Vision in Combray: Proust Beyond the Madeleines Concluded

(In June 2009, Michael Norris began a series of explorations of Marcel Proust’s long masterpiece In Search of Lost Time that concludes with a personal coda today. Thanks to Mike Norris and artist David Richardson for this extensive work! A page devoted to the entire series has just been created here. — Levi)

I awoke to a hellish clanging. Bells! Sunlight filtered in through the shutters. I shifted gradually from sleep to consciousness, and as I did, I remembered where I was. Combray. Well, Illiers-Combray. The French village that inspired Marcel Proust. The town started its life as Illiers, and was renamed Illiers-Combray in 1971 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Proust’s birth.

The bells continued relentlessly. Of course! It was early Sunday morning. It was the bells of the church, Saint Jacques (Saint Hilaire in In Search of Lost Time) summoning the townspeople to mass. My wife was still sleeping, oblivious to the din. I slipped into my clothes and went downstairs.

The hotel where we were staying, Hôtel de l’Image, is the sole lodging in the center of town. The only other hotel is near the railway station. The Hôtel de l’Image stands on the town square, sandwiched between a grocery store and a pharmacy, just a few steps from the church. There is a single café on the square. The hotel bar serves as an alternative to the café for those who want to get in out of the hot morning sun.

I took a seat at the far end of the bar and ordered an espresso. It was wonderfully cool inside, and a breeze blew in from the door that opened on to the street. Outside, I could see the bright sun already beating down on the outdoor tables of the café.

A well-dressed man in a suit walked in and stepped up to the bar. He ordered a coffee, and stood chatting with the hotel keeper, who was also the barman, cook and porter. The hotel keeper was tall, thin and very sociable, like Theodore the grocer’s boy from the novel, if Theodore had grown up and taken over the hotel.

Another man entered and came up to the bar. He was dressed in work clothes, perhaps a local farmer. He nodded hello to the well-dressed man, shook hands all around, and the hotel keeper poured him a glass of wine without a word being exchanged. The three then got into a deep discussion of something, the gist of which I couldn’t grasp from my perch at the end of the bar.

I finished my espresso and headed back upstairs. On the second floor, it was beginning to get warm. Away from Paris, in the middle of France, the summer days are sunny and hot. Air conditioning is non-existent. You learn to appreciate shade and cool breezes, to savor the evening when the sun sets and the world cools off.

My wife and I had been to Illiers-Combray before. This time we were passing through, on our way from Brittany to Paris. Illiers-Combray was a good place to stop for the night. We had a rental car, and we had decided to drop the car off in Chartres, 28 kilometers away, and take the train to Paris, thus avoiding the stressful Parisian traffic.

We had breakfast at a table in the hotel bar – coffee and croissants – and then headed out to explore the town. The square was bustling with people and traffic. The grocery store and a few other shops were open until noon, and the villagers and people from the surrounding countryside were hurrying to lay in provisions before the town closed up at midday and went into its deep Sunday afternoon slumber. We bought some fruit and some sandwiches – the French kind, made with half a baguette and consisting of ham, ementhal cheese, and crudités: lettuce, tomato and sliced hard-boiled egg. This would serve as lunch later on. We also bought a couple of bottles of water and a bottle of Côtes du Rhone wine.

We walked down to the café and decided to have another coffee and sit for awhile before the day became too hot. A couple chatted at a table nearby. Two small children walked by, holding their mother’s hand.

Illiers-Combray is a typical French village. The streets are narrow and lined with houses and shops, which abut each other, forming a grey limestone wall broken only by ancient wooden doors. The windows at this time of day are shuttered against the coming heat.

And yet, after reading Proust, the town has a familiar feel. Many of the daily rhythms have not changed since the Belle Époque, even though we are now ten years into the 21st century. The shops close at noon and re-open at two o’clock. The café and the church are the focal points of village life.

Combray is a thread that runs continuously through In Search of Lost Time. Even in the last volume M. is able to summon up a clear picture of this childhood place. It is his point of beginning – the dawning of his awareness of the world.

My Proustian awareness began years before, when I looked at the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time (in those days known as Remembrance of Things Past) resting in the stacks at the Chicago Public Library. When I later read the work, I started on an adventure that took me to France and beyond. Now I was once again sitting in the warm sun at the source – Combray.

The sense of place is strong in In Search of Lost Time. The Guermantes way, Swann’s way – these places permeate the novel, running through the work like the Vivonne runs through the village. Strange that a work of literature would bring me to a small French town thousands of miles from my home and miles from the typical attractions that bring one to France.

Some books leave you with the satisfaction of an intricate plot. Others leave you with indelible characters. Certainly In Search of Lost Time has indelible characters. But there is more. The idea of imagination versus experience is something that I had never really thought about until I read this work. The hero is constantly confronting events that he has built up to a vibrant hue in his imagination, only to be disappointed by their reality. And yet as time passes and he reflects on the event, his imagined version melds with the actual and he is left with a memory even richer than his original conception.

This is what In Search of Lost Time is all about. Imagination confronting reality, and then reconciling it into memory. Memory which fades, but which can be called up involuntarily by some external trigger: the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea, the rough texture of a napkin, the sound of a spoon tapping a plate. We have all experienced this – Proust brings it to vivid life.

Sitting at the café in Proust’s Combray, I could envision M. as a young boy – his longing to meet the Duchesse de Guermantes, his thoughts of Balbec, his conversations with Swann, all of the desires and dreams which set him on the great adventure of his life. It all began in this small village.

I looked up at the church belfry. The bells were ringing again, this time sounding the hour. This element of Proust’s Combray was indeed unchanged, “a church epitomising the town, representing it, speaking of it and for it to the horizon.”

I may never return to Combray, or I may visit it many more times. But I, like Proust, have a stored memory of this place. The sun on the village streets, the hotelkeeper. Waiting only for some unsuspected cue – a church bell, perhaps – to bring it back to life.

12 Responses

  1. I’d like to take this
    I’d like to take this opportunity to say how much I appreciated and enjoyed your series on Proust, Michael.

    For some reason, Proust is one author I never read and your essays made him intriguing and gave me a huge interest in his accomplishment.

    Thanks to the wonderful existence of e-text, I was able to immediately read some of it and get the feel for his unique and natural voiced writings.

    I guess Proust and Joyce really were the 20th century masters.

    I am certain you would win first place in the Summarizing Proust competition.

    One amazing thing I learned after being inspired by your series is something I think relates to Levi’s discussion of the publishing industry. Proust’s first book was turned down and was a self published book.

    Today’s classics might be completely off the radar screens of the major publishers and establishment media, such as the NY Times Book Review etc…

    Again, well done and appreciated.

  2. Michael – I’ll second what
    Michael – I’ll second what TKG says. Much appreciated.

    Now, a series on Finnegan’s Wake?

    Will you return to Paris?

  3. Thanks TKG. Yes, the first
    Thanks TKG. Yes, the first volume of Proust’s work was turned down by a bunch of publishers, including Nouvel Revue Francais, which turned it down on the recommendation of Andre Gide. Proust self-published Swann’s Way, Gide later apoligised to Proust, and the second volume won the Prix Goncourt. So it just goes to show how dicey the publishing industry is for the writer.

  4. Dan, I don’t know about
    Dan, I don’t know about Finnegan’s Wake, although I just finally read Ulysses all the way through and quite enjoyed it this time.

    As for Paris, of course I will return there, as long as I can afford the airfare and have some time off. I consider it to be something like a second home. Everyone should go there, at least once, if they can.

  5. I would love a new series on
    I would love a new series on Finnegans Wake. I think that’d be hilarious.

  6. Yep, the Wake it must be
    Yep, the Wake it must be (grin)! Did you know that the name of an elementary particle comes from the Wake? “Three quarks for muster mark!” — Murray Gell-Mann was a very erudite physicist!

    As to Paris – going there can be a mistake — I’ve gone and can’t live there, so now I just pine for it.

  7. Michael, I agree with
    Michael, I agree with everyone who says your Proust commentary series is quite an accomplishment. It could probably be published as a book. The fact that Proust’s first effort was self-published is encouraging to many of us.

  8. Michael, Thanks for letting
    Michael, Thanks for letting us know about how your Proustian experience triggered your appreciation for Proust. Like other litkicks readers, I hope you’ll do essay series on other great modern writers. Maybe along with the beautiful artwork, someone could do short film clips or photo slideshows to go along with your essays and post them on youtube. In fact, had I thought of it before, I’d have volunteered to do a slideshow for your essays on Proust, since he’s one of my favorite authors.

  9. Michael, I am technically
    Michael, I am technically challenged, so I can’t do real film videos. I’m sure there are some very talented indie film producers reading litkicks though. But like you, I love modern poetry and literature, so I’m doing little slideshows on youtube about some of them. Here’s the one I did recently on Edward K. Kaplan’s new pedagogical edition of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil:

    I could do something similar for your series on Proust, or your future essay series on great modern writers.

  10. Claudia – the Baudelaire
    Claudia – the Baudelaire thing was quite interesting. The use of an Amy Winehouse song adds a dimension to the old Flowers of Evil that I hadn’t though of before.

  11. Michael, I’m glad you liked
    Michael, I’m glad you liked it. Let me know if you want me to do a similar youtube video for any modern writer you plan to write about on litkicks. At any rate, I think it would be interesting to see litkicks grow on youtube as well, from reader initiatives, because it seems like Levi has a lot on his hands already.

  12. Michael, you wrote,
    “The hero

    Michael, you wrote,

    “The hero is constantly confronting events that he has built up to a vibrant hue in his imagination, only to be disappointed by their reality. And yet as time passes and he reflects on the event, his imagined version melds with the actual and he is left with a memory even richer than his original conception.”

    Reading that passage, I felt a poignant rustle in my soul.

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