Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Rereading Swann's Narrative

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Rereading Swann's Narrative

Article excerpt

Critics have long recognized the Princesse de Guermantes' reception as the turning point of the hero's social ascension in A la recherche du temps perdu.(1) At the close of the evening, the hero, who had initially feared that his invitation to the gathering might be nothing less than a cruel practical joke, has declined the Princesse's personal request to remain for an exclusive dinner party of "cinq ou six intimes." The changes wrought in a mere three hours having assured his social standing, the hero prefers to return home and to await Albertine's nocturnal visit and the sensual pleasures it portends.

In a first sequential reading, the careful reader notes the hero's meteoric rise and is able to relate this extraordinary acceptance into the world of the Faubourg St. Germain with events which have preceded the reception. A retrospective reader has the added advantage of absorbing and processing this narrative information in a two-directional scanning of the text. While this is true of all literature, in the case of A la recherche it is particularly crucial given the construction of the novel. As Paul Ricocur suggests, a second reading is essential to an understanding of A la recherche whose originality "lies in its having concealed both the problem and its solution up to the end of the hero's course, thus keeping for a second reading the intelligibility of the work as a whole" (2:132).

This article will deal with the rereading of a particularly striking segment of the pivotal Guermantes episode. In a totally uncharacteristic passage, the narrator temporarily relinquishes his narrative authority to a character. The narrative norm, established over the course of the preceding sixteen hundred pages of text, is broken when Swann recounts a story within the main story (III, 102-10). While this departure is conspicuous to any reader, I hope to demonstrate that only in a second reading can we make any sense of this problematic narrative. In so doing, I will suggest that a retrospective reading of Swann's narrative shapes our understanding of the entire novel and teaches us something about the narrative process.

Interpolated narratives are extremely rare in A la recherche and, with the exception of the Goncourt pastiche, have generated little critical interest. Gerard Genette's seminal study, "Discours du recit", offers the most thorough discussion of embedded narratives in the work of Proust. In his definition of what constitutes such narratives, Genette stipulates that for a segment to be considered a metadiegetic narrative, two factors are crucial, namely that "le narrateur du second (recit) est deja un personnage du premier, et que l'acte de narration qui le produit est un evenement raconte dans le premier" (238). However, since the Proustian narrator rarely allows secondary narrators to assume a narrative role, "l'elimination presque systematique du recit metadiegetique" (248) ensues. Genette himself finds only three inserted narratives in the entire text of A la recherche:

. . . on ne peut guere citer a ce titre que le recit fait par Swann a

Marcel de sa conversation avec le prince de Guermantes convert) au

dreyfusisme, les rapports d'Ai me sur la conduite passee d'Al

bertine, et surtout le recit attribue aux Goncourt d'un diner chez les

Verdurin (248; emphasis added).

Their rarity alone renders these embedded narratives conspicuous and forces the reader to take note. Clearly there must be a motive behind these extraordinary disruptions to the discourse to which the reader has grown accustomed.

The particular passage in question, Swann's narrative, is an elaborately structured, more or less chronological exposition of the Prince de Guermantes' conversion to the Dreyfus cause. Essentially, the Prince sketches the background which led to his well-known condemnation of Dreyfus and describes his subsequent reassessment in light of the Beauserfeuil revelation. …

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