes his earlier childhood self as driven by an imagined future beatitude. Once the shackles of parental supervision have been untied, he will enjoy the free exercise of his desires and bask negligently in each new-found bliss. Literary ambition already has a part to play in thie quest. Just as Dante hastened to rejoin Virgil when he strode on ahead of him in the Inferno (XXIII, 145-8, so I, the narrator has just announced, would run to catch up with my parents on the towpath. And Virgil’s destiny later in the Commedia, we may remember, was to be left behind…Such references are common in these early stages of the novel, and one happy vision of the future certainly involves a free and self-replenishing literary creativity, to be exercised perhaps on a Dantesque scale. But what is striking about this sentence is not so much its pre-echo of a later outcome as its choice in the hear-and-now of a hard path towards ‘happiness and peace.’
At least three time-scales are present. The oarsman sinks back languorously after hard work with arms and legs; the narrator enjoys himself when he is finally able to break free from a constraining family; and Proust’s sentence arrives at its final visionary affirmation after much syntactic travail. No problem arises from the fact that two futures — ‘his’ and ‘mine’ — are being narrated simultaneously, nor from their being consigned to an epoch that is already long past at the moment of narration: we regularly consult other people’s hopes in order to understand our own, and will readily own that our past was as future-driven as our present now is. The problem — and the pleasurableness — of sentences on this model lies in their insistent intermixing of past, present and future…
The temporality of Proust’s sentence is insistently heterogeneous: moment by moment, the flow of time is stalled, and unpacked into its backward- and forward-looking ingredients.”
The weekend’s reading:
Davis: 178, “One day my mother said to me…” through 191 , “by the raised finger of the dawn.” (The end of the section entitled “Combray.)
Moncrieff: 245, “One day my mother said to me:…”through 264, “by the uplifted forefinger of dawn.”