In Dark Woods


Swann’s Way both opens and closes with voice of the mature narrator, speaking years after the events. (Although the final passage he claims to be writing “this year” (I,598), which creates an ambiguity of its place in time with regard to the epiphanies of the final volume.) In both passages the narrator struggles to discover his essential nature. In the first it is sleep that has rendered the wakening man adrift because his memories have not yet restored him to his place and time. In the closing passage, he is again lost, this time in a November wood, lost because his memory has failed to adequately recreate the past, leaving him only with a present deprived of its past beauty. Fowlie hears the despair of this unresolved quest.

The narrator’s consolation is the past, and he goes back farther than his own past, farther than the Bois de Boulogne, to the groves celebrated by Virgil, to the Elysian garden of beautiful women, to the Druidic crown of the oak trees. He finds himself, on this sunlit November morning of his adulthood, in an empty unused forest. Where has the past, the past which he once lived on this very spot, gone? The last lines have the solemnity of a partial revelation. He knows that his past is not here in the Bois de Boulogne. The reality he had once known is over. La réalité que j’avais connue n’existait plus. The places we have known in the past do not belong solely to the world of space. Les lieux que nous avons connus n’appartiennent pas qu’au monde de l’espace. The desolation of the November scene and the sadness of the narrator form an experience in his life as a man. The reader does not fully realize at this point that the work he is reading is the only possible remedy to the desolation and the sadness. The narrator observes that houses and roads are as fleeting as the years. Les maisons, les routes, les avenue, sont fugives, hélas! comme les années. Without using the word time in the final sentences, Proust focuses our attention on the passing of time, the intangibility of the past, and its elusiveness. (82)

Another forerunner of these passages is, of course, Dante:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring; death is hardly more bitter…

(Robert Pinsky translation)

Alas! in the acacia-avenue–the myrtle-alley, I did see some of them again, grown old, no more now than grim spectres of what they had once been, wandering, desperately searching for  heaven knew what, through the Virgilian groves. They had long since fled, and still I stood vainly questioning the deserted paths. The sun had gone. Nature was resuming it reign over the Bois, from which had vanished all trace of the idea that is was the Elysian Garden of Woman; above the gimcrack windmill the real sky was grey; the wind wrinkled the surface of the Grand Lac in little wavelets, like a real lake; large birds flew swiftly over the Bois, as over a real wood, and with shrill cries perched, one after another, on the great oaks which, beneath their Druidical crown, and with Dodonian majesty, seemed to proclaim the inhuman emptiness of this deconsecrated forest, and helped me to understand how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years. (I,605-606)

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