“Combray” by Marcel Proust is the first from the three parts of the book “Swann’s Way” which is a part of his novel cycle called “In Search of Lost Time”. “Combray” is often read as an individual novel and it speaks about oblivion, memory gain and the unconscious body’s memory which is more permanent than the mind’s memory. This is only one layer of this complex novel. It was written in the first person singular and it is about a so-called inner human’s time and his relationship with the outer and the objective.
At first sight, the narration seems to be concentrated on unimportant events and mental state descriptions. The novel begins with the narrator’s meditations between dream and the reality, a time when it’s hard to perceive where we actually are. Then the memories of certain places appear and play with our subconscious and the perception of reality. Proust writes about all of that, follows his thoughts, talks about memories and philosophy without creating a steady plot. The work was written with a symbolic, impressionist style which the author represented.
The plot, no matter how unstable, follows the development of a young, ill boy who ends up becoming a writer. His discovery of his artistic abilities is easy and subtle. This is the primary indication of the novel being autobiographic and written in a way in which the author can present himself and the people who surround him to the world.
In the first part, the narrator speaks about the love of his family and his special bond with his mother. The narrator’s restlessness, which appears when his mother doesn’t come to say goodnight to him, is strongly emphasized. He gives us a detail description of the church in Combray and its tower. The author also speaks about his love for books and nature which he learned to appreciate during his summers in Combray.
Aunt Leonie takes a lot of space in the novel without ever leaving her room. She leads an unusual life and its peak is watching people walking by on the street and taking to her maid Francoise. Aunt Leonie is a link to Proust’s life because he also isolated himself from the world because of his illness, powerlessness and the fear of death.
Mister Swann is mentioned a few times and the narrator claims that his father was his grandfather’s good friend. The end of the novel is dedicated to long walks and a detail description of every place he walks through. The plot is interrupted with the description of some neighbor’s or cousin’s description. Marcel uses those descriptions to describe real-life people but he gives them different names and invents their biographies in order to use them to express his philosophic thoughts.
Place: Combray, Paris
Time: end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century
Theme: description of the narrator’s childhood and growing up
The novel begins with the description of the narrator’s bedtime routine. He went early to bed for a very long time. Soon he would wake up, thinking he fell asleep reading a book and believe it was time to go to bed while he was actually in bed. It would seem to him like he was still holding a book and he would try to remember the last thing he read. Sometimes he would think that he transformed into something about what he read. Then he would ask himself what time it was.
He would wake up sometimes, soaking up his environment and the darkness which surrounded him and sometimes he would go back to his childhood where he relived his childish fears. The narrator says that the people who have a determined bedtime manage to wake up knowing where they are and what time it is while those who suffer from insomnia feel confused when they wake up. He experienced that feeling a few times when, after a deep sleep, he would know where he was after waking up. First, he would feel the glimpse of existence within himself and later on his memories would appear to drag him out of the darkness. His body position reminded him of the bed he used to sleep in while he was at his grandparents.
The memory would then turn in a different direction and he would remember his room in the village in Miss Saint-Loup’s house. The dinner was almost done and he was in his room after taking a long walk. He remembered that the room in which he stayed during the winter had many blankets and a fire which burned throughout the night. His mind was flooded with the memory of the room in which he slept during the summer. There he would get the feeling of sleeping outside every time a breeze would go through the room.
The narrator would get completely awake and he couldn’t fall asleep immediately. He would spend his time remembering his life in the house of his grandmother’s sister in Combray and then in Paris, Venice… He remembered how he hated going to bed in Combray because he had to be separated from his mother and grandmother. To comfort him they gave him a colorful lantern which would project different images and it actually made his room even scarier.
After dinner, he would be left without his mother’s attention because she would talk to the others and, if the weather was nice, she would go to the garden. His grandmother loved the rain and she used to take long walks in the rain saying it’s the best time to breathe deeply. His grandmother fought often with his father because he wouldn’t let the boy play out in the rain. She had a different mindset from the others and they made fun of her. Every night, before sleeping, he would receive a goodnight kiss from his mother but their time was too short for him so he would always ask for another kiss but his mother would deny it since his father thought that their custom was useless.
Sometimes his mother would even come before bedtime and it would happen when they had guests. Their most frequent guest was Mister Swann. He was practically the only person which visited them in Combray. With time his visits became rare because he entered a bad marriage and the narrator’s family didn’t want Swann’s wife in their house. Mister Swann had ties with the narrator’s grandfather because he and Swann’s father were good friends. Swann continued visiting the narrator’s family even after his parents were dead. He lived in an old house in a Parisian neighborhood in which, according to the narrator’s aunt, no respectful man should live. Swann would always avoid serious subjects in his conversations and he always tried to be funny by telling jokes about the people they all knew. Swann was modest and no one would even assume he belonged to the upper class and that he socialized with influential and rich people.
The narrator’s family was condescending towards Swann without even knowing he belonged to the aristocracy. Once the narrator’s grandfather read that Swann was an usual guest at a certain duke’s lunches and the duke’s father and uncle were the most influential officers during Louis Phillippe’s time.
During one of Swann’s late night visits, the grownups only talked about the newspaper and, to the grandfather’s luck, nobility’s life. The narrator only thought about going to bed. He knew he will only receive a short kiss after dinner because his mother won’t come to his room to say goodnight. He dreamed about that kiss and he tried to, by observing his mother and her cheeks, prolong that moment. That night his grandfather denied him of his happiness because he suggested that the narrator is sent to bed immediately because dinner was going to be late that night. The narrator climbed up the stairs and felt sadness entering his body. He thought he could write a letter to his mother, asking her to come and visit him, but the cook in charge of dinner didn’t want to give it to her. According to her dinner was something which cannot be interrupted. In the end, she agreed and the anxiety in the boy diminished. His mother didn’t give him an answer so he decided to stay awake until she comes up the stairs to go to bed and ask her for a kiss.
He waited for his mother on the stairs after Swann left. His mother was obviously infuriated by his behavior. She tried to get him to his room before his father sees him but she didn’t manage to do it. To their surprise the narrator’s father allowed the child to sleep with his mother because he was obviously sad. The mother allowed the child to cry and let his emotions go and her newly discovered kindness and a shift from her parenting methods surprised the narrator. When the kid’s tears started to make his mother sad she suggested that they read one of his books together. His grandmother gave him a lot of books because she believed every gift needs to help people’s spirit and mind to grow.
He picked a book which was unique for him. It was the first novel he came across. The narrator remembered that for him no memory was as important as the memory of going to bed. There was another important moment which happened during his life in Combray. It was a cloudy day and his mother offered him a cup of tea. He melted a piece of Madeleine cookie in it and when he felt that taste he felt something extraordinary. The magnificent feeling would diminish with each new sip. He tried to relive his pleasure but he couldn’t.
One day, the memory came back. It was the taste of the cookie which aunt Leonie gave him with tea. The memory of, not only the cookie but Combray and its surroundings came back.
When they arrived at Combray the first thing he saw was the church. It was a unique representative of the city. Combray’s surroundings were, according to the narrator, a bit sad and all of the streets were named after some saint.
His grandfather’s cousin, in whose house they lived, was the mother of aunt Leonie and she didn’t want to move out. She only used two rooms in the house – she spent her day in one and slept in the other. Often she would talk to herself because she believed it was healthy to talk and that it helped her voice. She also developed an opinion of her never sleeping and the other household members had to adapt to it. They used to say that she went to rest or think when she would take a nap. The narrator remembers visiting his aunt in her room while she was making tea and he would help her. She would dip a Madeleine in it and when it would get soft, she would give him one-half.
Francoise took care of the aunt and she would always wait for their arrival with a smile on her face. The narrator’s mother was always kind and expressed interest in Francoise’s daughter, grandson and deceased parents. Francoise would come and visit the aunt every day, give her the medicine she needed and asked what she wanted to eat that day. The aunt would take the chance to tell Francoise everything she saw through her window. Things would get serious if the aunt would saw a stranger on the street. Francoise would have to calm her down or go and check who it was.
While aunt and Francoise talked in the morning, the family was in church. The narrator still remembered every corner of the church. He was especially impressed by the stained glass which would project beautiful colors during sunny days. The church was a special place for him because it would seem like a fairy’s house to him while he would walk through it with his parents. For the narrator. it was a four-dimensional building whose boat sailed through different centuries. The church was surrounded by houses and it seemed like a normal building but it felt like there was an invisible boundary between the church and the other houses. Its belfry was recognizable from the distance. It was the first thing they would see while traveling by train. When they walked through the forest they would climb up on the hill and see the belfry surrounded with tree tops. The whole building had a special smell and the belfry represented it is conscious. The narrator saw many churches which were prettier but none of it spoke to him the way this one did. He remembered the belfry. It would look different from each street and he would only see a part of its construction.
When they would return from the church they would meet Mister Legrandin which worked as an engineer in Paris so he visited COmbray only during the weekends. He was one of those people who, besides knowing his job, knew a lot about literature and art. The narrator’s family perceived him as an elite society member.
The aunt would only let the priest enter the house and her friend which brought her many information. She couldn’t stand other people and she divided them into two groups. The first one contained people who told her not to worry about her health so much and to go for a walk every now and then. The other group was the people who treated her as if she was even iller than she actually was.
The narrator then remembered his love for the theater which appeared when he wasn’t even allowed to watch a play. In the morning he would run to the board to read which plays were on that night only to imagine what happened on the stage. It was his most common topic to discuss with his friends. He knew all the actors’ names and he would organize them by their talent.
In Paris, he visited his uncle Adolphe but he stopped going there after his uncle and parents got into a fight. His uncle liked to socialize with all kinds of women and his parents disapproved of his behavior. They visited him during the precise time on precise days so that they would stumble onto one of his ladies. The narrator went unannounced to his uncle’s house one day and he met a lady who was also visiting him. When he told his parents about it didn’t know what effect it will have on them. After that incident, he didn’t see his uncle again.
After lunch, his mother would send him up to his room to read a book and his grandmother would ask him to go outside and get some fresh air. Since he didn’t want to give up on his reading he would take his book with him and sit under a tree with it. While he was reading he would wish to remember the content of the book, no matter what it was. He was driven by his desire to know and he enjoyed the process. His afternoons were filled with many dramatic events. The character’s life would become one with his and the surroundings he would envision would mean a lot to him. He dreamed about places far away and love he felt for a certain woman.
His afternoon enjoyment would sometimes be interrupted. Once the gardener’s daughter ran across the garden, yelling that the military was marching. The people would gather to watch the soldiers. Francoise felt sorry for the youth they were about to waste.
Once, Swann interrupted his reading. Swann’s comment about the book he was reading completely changed his way of thinking about the women he dreamed bout. Bergotte was recommended to him by his friend who, until recently, was banned from visiting him. His grandfather and the rest of his family disliked his friend because of his unusual manners. He stopped hanging out with Bloch but he was still impressed by Bergotte and his art. He enjoyed his writing style and he turned the whole novel into a new philosophy which he decided to make the main theme of his life.
Swann commented that Bergotte was a good author, sweet and funny, and he even admitted that he knew him. The narrator wanted to learn some facts about the author but everything Swann told him sounded like empty facts stating. It seemed to him that Swann was afraid to express his real opinion.
The narrator remembered the Saturday’s lunch which happened an hour earlier than usual because Francoise would go to the fair. Everyone accepted the change in their routine which became more like a tradition, especially for aunt Leonie whose days consisted out of routines. Something else took place on Saturday but only in May. They would go to church after dinner and they met Mister Vinteuil there. He was from an important family. After his wife’s death, he inherited her money and bought a place near Combray. Vinteuil visited them often until Swann entered into a suspicious marriage. He stopped coming by then because he didn’t want to see him.
After church, it the weather was nice, they would go for a walk all the way to the train station. Since his mother was a bit lost in time and place his father would guide the way and it made him feel important.
Aunt Leonie would often fantasize. She would imagine fires which would kill the whole family except for her because she would be quick to get out of bed. Then she imagined Francoise stealing from her. She would talk to herself and invent conversations between her and Francoise.
Francoise was a benevolent woman. The aunt used to say that Francoise would give her life for her daughter and grandchild but that she was extremely cold to other people in the same time. She also felt empathy for people far away who she didn’t even know. She was capable of crying for hours after reading an article about a car crash and as soon as she would imagine the victims better she would stop crying. The housekeeper cried about cramps after giving birth and Francoise said that she was just complaining about nothing but after reading a book about the Francoise cried because of the pain she was experiencing. When she came to the housekeeper the tears were gone.
Mister Legrandin invited the narrator to a dinner and his parents weren’t sure about letting him go because Legrandin didn’t greet them a few times on the street. The narrator still went and asked LEgrandin if he knew Miss de Guermantes. It was clear to him that he was telling a lie when he said he doesn’t know her. The narrator realized that Legrandin was actually a snob in disguise. There was a Legrandin who would often say that he hates the nobility but he still preferred the company of rich men. His parents were just like him and their relationship faded with time.
They came back early from their evening walk so that they could visit aunt Leonie before she went to bed. They had two walkways. One led to Guermantes’s estate and the other one was called “Swann’s way” because they had to walk by his estate. During their walk, they would stop by the store to tell the salesman what Francoise needed for her kitchen and then they would walk along the fence of Swann’s estate. After he got married they went the different way because they didn’t want to be too close to his estate. One afternoon they decided to walk by it because Swann said he was in Paris which meant his wife was gone too.
They saw a blond, dark-eyed girl during their walk and the narrator instantly fell in love with her but the girl’s facial expression was filled with despise. Her mother called her to come back to them so the girl, named Gilberta Swann, looked at the boy one more time and went her own way. He asked her family about her and tried to get them to talk about her and her family but he didn’t dear to pronounce her name. During his walks, he would imagine that the breeze was connecting him with his first love.
Mister Vinteuil’s house was alongside their walkway. People talked about him letting his daughter bring a friend into his house. Everyone knew that she was more than a friend and didn’t know how he allowed it. Vinteuil distanced himself from the society and his acquaintances and he spent most of his time by his wife’s grave. He still adored his daughter and couldn’t stand in the way of her happiness but he knew that they came to the bottom of the society so he behaved in such a way.
Aunt Leonie died. It caused a great pain in everyone, except for Francoise which spent the last 15 days of Leonie’s life by her side and didn’t distance herself from her body until it was buried. That fall his parents were busy so they sent the narrator to go and walk on his own and he loved doing it, especially after his afternoon reading. The solitude would help him clarify some of his emotions and it would put him in a blissful state in which he wanted to see a village girl which he would hold in his arms. He wasn’t sure if he could talk to a woman. The narrator believed that people didn’t have such lusts and that they were only his.
During such a walk he found himself near Vinteuil’s house. He had died a while back. The narrator settled himself in a corner and fell asleep. When he woke up it was nighttime and he was able to see into the living room of Miss Vinteuil. She was having fun with her friend. Her friend had no problem talking bad about Mister Vinteuil and the boy thought that he received another present from his daughter after his death.
Whenever they decided to go to Guermantes’s they had to make sure that the weather will be nice because it was a long way. They would leave right after their meal and they were able to see the belfry from their walkway. Another advantage of their walkway was its nearness to the river Vivonne. They would cross the bridge to get to the other side and there would be nothing but meadows all the way to the train station. They would sit by the river, have a snack and some chocolate and then they would continue their walk.
The narrator thought about wanting to be an author when he grows up which meant that he should know what he wanted to write about but as soon as he would come up with an idea, his brain would stop working. He remembered how powerful his father is and thought he might help. The narrator was sure he wouldn’t experience any trouble if he got ill or kidnapped because his father had many strings to pull to make him better or get him back. His belief in the nothingness of his thought made him give up literature for a while.
During every walk, he wanted to see duke and duchess Guermantes. He envisioned their faces and imagined their lifestyle. One day his mother told him that doctor Percepied took good care of the ill duchess and that she will be coming to Combray again to attend his daughters’ wedding. When the narrator saw her in the church, he was very disappointed. She was more elegant in his head but he still admired her ancestors and history. During his walks, he was able to dream that he was her friend, enjoy the beauty of nature and the surroundings which took up his attention completely.
It was a rule to serve the dinner late when they went for a longer walk. As soon as he would get close to the house he would become sad because he knew that he had to go to bed and that his mother won’t come to give him a hug. He knew he will probably shiver the whole night until the sun comes up and clears his head from all the negative thoughts. No surroundings seemed more beautiful to him that the one in Combray and no lover ever managed to give him the love his mother gave him because she was the only one which loved him with all her heart.
The narrator often stayed up until morning, thinking about the time spent in Combray, about the impossible and sleepless nights and the beautiful days which would come to his mind when he tasted Madeleine with a cup of tea.
The boy, the narrator is the main character of the novel. During his early childhood, he was fragile and sensitive which caused his parents to be strict sometimes. They did it to make him strong but he perceived it as an act of cruelty. He was an only child and he was very attached to his mother. His desire for his mother’s love and attention would sometimes come off as a spoiled behavior but it was actually a reflection of deep loneliness and attention cravings. He saw and felt more that regular people. He looked at the world differently, with his own sense for details and completely irrelevant things were relevant to him. Despite being surrounded by love and affection it seemed like he lived deprived of it. His family had enough money and led an intense social life which had its own rules. For example, if someone wouldn’t respect the high society’s rules he would get kicked out of it.
The boy was educated and he showed his love for books and literature at an early age. He spent his afternoons reading and dreaming of becoming an author. He put his desire on hold until he became older and wiser because he believed it was hard to be an author.
He was surrounded with nobility and he was interested in their relationships and lives. He perceived them as novel characters and analyzed them like that. He had a notable interest in nature, flowers and long walks. The narrator had a few friends but his family never liked them. He got carried away easily and even a certain color would completely took over his thoughts. He was especially impressed with the church and its belfry. The boy was moody and he would often get melancholic or even depressed, especially before bedtime when he knew his mother won’t be able to come and give him a goodnight kiss.
Marcel Proust Biography
Marcel Proust was a French novelist from a bourgeois family. He was born in Paris in 1871 and as a child, he suffered from asthma and he spend his childhood was filled with love and attention, especially from his mother.
After graduating he went to serve the military in Orleans. When he came back he went to study political sciences in Paris. During his studies, Bergson makes a big influence on him. He was interested literature and he published his first work in magazine “Le Banquet”.
He was often seen on banquets and in aristocratic circles. His high-class lifestyle takes a turn when in 2 years he loses his parents – his father died in 1903 and his mother in 1905.
In 1906 he lived all alone and then his consistent literary work begins. He was in a race with time and he began his life work “In Search of Lost Time” which is divided into seven parts: “Swann’s Way”, “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, “The Guermantes Way”, “Sodom and Gomorrah”, “The Prisoner”, “The Fugitive” and “Time Regained”.
He received The Prix Goncourt for his novel “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” in 1918.