I was planning on blogging about each section of Proust as I completed it, and while reading the first volume I wrote copious notes: but “Swann in love” left me feeling depressed — for the very Proustian reason that I’d been quite unhappy when I first read Swann’s Way, around six years ago, and it brought back many memories; and for the less Proustian reason that I’d changed my medication — and so never got around to it. By the time I was well into the second volume I’d switched my medication back and had stopped taking notes and was simply enjoying the novel. So I’ll only be blogging when I get the impulse, like now.
Early in The Guermantes Way Proust begins to use classical imagery (nymphs transforming into trees and so on) much more than he does in the first two volumes. This made me think of four genres (for want of a better word) around which the elaborate imagery of the novels seems to cluster:
Medieval: mostly in the Combray sections of Swann’s Way, although any mention of the Guermantes can trigger it.
Classical: there’s a little of this in the description of the manservants at the concert in “Swann in love” but it really gets going in the descriptions of the Guermantes at the theatre in the third book.
Biological: noblemen in monocles are compared to fish in more than one passage; the restaurant at Balbec is an aquarium, where the hoi polloi gawk at the weird luminous creatures inside; the cheap seats at the theatre in The Guermantes Way are ‘madrepores’ (coral).
Medical: ubiquitous — almost any psychological event can be assimilated to a symptom of or treatment for a physical ailment.
In a historical sense, the first three of these clusters are concentric. The biological is both the most modern (it’s scientific, rather than pastoral, say) and the oldest (biology precedes culture). The classical evokes not only antiquity but also French culture after the ancien régime — the Directory and the Empire — periods of history which bracket the medieval, at the centre.
The medical doesn’t really follow this pattern, and seems to be more fundamental to Proust’s thought than the other three clusters.