The third and final section of Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann is little more than an addendum to the work as a whole. We flash forward to learn, in a way that rivals any juicy soap opera, that Swann has married Odette and that they have a child. She’s still acting generally abhorrent, and Swann is largely ostracized from the community he once had. What happened between the end of the last section when Swann declared his relief at being rid of her to now? Proust isn’t telling, so I guess we’ll never know.
The text ends with a striking passage summing up (perhaps? but I’ll get to that…) the novel as a whole:
Les lieux que nous avons connus n’appartiennent pas qu’au monde de l’espace où nous les situons pour plus de facilité. Ils n’étaient qu’une mince tranche au milieu d’impressions contiguës qui formaient notre vie d’alors; le souvenir d’une certaine image n’est que le regret d’un certain instant ; et les maisons, les routes, les avenues, sont fugitives, hélas, comme les années. (403)
The places we have known belong not only to the world of space where we situate them out of simplicity. They were only a small slice among neighboring impressions which form our lives thusly; the memory of a certain image is only the regret of a particular instant; and houses, roads, avenues, are fleeting, alas, as the years.
When I first read this passage, I was so struck by its eloquence that I read it again and again. The build up of materiality into memory here expresses fleeting sadness as much as fleeting beauty/insight. As he does throughout the novel, Proust here creates an image–or series of images–that produces nostalgia simply in coming into being. Everything is born already tinted by the color of ephemerality.
However, there’s something that’s been bugging me. I’ve been thinking about something that came up in class recently regarding the tripartite structure of the text’s narrative, which is, simply put:
Marcel Proust → adult Marcel (narrator) → child Marcel (narrator)
But there’s also, as our professor brought up in class, the strangeness of:
Marcel the clueless
Marcel the profound
We’re never entirely sure where Marcel the naive young man ends and the profundity begins, for they are often presented as flip-sides of the same coin. The passage in question was the scene from “Combray” in which the narrator spies on Madame Vinteuil and her lover. Despite the fact that she is suggesting a ritual in which they spit on her dead father’s portrait, the narrator notes that she is nonetheless virtuous, since it is only the virtuous who can get pleasure from such devilishness. I’ll admit that I read this as Marcel speaking in earnest. But, as our professor pointed out, how could he be? Surely this is a tongue-in-cheek showcasing of Marcel’s inability to see what is directly in front of him. His visual experiences are mediated and narrated by his willful naivety.
Complicating things further, to whom does Marcel the profound belong? Is he part of the adult narrator? Or are we meant to see these bursts of profundity in the text as intrusions by Proust the author? Is clueless Marcel (the narrator) a piece of Proust as well? How are these different selves related.
All of this forces me to reread the book’s last passage more closely. Is it possible that I’m missing an important element of silliness–particularly in that last dramatic hélas? Is Proust playing with us here? I guess it’s indeed possible. But, honestly, just to put my cards on the table as a romantic, I really hope not.