I pause for a moment over the perfect and perfectly beautiful sentence that begins part two of ‘Combray.’ The image of the village seen from a distance looking like a flock of sheep crowded around a shepherdess-steeple brings to mind Apollinaire’s contemporaneous "Zone" with its similar metaphor for the Eiffel Tower. But where Apollinaire’s metaphor modernizes an archaic convention, Proust’s takes an already old-fashioned place and pastoralizes it, a tendency underscored by the archaizing and literally medievalizing comparison of Combray to "a little town in a primitive painting." The problematic modern pastoral tendency that dominates the entire section–the problem of Romantic nature in a Modern world--begins here.
It’s impossible (for me, anyway) to read of the invalidism of Marcel’s great-aunt (she who gives him the madeleine and sets the memory machine in motion) without thinking of it as an ironic and deliberate self-portrait of the invalid author. This adds an extra chill to the scene in which Marcel spies on her as she has a (comic) nightmare.
The long description of the church at Combray shows the obvious influence of Ruskin, whom Proust translated and whose influence on late 19th century thought was more widespread than most people realize today, but the Ruskin of the Recherche is Ruskin Proustified: eroticized and paganized. In other words, it’s Ruskin Pater-ized, a sublime synthesis of the two opposing currents in late Victorian aestheticism. (It also rings out gloriously against the Curé’s later philistinism about his own church.)
The great description of reading in ‘Combray’ (pp.97-103) includes Proust’s answer to Hamlet’s essential question on the power of art, art and emotion, actor and audience, text and reader: "What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,/ That he should weep for her?" (Proust’s answer, which both attracts and repels me, comes in the passage that begins with the sentence starting "The novelist’s happy discovery...") This entire ‘reading at Combray’ episode is one of Proust’s moments of nearly blinding brilliance. While reading it I feel that I’m being taken to a horizon of art, as far as language can go. It’s a reflection on reading that causes the reader to reflect on reading (including his readings of himself). It’s also the focus of Paul de Man’s essay on Proust in Allegories of Reading, an essay well worth reading even though it does seem ultimately to be an exercise in not seeing the forest for the trees.
On p.107 Proust describes that distinctly Parisian intellectual condition, the mal de Foucault, when he speaks of "the age [at] which one believes that one gives a thing real existence by giving it a name." This is an age Michel Foucault never entirely outgrew.
On p.144, Proust’s gorgeous, painterly description of asparagus culminates appropriately with what must be the most lyrical description of shit in all of Western lit: "I felt that these celestial hues indicated a presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form....all night long, after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting like one of Shakespeare’s fairies) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume." This passage and the image of the semen-smeared currant branch show us in a very direct way how much Jean Genet owed to Proust.
The masturbation scene in the "little room" is the logical culmination (the climax, as it were) of this section’s ultra-Romantic eroticization of nature and landscape (recall Marcel caressing the hawthorn blossoms). Through the window of the little room, Marcel also sees one of the church steeples that are the phallic master motif of this section from its first sentence to its end, where Marcel’s birth as a writer occurs with a composition inspired by a vision of steeples. (The circularity here is beautiful, and it repeats in relative miniature the circular form of the entire Recherche, a vast narrative that ends with its narrator resolving to begin it.)
The Montjouvain sadism scene is a crucial moment of anti-pastoral (Sadism is just one of the serpents in Proust’s Garden of Love) as well as a first sharp sounding of the notes of lesbianism and voyeurism that will become increasingly important in the later volumes. The ritualized black mass of parental profanation directed at Vinteuil’s photo is a photonegative of the narrator’s cult of Maman, hence his immediate understanding of it. Marcel’s voyeurism here also rhymes with the crucial scene thousands of pages in the future (in the final volume) where Marcel spies on Charlus as he’s beaten by a hustler in Jupien’s brothel.
A thought on the section’s two ways: "Swann’s way" is an erotic labyrinth in which explorers are trapped; the "Guermantes way" reveals writing as a way not out but in–to the self. But more than this, I think, writing is shown as a technique that can objectify the trap so it can be scientifically investigated. As Charles Swann will eventually learn, however, knowledge only gives us the illusion of power.