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(A la recherche du temps perdu / In Search of Lost Time)
by Marcel Proust
The original, squashed down to read in about 50 minutes
Marcel Proust by Richard Lindner.
The wealthy Proust spent the later years of his life largely confined to a cork-lined room, writing this extraordinary semi-autobiography, a truly vast narrative across seven volumes. Here is the better-known first part, 'Combray' - his evocation of how our past experiences can return to life, in what psychology calls the 'Proust effect'.
Abridged: GH, from the translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.
For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say "I'm going to sleep." And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me.
When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host. At the moment of waking, he will have no idea of the time, but will conclude that he has just gone to bed. But for me it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as completely to relax my consciousness; for I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal's consciousness; but then the memory, not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived, and might now very possibly be, would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself.
As a rule, I would not attempt to go to sleep again at once, but used to spend the greater part of the night recalling our life in the old days at Combray with my great-aunt, at Balbec, Paris, Doncières, Venice, and the rest. At Combray, as every afternoon ended, long before the time when I should have to go up to bed, and to lie there, unsleeping, far from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom became the fixed point on which my melancholy and anxious thoughts were centred.
Some one had had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come: in the manner of the master-builders and glass-painters of gothic days it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted, as on a shifting and transitory window. I found plenty of charm in these bright projections, which seemed to have come straight out of a past of Merovingian castles, and to shed around me the reflections of such ancient history. And as soon as the dinner-bell rang I would run down to the dining-room, to the dish of stewed beef; and I would fall into the arms of my mother.
But after dinner, alas, I was soon obliged to leave Mamma, who stayed talking with the others, in the garden if it was fine, or in the little parlour when it was wet. Everyone except my grandmother, who held that "It is a pity to shut oneself indoors in the country," and was only borough in by my great-aunt calling out to her: "Bathilde! Come in and stop your husband from drinking brandy!"
My sole, brief, consolation when I went upstairs for the night was that Mamma would come in and kiss me after I was in bed. But on those evenings on which we had guests to dinner, she did not come at all.
Our 'guests' were practically limited to M. Swann, who came (now less frequently since his unfortunate marriage, as my family did not care to receive his wife) sometimes after dinner, uninvited. Although a far younger man, M. Swann was very much attached to my grandfather, who had been an intimate friend, in his time, of Swann's father. My great-aunt and grandparents never suspected that in Swann they were harbouring one of the smartest members of the Jockey Club, a particular friend of the Comte de Paris and of the Prince of Wales. Our utter ignorance of the brilliant part which Swann was playing in the world of fashion was due in part to his own reserve, but also to that middle-class, almost Hindu, view of society, which held to sharply defined castes, so that everyone at his birth found himself called to that station in life which his parents already occupied, from which nothing, except the chance of a brilliant career or of a 'good' marriage, could extract you.
But on one occasion my grandfather read in a newspaper that M. Swann was one of the most faithful attendants at the Sunday luncheons given by the Duc de X - . Now my grandfather was curious to learn all the little details. And so, on the day that Swann next arrived, we all sat down round the iron table, and conversations began. And then, before the dinner, my father said with unconscious cruelty: "Run along; to bed with you, little man. "Leave your mother alone. You've said good night quite enough. Go on upstairs."
Once in my room I had to stop every loophole, to close the shutters, to dig my own grave as I turned down the bed-clothes, to wrap myself in the shroud of my nightshirt. But before burying myself in the iron bed I was stirred to revolt, and attempted the desperate stratagem of a condemned prisoner. I wrote a note to my mother begging her to come upstairs, and sent it to her, by way of Françoise, my aunt's cook who used to be put in charge of me at Combray.
I lay down and shut my eyes, and realised that, by writing that line to Mamma, I had cut myself off from the possibility of going to sleep until I actually had seen her. In time, I heard my father saying: "Well, shall we go up to bed?", and I went quietly into the passage; my heart beating so violently that I could hardly move with terror and with joy. I saw in the well of the stair a light coming upwards, from Mamma's candle. Then I saw Mamma herself: I threw myself upon her, and her face assumed an expression of anger. "We must not make him accustomed," said my father, with a shrug of the shoulders; "but you can see that the child is unhappy. After all, we aren't gaolers.
Mamma spent that night in my room. It struck me that if I had just scored a victory it was over her; that I had succeeded, as sickness or sorrow or age might have succeeded, in relaxing her will, in altering her judgement; that this evening opened a new era, must remain a black date in the calendar.
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. At once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray, when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it, but when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
Just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, become flowers or houses or people, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray sprang into being from my cup of tea.
To live in, Combray was a trifle depressing, like its streets of blackened stone. Streets with the solemn names of Saints; the Rue Saint-Hilaire, and the Rue Saint-Jacques, in which my aunt's house stood. My grandfather's cousin - by courtesy my great-aunt - with whom we used to stay, had gradually declined to leave, first Combray, then her house in Combray, then her bedroom, and finally her bed; and who now never 'came down,' but lay perpetually in an indefinite condition of grief, physical exhaustion, illness, obsessions, and religious observances. At one side of her bed stood a big yellow chest-of-drawers of lemon-wood, and a table which served at once as pharmacy and as high altar, on which, beneath a statue of Our Lady and a bottle of Vichy-Célestins, might be found her service-books and her medical prescriptions, everything that she needed for the performance, in bed, of her duties to soul and body, to keep the proper times for pepsin and for vespers.
Everyone was so well known in Combray, animals as well as people, that if my aunt had happened to see a dog go by which she 'didn't know at all' she would think about it incessantly, devoting to the solution of the incomprehensible problem all her inductive talent and her leisure hours. "That will be Mme. Sazerat's dog," Françoise would suggest, without any real conviction, but in the hope of peace. "I can't afford to stay here amusing myself; look, it's nearly ten o'clock and I've still to dress the asparagus." "What, Françoise, more asparagus! It's a regular disease of asparagus you have got this year: you will make our Parisians sick of it."
While my aunt gossiped on in this way with Françoise I would have accompanied my parents to mass. How I loved it: how clearly I can see it still, our church at Combray! Blackened and worn down by the gentle grazing touch of peasant-women, its memorial stones, beneath which lay the noble dust of the Abbots of Combray, furnished the choir with a sort of spiritual pavement. Two tapestries of high warp represented the coronation of Esther, in which tradition would have it that the weaver had given to Ahasuerus the features of one of the kings of France and to Esther those of a lady of Guermantes whose lover he had been.
All these things and, more than these, made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space - the name of the fourth being Time - which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant. It was the steeple of Saint-Hilaire which shaped and crowned and consecrated every occupation, every hour of the day, every point of view in the town.
On our way home from mass we would often meet M. Legrandin, a Parisian engineer, with more than some skill as a 'man of letters'. "Well met, my friends!" he would say. "Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life, little boy," he added, turning to me. You have a soul in you of rare quality, an artist's nature; never let it starve for lack of what it needs."
When, on our reaching the house, my aunt would send to ask us whether Mme. Goupil had indeed arrived late for mass, not one of us could inform her. "Ah!" my aunt would sigh, "I wish it were time for Eulalie to come. She is really the only person who will be able to tell me."
Eulalie was a limping, energetic, deaf spinster who had retired from the service of Mme. de la Bretonnerie, and had then taken a room beside the church. Eulalie knew that her visits, which took place regularly every Sunday, were for my aunt a pleasure the prospect of which kept her in days of expectation, appetising enough to begin with, but at once changing to an agony of a hunger too long unsatisfied if Eulalie were a minute late in coming.
Our Sundays there were built by Françoise upon the permanent foundation of eggs, cutlets, potatoes, preserves, and biscuits, whose appearance on the table she no longer announced to us, to which Françoise would add - as the labour of fields and orchards, the harvest of the tides, the luck of the markets, the kindness of neighbours, and her own genius might provide; so effectively that our bill of fare, like the quatrefoils that were carved on the porches of cathedrals in the thirteenth century, reflected to some extent the march of the seasons and the incidents of human life - a brill, because the fish-woman had guaranteed its freshness; a turkey, because she had seen a beauty in the market at Roussainville-le-Pin; cardoons with marrow, because she had never done them for us in that way before; apricots, because they were still hard to get; raspberries, which M. Swann had brought specially; an almond cake, because she had ordered one the evening before; a fancy loaf, because it was our turn to 'offer' the holy bread. And when all these had been eaten, a work composed expressly for ourselves, but dedicated more particularly to my father, who had a fondness for such things, a cream of chocolate, inspired in the mind, created by the hand of Françoise, would be laid before us, light and fleeting as an 'occasional piece' of music, into which she had poured the whole of her talent. Anyone who refused to partake of it, saying: "No, thank you, I have finished; I am not hungry," would at once have been lowered to the level of the Philistines who, when an artist makes them a present of one of his works, examine its weight and material, whereas what is of value is the creator's intention and his signature. To have left even the tiniest morsel in the dish would have shewn as much discourtesy as to rise and leave a concert hall under the composer's very eyes while the 'piece' was still being played.
In earlier days I would steal into the little sitting-room which my uncle Adolphe, a brother of my grandfather and an old soldier who had retired from the service as a major, used to occupy on the ground floor, a room which suggesting at once an open-air and an old-fashioned kind of existence, which sets and keeps the nostrils dreaming when one goes into a disused gun-room. But for some years now I had not gone into my uncle Adolphe's room, since he no longer came to Combray on account of a quarrel which had arisen between him and my family.
At this date I was a lover of the theatre: a Platonic lover, of necessity, since my parents had not yet allowed me to enter one. All my conversations with my playfellows bore upon actors, Got, Delaunay, Sarah Bernhardt, Berma, Bartet, Madeleine Brohan, and so on. Now my uncle knew many of them personally, and also ladies of another class, not clearly distinguished from actresses in my mind. My uncle's fatal readiness to pay pretty widows (who had perhaps never been married) and countesses (whose high-sounding titles were probably no more than noms de guerre) the compliment of presenting them to my grandmother or even of presenting to them some of our family jewels, had already embroiled him more than once with my grandfather.
And so, taking advantage of the fact that my parents had had luncheon earlier than usual; I slipped out unaccompanied, and ran all the way to his house. As I climbed the staircase I could hear laughter and a woman's voice, and, as soon as I had rung, silence and the sound of shutting doors. The man-servant who let me in appeared embarrassed, and said that my uncle was extremely busy and probably could not see me; he went in, however, to announce my arrival, and the same voice I had heard before said: "Oh, yes! Do let him come in; just for a moment; it will be so amusing. On the table was the plate of marchpanes that was always there; my uncle wore the same alapca coat as on other days; but opposite to him, in a pink silk dress with a great necklace of pearls about her throat, sat a young woman who was just finishing a tangerine.
Two hours later, after a string of mysterious utterances, I found it simpler to let my parents have a full account, omitting no detail, of the visit I had paid that afternoon. Unfortunately my parents had recourse to principles entirely different from those which I suggested they should adopt when they came to form their estimate of my uncle's conduct. A few days later, passing my uncle in the street as he drove by in an open carriage, I turned my head away. My uncle thought that, in doing so I was obeying my parents' orders; he never forgave them; and though he did not die until many years later, not one of us ever set eyes on him again.
And so I no longer used to go into the little sitting-room (now kept shut) of my uncle Adolphe; instead, after Françoise announced: "I am going to let the kitchen-maid serve the coffee; it is time I went off to Mme. Octave." I would go straight upstairs to my room, to read.
The kitchen-maid was an abstract personality; for we never found the same girl there two years running. In the year in which we ate those quantities of asparagus, the kitchen-maid was a poor sickly creature, some way 'gone' in pregnancy, whose splendid outline could be detected through the folds of her ample smocks, recalling the cloaks in which Giotto shrouds some of the allegorical figures in his paintings.
I would be lying stretched out on my bed, a book in my hand, in my room which trembled with the effort to defend its frail, transparent coolness against the afternoon sun. But my grandmother would come up and beg me to go outside. And I would take my book, and go under the chestnut-tree to a little sentry-box of canvas and matting, in the farthest recesses of which I used to sit and feel that I was hidden from all eyes.
And then my thoughts, did not they form a similar sort of hiding-hole, in the depths of which I felt that I could bury myself and remain invisible even when I was looking at what went on outside? When I saw any external object, my consciousness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, enclosing it in a slender, incorporeal outline which prevented me from ever coming directly in contact with the material form; for it would volatilise itself in some way before I could touch it, just as an incandescent body which is moved towards something wet never actually touches moisture, since it is always preceded, itself, by a zone of evaporation. Upon the sort of screen, patterned with different states and impressions, my consciousness would quietly unfold while I was reading.
In this way, for two consecutive summers I used to sit in the heat of our Combray garden, sick with a longing inspired by the book I was then reading for a land of mountains and rivers, where I could see an endless vista of sawmills, where beneath the limpid currents fragments of wood lay mouldering in beds of watercress; and nearby, rambling and clustering along low walls, purple flowers and red. And since there was always lurking in my mind the dream of a woman who would enrich me with her love, that dream in those two summers used to be quickened with the freshness and coolness of running water; and whoever she might be, the woman whose image I called to mind, purple flowers and red would at once spring up on either side of her like complementary colours.
This was not only because an image of which we dream remains for ever distinguished, is adorned and enriched by the association of colours not its own which may happen to surround it in our mental picture; for the scenes in the books I read were to me not merely scenery more vividly portrayed by my imagination than any which Combray could spread before my eyes but otherwise of the same kind.
Sometimes I would be torn from my book by the gardener's daughter, who came running like a mad thing, overturning an orange-tree in its tub, cutting a finger, breaking a tooth, and screaming out "They're coming, they're coming!" so that Françoise and I should run too and not miss anything of the show. That was on days when the cavalry stationed in Combray went out for some military exercise, going as a rule by the Rue Sainte-Hildegarde. While our servants, sitting in a row on their chairs outside the garden railings, stared at the people of Combray taking their Sunday walks and were stared at in return. "Poor children," Françoise would exclaim, in tears almost before she had reached the railings; "poor boys, to be mown down like grass in a meadow". Then Françoise would hasten back to my aunt, and I would return to my book, and the servants would take their places again outside the gate to watch the dust settle on the pavement, and the excitement caused by the passage of the soldiers subside.
I discovered Bergotte for the first time from a friend older than myself, for whom I had a strong admiration, a precious youth of the name of Bloch. Hearing me confess my love of the Nuit d'Octobre, he had burst out in a bray of laughter, warning: "You must conquer your vile taste for these things". Bloch was not invited to the house again.
My grandfather made out that, whenever I formed a strong attachment to any one of my friends and brought him home with me, that friend was invariably a Jew; to which he would not have objected on principle - indeed his own friend Swann was of Jewish extraction - had he not found that the Jews whom I chose as friends were not usually of the best type. And so I was hardly ever able to bring a new friend home without my grandfather's humming "Israel, break thy chain".
While I was reading in the garden, my aunt Léonie would be gossiping with Françoise until it was time for Eulalie to arrive. Scarcely had she been admitted to the presence when Françoise reappeared: "His reverence the Curé would be delighted, enchanted, if Mme. His reverence is downstairs; I told him to go into the parlour." Had the truth been known, the Curé's visits gave my aunt no such ecstatic pleasure as Françoise supposed. His wordy descriptions of his church were erudite and accurate, but to an ear unused to history in any form, only suffered out of respect for the office of the teller.
The day had yet another characteristic feature, namely, that during May we used to go out on Saturday evenings after dinner to the 'Month of Mary' devotions. We were liable, there, to meet M. Vinteuil, who held very strict views on "the deplorable untidiness of young people, which seems to be encouraged in these days". It was in these services that I can remember having first fallen in love with hawthorn-blossom. The hawthorn was not merely in the church, for there, holy ground as it was, we had all of us a right of entry; but, arranged upon the altar itself, inseparable from the mysteries in whose celebration it was playing a part, it thrust in among the tapers and the sacred vessels its rows of branches, tied to one another horizontally in a stiff, festal scheme of decoration. Though I dared not look at them save through my fingers, I could feel that the formal scheme was composed of living things, and that it was Nature herself who, by trimming the shape of the foliage, and by adding the crowning ornament of those snowy buds, had made the decorations worthy of what was at once a public rejoicing and a solemn mystery.
When, before turning to leave the church, I made a genuflection before the altar, I felt suddenly, as I rose again, a bitter-sweet fragrance of almonds steal towards me from the hawthorn-blossom, and I then noticed that on the flowers themselves were little spots of a creamier colour, in which I imagined that this fragrance must lie concealed, as the taste of an almond cake lay in the burned parts, or the sweetness lay beneath the freckled cheeks of M. Vinteuil's daughter. Gusts of fragrance came to me like the murmuring of an intense vitality, with which the whole altar was quivering like a roadside hedge explored by living antennae, of which I was reminded by seeing some stamens, almost red in colour, which seemed to have kept the springtime virulence, the irritant power of stinging insects now transmuted into flowers.
One Sunday, my father said, "I am afraid we are in M. Legrandin's bad books; he would hardly say 'How d'ye do' to me this morning." But my father's fears were dissipated no later than the following evening. As we returned from a long walk we saw, near the Pont-Vieux, Legrandin himself. He came up to us with outstretched hand: "Do you know, master book-lover," he asked me, "this line of Paul Desjardins? Now are the woods all black, but still the sky is blue. Is not that a fine rendering of a moment like this? Read him, my boy, read him. Goodbye, friends!" he exclaimed, and left us.
At the hour when I usually went downstairs to find out what there was for dinner, its preparation would already have begun, and Françoise, a colonel with all the forces of nature for her subalterns, as in the fairy-tales where giants hire themselves out as scullions, would be stirring the coals, putting the potatoes to steam, and, at the right moment, finishing over the fire those culinary masterpieces which had been first got ready in some of the great array of vessels, triumphs of the potter's craft.
Poor Giotto's Charity, as Swann had named her, charged by Françoise with the task of preparing them for the table, would have the asparagus lying beside her in a basket; sitting with a mournful air, as though all the sorrows of the world were heaped upon her; and the light crowns of azure which capped the asparagus shoots above their pink jackets would be finely and separately outlined, star by star, as in Giotto's fresco are the flowers banded about the brows. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare's Dream) at transforming my humble chamber pot into a bower of aromatic perfume.
But the day on which, while my father took counsel with his family upon our strange meeting with Legrandin, I went down to the kitchen, was one of those days when Giotto's Charity, still very weak and ill after her recent confinement, had been unable to rise from her bed; Françoise, being without assistance, had fallen into arrears. When I went in, I saw her in the back-kitchen in process of killing a chicken; by its desperate and quite natural resistance, which Françoise, beside herself with rage as she attempted to slit its throat beneath the ear, accompanied with shrill cries of "Filthy creature! Filthy creature!" I crept out of the kitchen and upstairs, trembling all over; I could have prayed, then, for the instant dismissal of Françoise. But who would have baked me such hot rolls, boiled me such fragrant coffee, and even-roasted me such chickens?
M. Legrandin had asked my parents to send me to dine with him on this same Sunday evening. "Come and bear your aged friend company," he had said to me. "Like the nosegay which a traveller sends us from some land to which we shall never go again, come and let me breathe from the far country of your adolescence the scent of those flowers of spring among which I also used to wander, many years ago". So, after sole little discussion, I dined with Legrandin on the terrace of his house, by moonlight. "There is a charming quality, is there not," he said to me, "in this silence; for hearts that are wounded, as mine is, a novelist, whom you will read in time to come, claims that there is no remedy but silence and shadow. And see you this, my boy, there comes in all lives a time, towards which you still have far to go, when the weary eyes can endure but one kind of light, the light which a fine evening like this prepares for us in the stillroom of darkness, when the ears can listen to no music save what the moonlight breathes through the flute of silence."
I could hear what M. Legrandin was saying; like everything that he said, it sounded attractive; but knowing that Legrandin was on friendly terms with several of the local aristocracy, I summoned up all my courage and said to him: "Tell me, sir, do you know the Guermantes family?" and I felt glad because, in pronouncing the name, I had secured a sort of power over it. But, at the sound of the word Guermantes, I saw in the middle of each of our friend's blue eyes a little brown dimple appear, as though they had been stabbed by some invisible pin-point. Legrandin the talker would reply, "No, I have never cared to know them." But unfortunately the talker was subordinated to another Legrandin, who might say "Oh, how you hurt me! Do not remind me of the great sorrow of my life."
There were, in the environs of Combray, two 'ways' which we used to take for our walks, so diametrically opposed that we would actually leave the house by a different door, according to the way we had chosen: the way towards Méséglise-la-Vineuse, which we called also 'Swann's way,' because, to get there, one had to pass along the boundary of M. Swann's estate, and the 'Guermantes way.'
One day my grandfather said to my 'father: "Don't you remember Swann telling us that his wife and daughter had gone off to Rheims and that he was spending a day or two in Paris? We might go along by his park, since the ladies are not at home."
We stopped for a moment by the fence. I should have liked to see, by a miracle, Mlle. Swann appear, with her father, so close to us that we should not have time to escape, and should therefore be obliged to make her acquaintance. And so, when I suddenly noticed a straw basket lying forgotten on the grass by the side of a line whose float was bobbing in the water, I made a great effort to keep my father and grandfather looking in another direction, away from this sign that she might, after all, be in residence. I found the whole path throbbing with the fragrance of hawthorn-blossom. The hedge resembled a series of chapels, whose walls were no longer visible under the mountains of flowers that were heaped upon their altars. How simple and rustic, in comparison with these, would seem the dog-roses which, in a few weeks' time, would be climbing the same hillside path in the heat of the sun, dressed in the smooth silk of their blushing pink bodices, which would be undone and scattered by the first breath of wind. Suddenly I stood still, unable to move, as happens when something appears that requires not only our eyes to take it in, but involves a deeper kind of perception and takes possession of the whole of our being. A little girl, with fair, reddish hair, who appeared to be returning from a walk, and held a trowel in her hand, was looking at us, raising towards us a face powdered with pinkish freckles. "Gilberte, come along; what are you doing?" called out in a piercing tone of authority a lady in white, whom I had not seen until that moment.
And so was wafted to my ears the name of Gilberte, uttered across the heads of the stocks and jasmines, pungent and cool as the drops which fell from the green watering-pipe; impregnating and irradiating the zone of pure air through which it had passed, which it set apart and isolated from all other air, with the mystery of the life of her whom its syllables designated to the happy creatures that lived and walked and travelled in her company; unfolding through the arch of the pink hawthorn, which opened at the height of my shoulder, the quintessence of their familiarity - so exquisitely painful to myself - with her, and with all that unknown world of her existence, into which I should never penetrate.
That year my family fixed the day of their return to Paris rather earlier than usual, but found ourselves returning to Combray in autumn to settle my aunt Léonie's estate; for she had died at last, leaving both parties among her neighbours triumphant in the fact of her demise - those who had insisted that her mode of life was enfeebling and must ultimately kill her, and, equally, those who had always maintained that she suffered from some disease not imaginary, but organic.
During that time my parents, finding the days so fully occupied with the legal formalities that they had little time for walks, began to let me go, without them, along the 'Méséglise way,' wrapped up in a huge Highland plaid which protected me from the rain. I felt that the stripes of its gaudy tartan scandalised Françoise, whom it was impossible to convince that the colour of one's clothes had nothing whatever to do with one's mourning for the dead. But the moment that Françoise herself approached, some evil spirit would urge me to attempt to make her angry, and I would avail myself of the slightest pretext to say to her that I regretted my aunt's death because she had been a good woman in spite of her absurdities. And if Françoise then were to plead her inability to rebut my theories, saying: "I don't know how to espress myself"; and if she went on: "All the same she was a geological relation; there is always the respect due to your geology," I would shrug my shoulders and say: "It is really very good of me to discuss the matter with an illiterate old woman who cannot speak her own language," adopting the mean outlook of the pedant, whom those who are most contemptuous of, are only too prone to copy when they are obliged to play a part upon the vulgar stage of life.
My walks, that autumn, were all the more delightful because I used to take them after long hours spent over a book. And it is perhaps from an impression which I received years later at Montjouvain that there arose my idea of that cruel side of human passion called 'sadism.'
It was during a spell of very hot weather, when, having woken from a sleep in the shade, I saw Mile. Vinteuil, now growing into a young woman only a few feet away, in a room where I could watch her every movement without her being able to see me. She was in deep mourning, for her father had but lately died.
At the far end of Mlle. Vinteuil's sitting-room, on the mantelpiece, stood a small photograph of her father which she went briskly to fetch, and placed it on a little table beside her sofa. The sound of carriage wheels was heard from the road outside, then her friend came in. Mlle. Vinteuil greeted her and rose and came to the window, where she pretended to be trying to close the shutters. "Leave them open," said her friend. "I am hot." "But people will see us," Mlle. Vinteuil answered. "And what if they do? said her friend, "Your ladyship's thoughts seem to be rather hot this evening". In the V-shaped opening of her crepe bodice Mlle. Vinteuil felt the sting of her friend's sudden kiss; she gave a little scream and ran away; and then they began to chase one another about the room, their wide sleeves fluttering like wings, clucking and crowing like a pair of amorous fowls. At last Mlle.Vinteuil fell down exhausted upon the sofa, where she was screened from me by the stooping body of her friend. Mlle. Vinteuil exclaimed: "Oh! there's my father's picture looking at us; that is not the proper place for it." The response seemed liturgical: "Let him stay there. He can't trouble us any longer, the ugly monkey? I should like to spit on the old horror." she said, taking up the photograph. I heard no more, for Mlle. Vinteuil, drew the shutters close. A 'sadist' of her kind is an artist in evil, which a wholly wicked person could not be.
When we took the 'Guermantes way,' we had beside us, almost all the time, the course of the river Vivonne. We crossed it first, ten minutes after leaving the house, by a foot-bridge called the Pont-Vieux to a tow-path overhung in summer by the bluish foliage of a hazel, under which a fisherman in a straw hat seemed to have taken root. I would amuse myself by watching the carafes which the boys used to lower into the waters, to catch minnows, and which, filled by the current of the stream, in which they themselves also were enclosed, at once 'containers' whose transparent sides were like solidified water and 'contents' plunged into a still larger container of liquid.
Never did we penetrate as far as the source of the Vivonne, nor could we ever reach that other goal, to which I longed so much to attain, Guermantes itself. I knew that it was the residence of its proprietors, the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, I knew that they were real personages who did actually exist, but whenever I thought about them I pictured them to myself either in that tapestry of the 'Coronation of Esther' which hung in our church.
I used to dream that Mme. de Guermantes, taking a sudden capricious fancy for myself, invited me there, that all day long she stood fishing for trout by my side. She would make me tell her all about the poems that I meant to compose. And these dreams reminded me that, since I wished, some day, to become a writer, it was high time to decide what sort of books I was going to write.
One day my mother said: "You are always talking about Mme. de Guermantes. Well, Dr. Percepied did a great deal for her when she was ill, four years ago, and so she is coming to Combray for his daughter's wedding. You will be able to see her in church."
During the nuptial mass, the beadle, by moving to one side, enabled me to see, sitting in a chapel, a lady with fair hair and a large nose, and piercing blue eyes. I said to myself: "This lady is the Duchesse de Guermantes." I can see again to-day the almost timid smile of a sovereign lady who seems to be making an apology for her presence among the vassals whom she loves. This smile rested upon myself, who had never ceased to follow her with my eyes, and at once I fell in love with her. Her eyes waxed blue as a periwinkle flower, wholly beyond my reach, yet dedicated by her to me.
How often, after that day, in the course of my walks along the 'Guermantes way,' and with what an intensified melancholy did I reflect on my lack of qualification for a literary career, and that I must abandon all hope of ever becoming a famous author. Once, however, we had been very glad to encounter, half way home, Dr. Percepied in his carriage, who made us jump in beside him. We were going like the wind, and at a bend in the road I experienced, suddenly, that special pleasure, which bore no resemblance to any other, when I caught sight of the twin steeples of Martinville, on which the setting sun was playing. I borrowed a pencil and some paper from the Doctor, and composed, in spite of the jolting of the carriage, the following little fragment, which I have since discovered, and now reproduce, with only a slight revision here and there.
Alone, rising from the level of the plain, and seemingly lost in that expanse of open country, climbed to the sky the twin steeples of Martinville. Presently we saw three: springing into position confronting them by a daring volt, a third, a dilatory steeple, that of Vieuxvicq, was come to join them. Then the steeple of Vieuxvicq withdrew, took its proper distance, and the steeples of Martinville remained alone, gilded by the light of the setting sun, which, even at that distance, I could see playing and smiling upon their sloped sides. They made me think of three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place over which night had begun to fall; and while we drew away from them at a gallop, I could see them timidly seeking their way, and, after some awkward, stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, slipping one behind another, shewing nothing more, now, against the still rosy sky than a single dusky form, charming and resigned, and so vanishing in the night.
When I had finished writing it, I found such a sense of happiness that I began to sing at the top of my voice.
So the 'Méséglise way' and the 'Guermantes way' remain for me linked with many of the little incidents of that one of all the divers lives along whose parallel lines we are moved, which is the most abundant in sudden reverses of fortune, the richest in episodes; I mean the life of the mind.
The scent of hawthorn which strays plundering along the hedge, a sound of footsteps followed by no echo, upon a gravel path, a bubble formed at the side of a waterplant - my exaltation of mind has succeeded in making them traverse all these successive years, while all around them the one-trodden ways have vanished, while those who thronged those ways, and even the memory of those who thronged those trodden ways, are dead.
And so I would often lie until morning, dreaming of the old days at Combray, the memory of which had been lately restored to me by the taste - by what would have been called at Combray the 'perfume' - of a cup of tea.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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