Swann's Way

"Combray" and Self

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,"...

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