The dim coolness of my room was to the broad daylight of the street what the shadow is to the sunbeam, that is to say equally luminous, and presented to my imagination the entire panorama of summer, which my senses, if I had been out walking, could have tasted and enjoyed only piecemeal; and so it was quite in harmony with my state of repose which ( thanks to the enlivening adventures related in my books) sustained, like a hand reposing motionless in a stream of running water, the shock and animation of a torrent of activity.
But my grandmother, even if the weather, after growing too hot, had broken, and a storm, or just a shower, had burst over us, would come up and beg me to go outside. And as I did not wish to interrupt my reading, I would go on with it in the garden, under the chestnut tree, in a hooded chair of wicker and canvas in the depths of which I used to sit and feel that I was hidden from the eyes of anyone who mighty be coming to call upon my family.
And then my thoughts, too, formed a similar sort of recess, in the depths of which I felt I could bury myself and remain invisible even while I looked at what went on outside. When I saw an external object, my consciousness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, surrounding it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever touching its substance directly; for it would somehow evaporate before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body that is brought into proximity with something wet never actually touches its moisture, since it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation.
Upon the sort of screen dappled with different states and impressions which my consciousness would simultaneously unfold while I was reading, and which ranged from the most deeply hidden aspirations of my heart to the wholly external view of the horizon spread out before my eyes at the bottom of the garden, what was my primary, my innermost impulse, the lever whose incessant movements controlled everything else, was my belief in the philosophical; richness and beauty of the book I was reading, and my desire to appropriate them for myself, whatever the book might be.
For even if I had bought the book at Combray, having seen it outside Borange’s – whose grocery lay too far from our house for Francoise to be able to shop there, as she did at Camus’s, but was better stocked as a stationer and bookseller –tied with string to keep it in its place in the mosaic of monthly serials and pamphlets which adorned either side of his doorway, a doorway more mysterious, more teeming with suggestion than that of a cathedral, it was because I recognized it as a book which had been well spoken of by the schoolmaster or the school friend who at that particular time seemed to me to be entrusted with the secret of Truth and Beauty, things half-felt by me, half-incomprehensible, the full understanding of which was the vague but permanent object of my thoughts.
Next to this central belief which, while I was reading, would be constantly reaching out from my inner self to the outer world, towards the discovery of Truth, came emotions aroused in me by the action in which I was taking part, for these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic events than occur, often, in a whole lifetime. These were the events taking place in the book I was reading.
It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Francoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a “real” person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of “real” people would be a decided improvement.
A “real” person, profoundly as we may sympathize with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelists happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate. After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, as we feverishly turn over the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes.
And once the novelist has brought us to this state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid and more abiding than those which come to us in sleep, why then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development prevents us from perceiving them. It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worse sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.
Next to, but distinctly less intimate a part of myself than this human element, would come the landscape, more or less projected before my eyes, in which the plot of the story was taking place, and which made a stronger impression on my mind than the other, the actual landscape which met my eyes when I raised them from the book. . .
. . . . . . .
My counsels persuaded my love that the morrow would not be different from all the days that had gone before; that Gilberte’s feeling for me, too long established now to be capable of alteration, was indifference; that in my friendship with Gilberte, it was I alone who loved. “It is true,” my love answered, “there is nothing more to be made of that friendship. It will not alter now.” And so, as from the very next day (or from the next public holiday, if there was one in the offing, or an anniversary, or the New Year, perhaps – one of those days which are not like other days, on which time starts afresh, casting aside the heritage of the past, declining the legacy of its sorrows) I would ask Gilberte to terminate our old friendship and to join me in laying the foundations of a new one.
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust; translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terrence Kilmartin; Vintage International, 1981