There are dizzying time-warps. We begin with the author remembering, in extraordinary detail, the world of his childhood, Combray, the house of his grandmother, a lush orchestration of sights and smells, of people, particular incidents, 200 pages of it, and then, snap, we are fully and deeply into the story of M. Charles Swann’s love for Odette de Crecy, events that the narrator (whom we realize, because he pokes his head out from behind the authorial screen in two or three lines among the 250 pages, is the same little boy now grown into an omniscient author) could have known nothing about because they occurred out of his sight and he would have been too young to understand a thing about the suffering, obsessions, manipulations and deceptions that characterize the romance of Swann and Odette. This transition from Combray to Swann’s story is so startling that I thought of Kubrick’s opening sequence in “2001”: the apes discovering the tools, snap, to a future/past of space travel. And there are threads left about to test our own memory, as the first glimpse of little girl named Gilberte, who will not reappear for some 300 pages when we will learn that she is the daughter of Swann and Odette. Time and memory, as is well known, are the leitmotivs of Proust’s great novel; “Proustian” is almost a cliché. What the cliché cannot convey is how amazingly nuanced is Proust’s play on this theme: for instance, Gilberte, when she meets the narrator several years later in Paris, has no memory of ever seeing him before. She does not remember what we must if we are to keep all this together in our minds.
A short comment on Proust’s use of language.
The writing is so flawless, so fluid, that it defies ordinary discussion, especially in the age post-Hemingway and present Franzen. It washes along, simultaneously through the reader’s intelligence and his emotions, not to mention his or her ear and capacity to visualize. Language as the sacred river. “Where Alpha the sacred river ran/ down through caverns measureless to man…” There are some of the longest sentences ever written. But they seem indisputable. How else could something so nuanced be expressed?