The Evolution of Proust’s «Combray»

A Genetic Study

by Maureen A. Ramsden (Author)
©2020 Monographs X, 166 Pages
Series: Modern French Identities, Volume 138


This book primarily investigates whether the most important work in the development of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu was Contre Sainte-Beuve, often assigned this role, or the first, unfinished and, in Proust’s lifetime, unpublished novel, Jean Santeuil. Given the length of the final work, this book focuses on the beginning of the first volume, Du Côté de chez Swann, known as «Combray». Proust was writing his work on the French literary critic Sainte-Beuve, when it appeared to evolve into the final novel. However, much of the material found in the early work, Jean Santeuil, can also be found in À la recherche, but usually in a very different form or context. By his abandonment of Jean Santeuil, Proust showed he was still searching for the right material and also, even more challenging, a suitable form in which to present it. The technique adopted for the main body of this work is to follow, by means of close readings, the evolution of a character, a place or an episode, from its earliest appearance in the avant-texte, both published and unpublished, to its final place in «Combray». The extra layer of the avant-texte also leads to further elucidation of the meaning of this rich and complex novel. Finally, the new presentation of the material in «Combray» reveals the novel’s technical evolution to that of a modernist work.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover Page
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: An Overview of the Genesis of ‘Combray’
  • Chapter 2: Jean Santeuil and the Notion of avant-texte: A Case for the Extension of the Term?
  • Chapter 3: ‘Combray, de loin …’: Changing Perspectives in ‘Combray’ and its avant-texte
  • Chapter 4: Another Glance through the Window of Proust’s tante Léonie in À la recherche du temps perdu: A Genetic Study
  • Chapter 5: Reading, Writing and Literature and their Evolution in ‘Combray’ and the avant-texte
  • Chapter 6: The ‘deux côtés’ of Combray in their Genetic Context
  • Chapter 7: Innovation in Narration, the Role of the Narrator and of the Reader, in Proust’s Jean Santeuil and ‘Combray’
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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This work, like that of Proust’s novel, was a long time in the making, but has finally come to fruition. I would like to thank Adam Watt, for his advice, particularly in tracking down old sources. I am very grateful to Toby Garfitt, who, as ever, has been very supportive, as has also Ann Miller. I would finally like to thank Marion Schmid, for her support, and whose work has greatly informed my own.

I would also like to thank the editor of Dalhousie French Studies, Professor Vittorio Frigerio, for allowing me to use articles published in this journal and which, with additions and modifications, now form chapters in this monograph. They are:

‘Another Glance through the Window of Proust’s tante Léonie in Combray: A Genetic Study,’ Dalhousie French Studies, 94, Spring, 2011: 165–170.

Jean Santeuil: the Case for a Redefinition of the avant-texte?,’ Dalhousie French Studies, Spring, 2002, 58: 39–53.

I am also grateful to Professor J.J. Houpermanns, editor of Marcel Proust Aujourd’hui, for the use of the article below, now modified:

‘The “deux côtés” of Combray in their Genetic Context,’ Marcel Proust Aujourd’hui, October 2007, 5: 53–69.

Finally I would like to thank the editors of French Studies Bulletin, for the inclusion of an article, also with changes:

‘“Combray de loin…,” Changing Perspectives in “À la recherche du temps perdu,”’ French Studies Bulletin, Winter, 1999, 7: 10–14.

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Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu was a long time in the making.1 What this study expects to bring, above all, to Proustian studies is a close examination of Jean Santeuil, Proust’s first, incomplete, and in his lifetime, unpublished novel, which has a very important role in the development of À la recherche.2 To date, this early novel (written between 1896 and 1900) has received little attention from the critics. Apart from the early work of Mireille Marc-Lipiansky, it is usually studied alongside other texts.3 Given the length of the final novel, this study will focus on ‘Combray’, the beginning of the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann, published in 1913.4

← 1 | 2 →

There has in fact been more interest in Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve as a primary, genetic source for Proust’s novel.5 In this work of literary criticism, Proust argues against the famous French critic, Sainte-Beuve, who believed that the reader must be well acquainted with the author’s life story in order to have a better understanding of the work. However, it was while Proust was writing Contre Sainte-Beuve that it appeared to evolve into the novel we know, À la recherche, but little of the material used actually originated in Contre Sainte-Beuve.

It is often stated that all of Proust’s previous work contributed to À la recherche, and in terms of material, this would seem to be the case. Proust’s published works include his earliest study, Les Plaisirs et les jours (originally published, 1896), a collection of prose poems and early articles, often published by Proust in Le Figaro newspaper.6 Here, especially in the section entitled ‘Les Regrets, rêveries couleur du temps’, there are episodes and themes which a reader of À la recherche would recognise, such as the family gathered in the garden in harmony, in the piece entitled ‘Famille écoutant la musique (108–9)’. In another piece, ‘Tuileries’, there is a mention of lilacs, which are amongst the hero’s favourite flowers, in Jean Santeuil, and also roses are compared to young girls, similar to the comparison of the hawthorns, found in À la recherche (104). The same similarity of theme and objects appears in the preface Proust wrote for his translation of John Ruskin’s work of literary criticism, Sesame and Lilies, 1865.7 This is now published as a separate slim volume, Sur la lecture.8 Proust shows, in his earliest work, such as Pastiches et mélanges, his ability to highlight the traits of a person’s character in short verbal sketches.9 He also shows how a character deals with a very difficult situation, such as a lesbian act by a daughter, which kills the mother, when she learns of it. This appears in Les Plaisirs et les jours in the section entitled ‘La Confession d’une jeune fille’.10

← 2 | 3 →

The unpublished works consist of the famous cahiers, or exercise books, several carnets or notebooks (the most famous of which is number one, 1908), as well as single pages often attached to a number of other papers, which might record an incident or sketch a character.11 Jean-Yves Tadié has emphasised their importance in the development of the final novel.12 In fact, much of the avant-texte consists of draft versions, rough outlines or ‘esquisses’. This word is used in the novel, in relation to the work of the narrator, in Le Temps retrouvé and also by Jean-Yves Tadié in his edition of À la recherche. Tadié gives the following definition: ‘L’esquisse […] désignera ici les versions des cahiers qui préparent le texte final, ou s’en distinguent’ (ALRTP, general introduction, I, cvii).

Tadié goes on to describe Proust’s methods of writing and assembling his novel in the drafts as follows: ‘… d’un côté, le refus, la rature, l’inachèvement; de l’autre, le recommencement, la reprise à un niveau supérieur, l’addition; et, lorsqu’on croyait tout fini, le montage, le démontage, le remontage, des pages, des épisodes, des personnages’ (ALRTP, general introduction, I, x). This description of Proust’s method of writing can also be said to apply to all the different forms of the avant-texte.

In this genetic study, different aspects of ‘Combray’ are traced through from the avant-texte, including a character, a place or an episode, and also the narrative voice, the role of the reader and the material used. Unlike other genetic studies on À la recherche, the author of this study looks at all the changes, not just the omissions or additions, between the avant-texte and the final version. Technical language is not used, nor tables, making this monograph more approachable to the general reader of Proust’s novel. These changes in the avant-texte are those which the author of this genetic study considers to be the most important, in presenting a wider interpretation of the final work.

The author also uses close textual readings, which include the very important additional layer of the avant-texte, as it evolves to the final work. This aspect of the work makes possible a more in-depth study of this rich and complex novel. The same approach could be used to illuminate other parts of the novel. The study of the avant-texte also allows the reader to follow the development (or sometimes the disappearance) of a character, a theme, a place or an episode and their role from Jean Santeuil to the final novel.13

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With the one exception of Jean Santeuil, all the early works are in different genres, from Les Plaisirs et les jours, Sur la lecture, Pastiches et mélanges and Contre Sainte-Beuve, which was not completed. Proust wrote several hundred pages of his novel Jean Santeuil, and the author of this genetic work would argue that it is in this novel that the reader can find the greatest similarities to the final novel in themes, characters and episodes. However, even though much of the material of the avant-texte of ‘Combray’ appears in the final work, it is presented in a very different form. Proust experimented with many different forms, from his pastiches, on ‘L’Affaire Lemoine’, collected, with others, in Pastiches et mélanges, 1919, to prose poems and sketches, in Les Plaisirs et les jours, translations and works of literary criticism.

In the writing of Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust again hesitated as to which form to adopt. He had considered introducing his argument in the form of a dialogue with his mother, or in the form of an essay. Thus, what primarily prevented Proust from completing the novel, though he may not even have realised this himself, was his failure to find a satisfactory form or even an appropriate genre. In the aborted introduction to Jean Santeuil, he declares: ‘Puis-je appeler ce livre un roman?’ (JS: 181).

Therefore, neither of the proposed forms for Contre Sainte-Beuve resembled the technique of the novel it is often said to have become. This, together with the fact that Contre Sainte-Beuve was not rich in the very early narrative material, contained in Proust’s first and second novels, appears to make this work an unlikely main source for one of the most important novels of the twentieth century.

← 4 | 5 →


X, 166
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (November)
19th-century novel 20th-century novel avant-texte modernism genetic studies reading writing narrator narratee Jean Santeuil Contre Sainte-Beuve Combray Sur la lecture A la recherche du temps perdu tante Léonie.Ruskin Sesame and Lilies Maureen A. Ramsden The Evolution of Proust’s ‘Combray’
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. X, 166 pp.

Biographical notes

Maureen A. Ramsden (Author)

Maureen A. Ramsden gained her PhD at Harvard. She then had some short-term posts, including St Andrews and King’s College, London. Her present affiliation is the University of Hull. Her main areas of research are nineteenth- and twentieth-century French literature. Her research centres on the borders which separate factual and fictional documentary works. Her monograph in this area is entitled Crossing Borders: The Interrelation of Fact and Fiction in Historical Works, Travel Tales, Autobiography and Reportage (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2016). As the present monograph shows, she is also interested in the evolution of Proust’s great novel, À la recherche du temps perdu. Her next project is on structure in À la recherche.


Title: The Evolution of Proust’s «Combray»