The "Combray" section of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way is an extended meditation on an idyllic past. The book begins, though, not with recollections of Combray, but with a description of the narrator's half-asleep state, a state of consciousness where he does not know where, or even who, he is. The expanded memories of his past, then, seem an attempt to establish a stable sense of self, a sense that continually eludes him. In this exploration, which constitutes the entirety of the "Combray" section, we find the narrator, a young man with literary aspirations, struggling to understand the characters of his childhood in a way that captures their contradictions, only to find that each person seems more like a spectrum of singular, varying selves than a single delimited identity.
When we encounter the narrator addressing the problems faced by the artist, he notes that "the ingenuity of the first novelist" lay in the realization that a simplification of characters that corresponds to the "suppression" of "'real' people" inevitably makes novels stronger, more effective in conjuring a sympathetic response from a sensitive reader. "A 'real' person," he begins, profoundly as we may sympathize with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, he remains opaque, offers a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. (83)
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... key to inner life. As everyone is guarded, influenced by the conditions that surround them, the social conditions, it seems that only when alone may they be truthful.
But instead of confirming this, instead of giving us insight into the "core" essence of his characters, the "truth" that all their masks conceal, Proust confounds us by making the confessions imparted in solitude as constructed as any others. In fact, perhaps the only distinguishing factor, is that in solitude, his characters are free to feel and admit guilt, something they would be reluctant to admit in public. But even in private, their lives are organized as a sort of public confession, as they struggle to maintain the illusion of a stable self.
Proust, Marcel. Swann's Way. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. NY: Random House, 1981.
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