In my earlier pieces on Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (SF nos. 56 and 57) I looked at different aspects of the novel as embodied, first, in the character of Charles Swann and then in the family of the Guermantes, the crème de la crème of the French aristocracy. It is now time to turn to the central figure in the novel, the narrator himself, the author of this fictional autobiography.
Stretching over seven books and amounting to more than 3,000 pages, Proust’s novel opens with the narrator remembering times when, as a boy, he stayed with his parents, his grandmother and their housekeeper, Françoise, in his great-aunt’s house in the village of Combray. We are not told at any stage what age this boy is, nor what he is called. We are plunged only into the boy’s mind and feelings – when he is told a story by his aunt illustrated by magic-lantern slides projected on to his bedroom curtains, or when he sits in the garden of the house reading the novels of his favourite author, Bergotte, or when he lies awake in a state of panic on the evenings when the presence of a guest at the family supper table might mean that his mother will not come up to give him his goodnight kiss, and he will be unable to sleep.
We gather quite quickly, from what the narrator tells us both about himself and about the attitudes taken to him by his family, that he is a sickly child, probably a chronic asthmatic, certainly prone to breathlessness and panic attacks, tearful, clinging, a mummy’s boy, cossetted, perhaps, and overprotected. His grandmother, while anxious to encourage his precocious intellectual and artistic interests with gifts of classic novels and postcards of famous paintings, constantly recommends more fresh air and exercise for the boy, while his mother tries to wean him off his dependence on her goodnight kiss, in an attempt to strengthen his will and encourage more independence. The narrator then describes one nig
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