Sleeping problems, mother reading, the surprise compassion of father, the aunt who never leaves her bed, the servant, the church as the center of Combray, flowering trees in great detail, the first reaction to beautiful freckles, the twin steeples of Martinville, the steeple of Vieuxvicq, Madame Guermantes, Monsieur Swann, Baudelaire’s “delicious” trumpet…
These are just some of the images that are juxtaposed in Swann’s Way. But, as I complete the chapter “Combray” I must ask myself “what happened?”. “What is the book about?” As yet there is no plot!
My first reaction to this is to think of my time, back in the day, when I regularly read Soseki, Kawabata, and Tanizaki. I used to say that the difference between western novels and Japanese novels was that the Japanese novels I love are all about “character” and very little about “plot”. So, I thought, “perhaps Proust is writing about character and the plot is really secondary”. But it’s not so simple.
This is not a book, like Soseki’s Kokoro“, with a simple plot but in-depth character analysis. So far, it’s a book with NO plot but an in-depth memory analysis. If you asked me, in advance, whether I would like such a book, I’d quickly answer “no”. But, just as I came to love the detailed character studies of 19th and 20th century Japanese novels I’m, surprisingly, coming to love Proust’s memories. So far, they take you nowhere along a plot line. And, I’ll admit that I do find the page-long sentences annoying. Still, these myriad images are BEAUTIFUL. I would not have expected it to be enough. But, perhaps I was wrong and it is.
I’m beginning to think of “Remembrances of Things Past” as a novel unlike anything, except perhaps Joyce’s “Ulysses“, I have read before. We tend to think of music, dance, film, and stories as being temporal – as moving forward through time. We expect a novel to be some kind of linear-kinetic series of events. But what if a novel were like a painting; like a cubist painting. What if the novel did not move forward in time but were, rather, stagnant. What, exactly, would it be doing as we turn the pages?
Perhaps the answer is this: Just as a cubist painting views an object from many angles. Maybe a novel can do the same thing. Maybe, as we read through Proust, we are not reading a time based event sequence. What if we were moving up and down a series of images and memories and feelings so as to see a life from a variety of angles; just like Picasso did visually. The events would not move horizontally through time. The result would not be a horizontal novel. So what, then?
I’m still very near the beginning of this great series of books. So, I’ll probably change my views 100 times. But, right now, I’m tending to feel like Proust has created a completely new genre:
The vertical novel!