Marcel Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), is divided into three sections: Combray, Swann in Love, and Place Names. Even if one hasn’t ever read Proust, one is probably nonetheless familiar with at least one element of the first chapter of Combrary: the madeline scene. This fifty page chapter—and what C. K. Scott Moncrieff, in his 1922 English translation somewhat appropriately titles an “Overture”—serves to introduce all of the main themes that will dominate the work to come: childhood, longing, lost love, and, of course, involuntary memory among others. A taste of a madeline dipped in tea reminds the adult narrator of his childhood in Combray. Briefly, the section as a whole is organized around the two main paths the narrator and his family took while staying at their country home: an accessible path the family calls the Méséglise or Swann’s Way (because it circle’s their friend Charles Swann’s estate), and the longer, more difficult walk called the Guermantes’ Way. There is much to be said about this introduction to À la recherche du temps perdu and I believe that the first section gives us many clues as to how we should regard the work as a whole. The first chapter of De cotê de chez Swann lends itself fairly easily to plot summary: The narrator, Marcel, discusses how much he disliked falling asleep at night as a child, which reminds him of all the rooms he has fallen asleep in in his life. He lives for his mother’s good night kiss, which is usually delayed on nights when his parents are entertaining Charles Swann. He recounts conversations his family has with Swann, noting how much difference there is between the way he is perceived and how he presumably perceives himself. An episode of melancholia—in which his mother threatens to withhold the kiss—gives way to a discussion of links between Swann’s outsider status and Marcel’s own feelings of inadequacy. We then return to the narrator as an adult, dipping a madeline into tea, thereby triggering the involuntary memory that leads to the rest of À la recherche du temps perdu. It sounds simple enough. What is not so easy is to untangle are all of the threads that make Proust such a master thinker and artist. Reading the text is like entering into a lullaby that is at once sweet and sorrowful; its words hang, transcendent and uncanny, from the rafters of sound and meaning. What I find most intriguing about this section—and which is developed as early as the first line of the work—is the focus on liminality, the “in-between-ness” of the text:
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire : « Je m’endors. » (11)
For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, just as my candle went out, my eyes would close so quickly that I didn’t even have time to say to myself, “I’m falling asleep.” (translation my own)
It is, appropriately, a tale that begins between two worlds: the waking and sleeping. Boundaries between reality and dream are blurred here and, often, the narrator notes that he would find himself unsure of where—or who—he even was. This reoccurs when the narrator falls into an almost-religious ecstasy while reading. Emerging himself in a text opens the narrator up to “incessants mouvements du dedans au dehors [incessant movements from inside to outside]” and he exists on a sort of metaphysical borderlands, moving between text and reality (85). He describes this motion as “les états simultanément juxtaposés dans ma conscience” [states simultaneously juxtaposed on my consciousness]” (88). This space between is what draws the narrator to liminal characters: Françoise, Swann, and Mlle Vinteuil and her lesbian lover. Does this liminality lead to an outsider consciousness more capable of expression? Is this what makes the artist? What does the narrator see that his family—who do not struggle with the same dual consciousness he does—can not?