By: Fereshteh Priou
Proust’s book, À la recherche du temps perdu is about Marcel the narrator of the book relating his memories of the places he had known, and the people he had encountered in life, while he is reflecting on various philosophical concepts, and on the intricacies of human nature. One of these concepts is “idleness” that Marcel, as well as many of the book’s other characters are afflicted with.
In our daily life, we are continuously pulled between two forces: one force dictates that we find a vocation, set ourselves long-term goals, and strive towards the achievement and accomplishment of those goals. This means a long-term undertaking that has the potential for fulfilling our ambitions to succeed, but it also requires effort and exertion, which are the necessary elements of any work of substance. Contrasted with this is a second force, one that pulls us towards an idler existence. This could comprise of short-sighted doings aligned with our instinctive tendency to eschew hard work, and opt for an easy and leisurely life. If not properly reined in, the tendency to engage in effortless activities could lead to all manner of purposeless pursuits, giving credence to the saying: “idleness is the seed of all evil.”
Idleness however is a misunderstood concept, since it is an essential component of a contemplative life, especially for artists and creative people. Moreover, indolence helps one to rest and relax, which is an indispensable element of our well-being. Kierkegaard has famously said: “Idleness is a divine life, if one is not bored.” Human nature however disfavors prolonged periods of idling around. We prefer having an objective and purpose to guide us, because it generates happiness, while spending a life of mindless preoccupations leaves us wretched and filled with feelings of dejection.
Among the many subjects explored in La recherche, Proust steadfastly examines this aspect of human condition through the characters in the book. The lives of the people crowding the book are scrutinized and judged by the extent of their dedication towards their vocation and their quest for a fulfilled life.
It is important to note that one of the hallmarks of Proust’s era was the sudden change in the middle class and their ability to pursue higher ambitions and specific vocation. This was due to many factors, such as; the collapse of the class distinction, the industrial revolution, and the significant breakthroughs in the scientific and artistic world. Proust writes extensively about the innovations during his time: the advent of photography, telephone, moving pictures, and aviation.
Proust’s father, Adrien Proust, is a good example of the societal changes occurring in that period. Originally from a provincial family of grocers, he was the first person in the family to go to Paris in order to study medicine in university and become a doctor. Such advancement was unlikely or even impossible a generation or two earlier.
Reading Proust’s book, one gets the impression that among the multitude of hidden messages, there is also one about finding happiness through one’s vocation. Despite this implication, Proust goes on to demonstrate that one’s inherent penchant for futile efforts could lead—even those who have found their passion in life—to neglect their calling.
One such character is Marcel himself, who lives an idle life of social-climbing, until old age awakens him of the futility of an existence based on attending those dinner-parties that he later calls barbarian festivals: “with men in white shirt-fronts and women beneath feathered plumes” (Time Regained). He then decides to curtail, or even forego, his habit of accepting every invitation he receives, as if it is his duty to attend. He realizes that this decision, which he calls the rejection of duties, might make him look rude or even selfish in the eyes of his acquaintances, but it is something that he needs to do in order to abide by his aspiration to become an author: “I should have the courage to answer that I had an urgent appointment about essential matters it was necessary for me to regulate without further delay, an appointment of capital importance with myself.” (Time Regained)
Marcel finds good company in the book, since it is filled with an immense cast of idle characters, mostly wealthy or titled people, whose main preoccupations are attending various salons. Conversely, Proust shows his admiration for a full and meaningful life through a few worthy personalities, who all pursue their aspirations with hard work and great devotion. The list of such characters however is comparatively short. It includes Elstir, the painter; Vinteuil, the musician; Burma, the actress; Bergotte, the author; and even Cottard, the doctor, who is a daft, provincial and unsophisticated man, but who becomes a renowned diagnostician of his era. These characters follow their passion and find satisfaction in what they do.
Even Françoise, the Combray servant of Marcel’s Aunt Léonie, who after Léonie’s death comes to Paris to work for Marcel’s parents, is praised for the care and attention she puts into her work, especially her cuisine. Marcel beautifully describes her careful planning, shopping, cooking, and presenting delicious meals. For her boeuf à la gelée, she selects various cuts of meat by going to the market—Marché des Halles. Marcel compares this to Michel-Ange’s visits to quarries to select his marbles. Marcel also equates her talent for preparing the delicious crème au chocolat to the genius of a musician creating a musical composition: “a cream of chocolate, inspired in the mind, created by the hand of Françoise, would be laid before us, light and fleeting as an ‘occasional piece’ of music, into which she had poured the whole of her talent.” (Swann’s Way).
Despite the menial and repetitive nature of her work, Françoise finds meaning to her life, and she is therefore happy. In the last volume, when Marcel finally makes the decision to write, he declares that he plans to work near Françoise, and build his book the way she makes a dress: “by pinning supplementary leaves here and there that I should build up my book, so to speak, like a dress” (Time Regained).
Contrasted with the above few worthy characters, there is—as stated before—a lengthy list of mostly idle people whom Marcel meets in the various places mentioned in the book. These places, which can be counted on the fingers on one hand, are somewhat limited for a book as immense as La recherche. They include Paris, Balbec, Doncières, Venice, and finally Combray, which is the first place discussed in the book, and the place Marcel remembers most fondly.
Paris is where the majority of the story takes place, and where idle characters abound. Charles Swann, an old family friend from Combray, and a major personality in the book, is one such character. Swann has literary ambitions and a passion for the works of Great Masters. He has been forever working on an essay on Vermeer, but whiles his time away in pursuing Odette de Crécy, a woman of supposedly shady reputation. Predictably, he falls in love with her, and eventually marries her, but in the end he allegedly regrets marrying a woman who is not even his type. He realizes that what he loves about her is only an imaginary idea of her, based on her resemblance to Botticelli’s Zephorah in Youth of Moses (c. 1480). In Swann, Proust depicts a character who misses his calling and ends up as a failure—a good example of a man of high potential and low focus. Marcel attributes Swann’s failure to his obsessive love.
Paris is also the background for most of Marcel’s life. In Paris, he and his parents live in an apartment in the same building as the aristocratic Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes. The Guermantes family have their roots in Combray, and their châteaux lies along the banks of the fictional Vivonne River. The young Marcel develops an obsession for the Duchesse, whose image evokes in him the grandeur of the nobility, and the aristocratic name of de Guermantes. He coordinates his daily walks to coincide with the Duchesse’s outings. At each encounter, he gives her a salute with the tip of his hat in order to make himself known to her. Marcel’s daily walks and organizing his life around his fixation is symbolic of a futile existence. He nevertheless continues this purposeless pursuit until the day when his mother tells him that everybody knows what he is doing, and he is thus humiliating himself in the eyes of the neighbors. The scolding is a reality check that awakens Marcel to his senseless conduct.
Marcel nevertheless continues with his futile behavior by eagerly accepting invitations to the Guermantes family’s parties and frequenting their aristocratic circles. In the process, he meets the miscellany of other men and women of nobility, with more invitations to their gatherings. After spending years in meaningless social-climbing behavior, he concludes that despite their high birth and elite position in the society, the nobility is hardly anything but mostly mean-spirited individuals with ignoble comportment, who excel at bad-mouthing and one-upping each other.
Notwithstanding this knowledge, Marcel as a young man cannot tear himself away from frequenting their gatherings. Each invitation brings him new excitement and false expectations of importance and relevance.
The fictional sea resort city of Balbec is another important place for the narrator of the book. As a young boy, following the recommendation of Swann, Marcel travels to Balbec with his beloved grandmother. The two stay at the posh Grand Hotel. Both Balbec and its hotel are modeled after the seaside resort of Cabourg in Normandy, which also has a Grand Hotel. Proust spent many summers in Cabourg, well into the last years of his life, when he visited the city with his devoted servant, Céleste Albaret.
It is in Balbec that the narrator meets and develops a friendship with Robert de Saint-Loup, a young Guermantes aristocrat. However, as we discover slowly, Proust shows little regard for ordinary friendships, and views them as time spent unwisely. He describes friendship as an idea that: “can lead to nothing.” (Time Regained).
At one point, Marcel expresses his thoughts on friendship by referring to it as a madness to which one yields, while knowing all well that it is irrational and futile. He thus oddly and wittingly describes talking to friends as: “the error of a lunatic who imagines the furniture to be alive and talks to it.” (Time Regained, Chapter 3).
In Balbec, Marcel also meets Albertine, the girl with whom he falls in love. Albertine later moves to Paris to live with the narrator and his family, but their tumultuous relationship is doomed from the start. Like Swann, the narrator’s love for Albertine is filled with jealousy, distrust and possessiveness. He struggles with his desire to fully dominate her mind and control her thoughts, failing to recognize its impossibility and its futility. The relationship is best described as a tug of war, fueled by obsession, jealousy and rage, which results in constant fights and occasional break-ups. Moreover, Marcel claims that by falling in love with Albertine, he has lost his focus on a fruitful pursuit of his literary ambitions, and instead spending his days trying to deal with his conflicted feelings for her. Sadly, Proust categorizes love in the same group of futile endeavors as friendship. Reading La recherche, one soon realizes that a happy and loving relationship is in fact a rarity in La recherche.
Marcel and Albertine however continue with their difficult rapport, and together return to Balbec. They consequently spend many evenings at Mme Verdurins gatherings at La Raspèliere, her rental home near Balbec. Upon their return to Paris, Albertine feels compelled to flee the circumstances that make her practically a prisoner. That is when the narrator feels free from the obsessive pattern of his life, and can finally focus on his literary aspirations.
The previously-mentioned Verdurins’ gang of the faithful or the little clan are another group exemplifying futile pursuits. Mme. Verdurin is a rich socialite who runs a tightly controlled salon, where her guests gather regularly at her plush and luxurious home. M. and Mme Verdurin are wealthy, but not titled, and Marcel portrays them as rather vulgar and ordinary. Their society consists of a few professionals as well as some artists, who have to adhere to Mme Verdurin’s strict rules of conduct. Contrasted with the nobility, the group symbolizes Parisian bourgeoisie, but similar to the aristocrats, they are marked for their ruthlessness, gossiping, backstabbing, and denigrating others.
Lacking in Mme Verdurin’s society are aristocrats, who deem her salon’s standing below their social position. Chagrined Mme Verdurin, who is wildly eager to have them at her salon, hides this inner desire by calling them bores, and pretending that it is her decision to shun them.
The society however changes after the Dreyfus affair, which causes a break in the French societal hierarchy. The posh Verdurins’ salon thus becomes more attractive to the elite noble class. Mme Verdurin accepts the nobles with open arms, and strangely, does not find them all that boring after all. Years later, after her husband’s death and through the power of her wealth, she marries Prince de Guermantes and becomes the newly anointed Princess de Guermantes. She thus manages to reach the highest echelon of society through this marriage. One can say that, in a way, she has fulfilled her life’s goal, but the ultimate futility of her life, and the pettiness of her behavior do not escape the reader.
Another place discussed in the book is the military garrison at Doncières, a few train stops away from Balbec, where Marcel’s aristocratic friend Robert de Saint-Loup is lodged during his military training. Proust himself once served for a year in a military base in Orléans. His memories of the rigorous army life are happy ones, and Proust’s descriptions of Doncières must have been based on the life he experienced during that year.
In the book, Marcel travels to Doncières in hopes of pressing Robert to introduce him to his aunt, Duchesse de Guermantes. Proust thus displays once again the meaningless of some alliances by displaying Marcel’s intention to use his friend for personal reasons. The selfishness of this friendship however is not one way since Robert, who resents his noble background and desires to be viewed as an ordinary man of intellect, also uses his friend Marcel, and his superior intelligence, to show him off to his military colleagues as proof of his connection to great men with
of great mind.
The trip that the narrator makes to Doncières proves successful since it is through Robert that he finally succeeds to access the aristocratic circles he so vehemently admires, and as mentioned before, he discovers the whole experience to be a complete waste of his time. There is however a silver lining, since Marcel at the end states that he plans to use the characters he had met during his social-climbing career as material for the book he plans to write.
Venice is the city that appears in the final volume of Proust’s book. Proust’s descriptions of Venice in La recherche are heavily influenced by his own visit to Venice in 1900 with the musician Reynaldo Hahn, with whom Proust was rumored to be in love despite Proust’s adamant denials of homosexuality.
In the book, Marcel claims to have an everlasting desire to visit Venice even when he is a mere youth. He however asserts that his obsession with Albertine prevents him from visiting it. It is only after their separation that he finally gets to travel to this magical place with his mother. Oddly enough, while taking in the sights of this grand city, Marcel finds parallels between Venice and Combray, the small town of his childhood. This is a testimony to his great affection and elevated reverence for Combray, which he lovingly remembers as equally magical as Venice.
In Venice however, Marcel once again lets his capricious nature takes over his better judgement and follows idle undertakings, such as the event that almost makes him abandon his beloved mother and let her leave, and go alone to the train station for the return trip to Paris. The reason is Marcel’s hopes of meeting Mme de Potbus’ maid, who is rumored to be in Venice with her employer. Robert had once mentioned to Marcel the girl’s beauty, and her reputation for being willing and available. Ever since this knowledge, Marcel continuously seeks her at every opportunity, but never successfully. Marcel’s search for her symbolizes a futile effort that reappears in several volumes. In Venice however, Marcel fortunately comes to his senses at the last minute—mostly because he realizes that the city does not have the same allure without his mother’s presence—and goes to meet her at the train station just in time to catch the train with her.
The most cherished place in the book is Combray, the little town where Marcel’s family on his mother’s side own a residence. Combray is modeled after a town that was formerly named Illiers, where the family of Proust’s father originated from. In 1972, in an unprecedented move, Illiers changed its name to Illiers-Combray There is no other town that has ever changed its name to a fictional place in a novel. For Illiersy-Combray, the change has been a successful touristic ploy, bringing thousands of Proust enthusiasts to the town annually. The small town is about an hour and a half west of Paris by car, and a short distance from the cathedral city of Chartres. Contrary to most French villages, Illiers-Combray is not a particularly attractive place. Similarly, and contrary to Marcel’s comments, the fictional Combray must be a far cry from Venice, since Marcel himself admits that it is un peu triste (Swann’s Way).
There are many similarities between Illiers-Combray and the Combray of La recherche, such as the church, the streets, the river and the house itself. One of the features of the house is the staircase where Marcel hears the sound of his mother’s tasseled dress, as she climbs up to his bedroom, where a magic lantern is set on a table. For Marcel, the nightly visit and the cherished goodnight kiss is a must in order to achieve a peaceful night of sleep.
The kiss is part of the narrator’s voluntary memories of Combray, which are forever etched on his mind. All he initially remembers of the house are limited to the staircase, his bedroom, the room downstairs, and the anxious few hours that he spends each evening in anticipation for the precious kiss. He becomes even more restless on the evenings of Swann’s visits, when there is a strong possibility that Marcel would be either deprived of receiving the kiss in his bedroom, or worse still, not receiving the kiss at all due to his mother’s preoccupation with having a guest at the house.
Marcel’s other memories of Combray—his involuntary ones—are forgotten, but they become revived by the famous episode of the taste of the madeleine dipped in tea. Marcel relates that one cold winter day, as he comes home, his mother serves him tea with a madeleine. Marcel also states that even though he had seen the cake in the windows of pastry shops, he had not eaten one in a very long time. The long-ago taste of the cake thus suddenly fills him with some odd and indescribable feelings. He has a hard time figuring out what it is that creates such strange emotions in him. He keeps on taking bites of the madeleine, and declares that the phenomena start to fade with each bite he takes, thus reducing the effect of reviving the truth hidden behind the experience. He finally has an epiphany, revealing the source of the emotions he feels. He states that on Sunday mornings in Combray, before going to church, his Aunt Léonie would serve him a cup of tisane with a madeleine. He would then dip bits of the cake in the herbal infusion before eating them. Marcel declares that the simple stimulation of his long ago sensory experience of the taste, associated with the cake, triggers his forgotten childhood memories of Combray and causes them to reappear from total darkness into light: “the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.” (Swann’s Way).
Aunt Léonie’s precious contribution to La Recherche is not limited to the famous madeleine episode, which forever has affixed the little French cake to Proust’s name. She plays an important role in epitomizing important characteristics of the human nature such as; habit, isolation, imagination, curiosity, love of life despite sickness and old age, the need for companionship, and finally idleness.
Among all that the character of Aunt Léonie represents, her persona best embodies the concept of idleness. There is no other character in the book, who so succinctly allegorizes the notion. Despite the great meaning that Aunt Léonie’s character brings to the book, she however is not one of those who appear and disappear continuously in various volumes. Her role indeed is brief and limited to the first chapter of the book, where readers suddenly learn about her death, and hear about her servant Françoise mourning for her.
The fictional Aunt Léonie’s character is modeled after Elisabeth Amiot, Proust’s real aunt on his father’s side. Léonie—the fictional character—was married to Marcel’s deceased uncle Octave, and thus she is also referred to as Mme Octave. She is an elderly woman, who after her husband’s death, starts to isolate herself from the outside world. She never leaves her home and spends her days in two rooms in the upper floor of her house, feigning a total lack of interest in the outside world. Like Aunt Léonie, Proust also spent his last years in isolation—her in her two upstairs’ rooms and Proust in his cork-lined bedroom.
Despite her claims of disinterest, Léonie watches the happenings in the streets below her window with utmost interest. She gets excited, but also rattled, at the sight of any unknown creature, man, woman, child or even a dog that she does not recognize, “ne connait point.” She thus immediately sends Françoise on a mission of discovery to Theodore, the grocer’s assistant, who is a good source of information.
On an overcast day, Léonie worries about insignificant matters, such as the neighbor Mme Goupil not making it to the Sunday church services on time. It is after these Sunday services that she awaits with impatience a visit from the curé, but most importantly from an old and limping villager named Eulalie, who comes to her with full report of the village gossip, and receives a little coin with the promise of saying prayers for the old Aunt Léonie.
Léonie’s idleness and her life of inactivity give free rein to her imagination, and she thus concocts fictional and imaginary situations about various people around her. She invents tales of misdeed by Françoise, whom she perceives as a thief and miscreant, despite Françoise’s extreme devotion to her and her well-being. Similarly, she imagines the worst calamities befalling the family if they return a bit later than usual from their daily walks. She pictures them in disastrous situations, and at times she even imagines them dead, thus immediately sending Françoise out to look for them.
Moreover, Léonie has to put forth the persona of a martyr-like, and pious old woman, who lives with her prayer books and her Vichy water to comfort her. To accentuate her suffering, she continuously claims to lack sleep, but Marcel catches her once snoring softly in bed, which awakens her. She then in her usual habit of whispering her thoughts loud enough to be heard, reminds herself that she did not sleep a wink the entire night.
Even though a comical character, Aunt Léonie has a lot in common with the serious and deep-thinking narrator of the book, but also with Proust himself. Not only they all have to deal with sickness, but also the quandaries of an idle and futile existence and lack of purpose, with the difference that Proust, in his final years, feverishly wrote and finished the most brilliant novel of his era.
As for Marcel, even though Proust depicts him as a man plunged in a whirlpool of life’s futility, and idle endeavors, he is also portrayed as a man with a keen mind and reflective intelligence. We perceive his superior intellect through the display of his many meditative moments, ruminating on such matters as; love, life, friendship, death, art, imagination and memory, among many others. Marcel eventually shows the promise of fulfillment in the last volume of the book, and finds redemption through his writing about his search for le temps perdue, which means both “lost time” and the “time wasted.” Marcel, the narrator of Proust’s book, symbolizes all of us, with our tendencies towards idleness, but also with our specific talents and abilities that can be tapped into, if we put our minds to it.
Article by: Fereshteh Priou - December 2022