"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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