Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 73-89.
The narrator is sent out to "get a little fresh air first so that you don't start reading right after leaving the table" -- a caution familiar to every bookworm child. We are on the brink here of a dense philosophical excursus on the externality of nature and the internality of literature, the kind of passage that stymies some would-be readers of Proust, and may have been the one that stymied me in my earlier attempts to read him. Some of it remains opaque to me, but I think I glimpse where he's going.
But first, we meet Uncle Adolphe, the brother of the narrator's grandfather, "who no longer came to Combray because of a quarrel that had occurred between him and my family, through my fault." The narrator "loved the theater, with a platonic passion since my parents had not yet allowed me to enter the theater." And he is drawn to his uncle because Adolphe was friends with actresses -- "and also some courtesans whom I did not distinguish clearly from the actresses. He would entertain them at home. And if we went to see him only on certain days, this was because on the other days women came whom his family could not have met." But the narrator, slipping away from home to see his uncle on one of the "other days," does meet one, a woman in a pink dress, who demonstrates to him "one of the touching aspects of the role of these idle and studious women that they devote their generosity, their talent, a free-floating dream of beauty in love ... to enrich with a precious and refined setting the rough and ill-polished lives of men." Infatuated with her, he blurts out to his parents the full story of his encounter, with the result that his uncle "died many years later without any of us ever seeing him again."
We also meet the pregnant kitchen maid who reminds Swann of the image of Charity in Giotto's Padua frescoes of the Virtues and Vices, who "holds her flaming heart out to God, or, to put it more exactly, "hands" it to him, as a cook hands a corkscrew through the vent of her cellar to someone who is asking her for it at the ground-floor window." Swann has given the narrator photographs of the frescoes which hang in the schoolroom. "There must have been a good deal of reality in those Virtues and Vices of Padua, since they seemed to me as alive as the pregnant servant, and since she herself did not appear to me much less allegorical." This correlation between art and life leads us into the reflections on the external world and the world of the imagination.
When I saw an external object, my awareness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, lining it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever directly touching its substance; it would volatize in some way before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body brought near a wet object never touches its moisture because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation.
The natural world remains at a distance, because it apprehended only by the senses. So too do human beings: "A real human being, however profoundly we sympathize with him, is in large part perceived by our senses, that is to say, remains opaque to us, presents a dead weight which our sensibility cannot lift."
Fictional characters, on the other hand, occur "within us." The novelist "provokes in us within one hour all possible happinesses and all possible unhappinesses just a few of which we would spend years of our lives coming to know and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slowness with which they occur prevents us from perceiving them."
Similarly, the landscapes of the imagination have for the narrator an immediacy that observed nature lacks. But then memory transforms the external world into a world that can be apprehended by the imagination. So these reflections on the relationship between life and art, between nature and the imagination, between experience and memory, end with a lyrical valorizing of the Sunday afternoons in Combray:
Lovely Sunday afternoons under the chestnut tree in the garden at Combray, carefully emptied by me of the ordinary incidents of my own existence, which I had replaced by a life of foreign adventures and foreign apirations in the heart of a country washed by running waters, you still evoke that life for me when I think of you and you contain it in fact from having gradually encircled and enclosed it -- while I went on with my reading in the falling heat of the day -- in the crystalline succession, slowly changing and spanned by leafy branches, of your silent, sonorous, redolent, and limpid hours.