Proust’s Monty Python Contest Entry

Swann’s Way opens with a prelude that prefigures the novel’s themes of time and establishing an authentic identity. Marcel is older, perhaps staying at Gilberte’s country estate. He describes what it is like to go to bed at a good hour and what it is like to awaken during the night without a secure knowledge to time and place.

…I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I awoke; it did not offend my reason, but lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. (I,1)

“Lay like scales upon my eyes” applies nicely to Marcel’s youthful struggles to see people and places as they are after first having imagined them, often in exalted terms. Imagination will also be central in how he loves; it might be said that his love exists only in imagination and only when time erodes the imaginative vision does love end.

Sometimes, too, as Eve was created from a rib of Adam, a woman would be born during my sleep from some misplacing of my thigh. Conceived from the pleasure I was on the point of enjoying, she it was, I imagined, who offered me that pleasure. My body, conscious that its own warmth was permeating hers, would strive to become one with her, and I would awake….And then, gradually, the memory of her would fade away. (I,3)

Marcel never finds a new bedroom inviting. The thought that its contents existed without him before his arrival awakens the fear of death because he is forced to imagine a world in which he does not exist. He is saved by the Janus-faced Habit, which will eventually keep him from seeing the strangeness of things. Good for getting used to new bedrooms but bad for seeing the world as an artist.

I was convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; in which a strange and pitiless rectangular cheval-glass, standing across one corner of the room, carved out for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the soft plenitude of my normal field of vision; in which my mind, striving for hours on end to break away from its moorings, to stretch upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room and to reach to the topmost height of its gigantic funnel, had endured many a painful night as I lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils flaring, my heart beating; until habit had changed the colour of the curtains, silenced the clock, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of the vetiver, appreciably reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling. Habit! that skilful but slow-moving arranger who begins by letting our minds suffer for weeks on end in temporary quarters, but whom our minds are none the less only too happy to discover at last, for without, reduced to their own devices, they would be powerless to make any room seem habitable. (I,8)

There you  have it: In Search of Lost Time in nine pages, though not quite a winner by Monty Python standards.



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