Proust Book Group Meeting 1:Overture and Combray

Date of first Proust book group meeting – Friday 22nd May.

Task – Read Overture and Combray ready to discuss the relevance of ‘la veritable realite ne se forme que dans la memoire’.(True reality can only be formed in memory)


Well, I ‘lost’ my English online version only to find a French one. I can read French and so, seeing it as Fate presenting me with an opportunity not to be overlooked and urging me not to be lazy, I gave it a whirl.

Connie arrived with her Scott-Moncrieff translation which was ideal because she could then use it to help with the French I didn’t get. And I could highlight where the translation strayed from the original.

We hadn’t planned it that way but it worked well.

Using the quotation la veritable realite ne se forme que dans la memoire’ (True reality can only be formed in memory), also worked. It gave us a focus and we both latched on to the idea of memory. We also found that we’d only just made it to the end of Overture/Ouverture. Not 1 page of Combray yet.

We then had a structured discussion and so what follows won’t be anecdotal. It will be all about the text and is intended to share with you our first attempt at getting into the start of the novel. Hope it helps!


We split Overture/Ouverture into three sections using memory as a guide.

1:The opening pages  and the uncertainty of the sleeping mind

Difficult. Here the narrator goes in and out of sleep, in and out of different times and places from his past.

Key quotation to give you a way in to this section –

Un homme qui dort, tient en cercle autour de lui le fil des heures, l’ordre des années et des mondes.

When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host. (‘worlds‘ works better than ‘heavenly host‘)

Ideas for discussion with specific reference to the opening section

  • The memory of his past is there, ready to be tapped.
  • Is this reality as perceived by dreams?
  • Is there any link to Freud and the subconscious here?
  • Analyse how Proust creates the feeling of uncertainty here – of memory that is not fixed. Pay specific reference to his choice of vocabulary.

From the quotation it is evident that everything is there within the sleeping mind,but, in context, we see that it’s hard to pin down. There’s a sense of spinning. The past is moving backwards and forwards and the narrator can’t quite get it back.

  • Could we even compare elements of this first section to a disorientation of the senses as experienced by individuals who are losing their memories? Why? Why not?
  • Consider the quotation about true reality.

If you can get over these most challenging of pages then the narrative becomes more accessible.

2: Bedtime Drama and the certainty of the waking mind.

Key quotations to help with discussion

Certainly I was now well awake;… and the good angel of certainty had made all the surrounding objects stand still

memory was now set in motion

Here we read about the bedtime drama – the narrator as a child, distraught at the separation from his mother. Characters are introduced, Swann  among them.

The narrator shares his memories with us, his certainty of what he knows. We need to read this section with vigilance however. The truth of the past is partial. We know this because Proust likens his memories to ‘luminous panels’ set in a ‘vague and shadowy background’. His memories do not recapture the whole. These memories recall a past that has gone, a past that is ‘dead’ to him.

True reality can surely not be said to exist here then, in this voluntary memory.

  • Explain the metaphor of the pyramid is used to describe voluntary memory. Explain how Proust uses it to suggest that it does not evoke ‘la veritable realite’.
  • What is voluntary memory? Use the text to justify your point of view.

3:Involuntary memory – key to regaining the past

Key quotations to help with discussion

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea…

This final section of Overture/Ouverture is the start of the madeleine episode.

I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, … An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses,… And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—… filling me with a precious essence;… this all-powerful joy… I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours…

From ‘the smell and taste of things‘, Proust’s narrator tells us, springs ‘the vast structure of recollection’.

and so ‘the whole of Combray and …its surroundings,… sprang into being… from my cup of tea.’

  • Discuss the triggers of the narrator’s experience of involuntary memory.
  • How does Proust express the importance of involuntary memory? Explore his use of language. Compare it to that used when presenting his experiences of voluntary memory in the second section.
  • what is ‘true reality’ as expressed in this section?
  • How does the comparison with the Japanese paper in a bowl image inform your understanding of what involuntary memory is/ what it does?

Bringing it all together

  • Now attempt to explain the significance of ‘la veritable realite ne se forme que dans la memoire’  in the context of Overture.



Texts used –



I hope this structured approach has helped you get into the start of the novel. Please feel free to contribute to the discussion of reality and memory in Overture  by using the comments thread.



Topic : Comedy in Overture and Combray.




Reading Proust online isn’t easy ( I use the French version as used by the Gutenberg Project but it is free. English is available free too. I intend to download a copy to my Kindle and so will let you know if that’s any easier to read next time.

5 thoughts on “Proust Book Group Meeting 1:Overture and Combray”

  1. Isobel, It’s great that you can read Proust in its original French language, without the intermediary of translated words. I’m sure your perspective must be even more intimate. Thanks for stopping by Ripple Effects. You’re most welcome to link it for your reading group. I started a read-along of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 on Ripple, and that was two years ago. Would be interested to know how your group is doing.

    1. Thanks Arti. I’d love to link ‘Ripple Effects’ for our reading group.It will really help us. We’re going to be splashing around at the start for a while, exploring it from, if not every, then at least many angle(s). The French is really useful as it means that I can also access much of the French academic sites, and I hope to be able to share them. You can sign up for updates if you want to follow our progress, but, then again, you might not want to get all the other ‘stuff’ we cover on this site! I love the idea behind ‘ripple effects’ by the way…

  2. I’ve just left a message asking how to sign up for this bookgroup under another Proust piece. I’m keen to read Proust as I’m an avid book reader. I’ve been afraid to do so but having read this piece I think I could give it a go. It’s clear and I like its structure so thanks for that.
    I won’t be reading the Proust in French. Does that matter as I see that you’ve used quite a bit of it? I hope not. Let me know if there’s anything I should do to sign up?

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