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A Summer of Proust: The First 50 Pages

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Today is Marcel Proust’s birthday. I have my cup of tea, but it is caramel roibos and not lime blossom. And, I’m not dunking a madeleine in it. Instead I have a bowl of cherries from which my cat is also helping himself (he really likes cherry stems.)

I’ve done it. I’ve conquered the first stage of Mount Proust. Considering that this is just the very first part of the very first volume of In Search of Lost Time, my celebration is a bit ridiculous. But, I have made it past my previous high water mark of page 23.

When people talk about the opening of this book, they talk about how the narrator gruelingly describes his inability as a child to fall asleep, an experience that had such an effect on him that sometimes, when he’s jostled awake by a dream or a noise from the street as an adult he imagines he’s back in his childhood bedroom.

I have a feeling that Proust’s attention to detail won’t stop with just this first bedroom scene. Proust’s sentences go on and on an on, but not in a run-on way. What he says is elegant and it flows. The man knew how to effectively use the semi-colon.

I laughed at the subtlety of the narrator’s Aunts trying to thank Swan for his gift of a case of Asti. And, I had to agree with his Grandfather that it was impossible to recognize their efforts as thank yous!

I also smiled at the quirks of the family dynamics that the narrator describes in detail. I loved that they always sent Grandma as a scout to see who was at the gate and that Grandma enjoyed being a spy. I loved the narrator’s scheming.

Proust completely captures a hundred little details that paint the picture, that made me giggle and warmed my heart but that are usually glossed over in real life because they are a matter of course, common place, just how things are done.

The first chapter ends with the moment. On a gray day as an adult the narrator dunks a madeleine into a cup of lime blossom tea and then has to fight his memory to recapture something half forgotten and buried. He repeats the incident until he makes the dry and dusty memories bubble up into view.

These first 50 pages took me just within chapter two where Proust gives a great description of the church in Combray and how it represented and spoke for the town in the surrounding countryside. He then describes the narrator’s Great-Aunt Leonie’s rooms and this takes a little more than 50 lines. The description evokes the subtle smells and the atmosphere that just belongs to some places and it attributes it the to protozoa and the other things that hang in the air.

I am suitably impressed, but I am a little bit of a fangirl here. So far, I’d say that Proust has done a good job of capturing the, “You just had to be there,” of the narrator’s childhood. I’m looking forward to next week’s reading!

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About Katharine Donelson