This answer was written for Kate Briggs and Lucrezia Russo’s Nabakov Papers project. The project asked people to respond to the examination questions set by Vladimir Nabakov in the years he taught his course Literature 311-312: Masters of European Fiction. The course dealt with seven wellknown works of European literature. The principle of the lectures was the idea that one must teach books, not ideas; specifically, one must teach how to read books for the sake of their form. I choose one of the questions on Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann.

Q. 21: Analyze Proust’s use of the unfolding device in any given passage.

Writing, in a foreign language: a river heading for the sea, moving under its own momentum towards dissolution in something bigger, salty, unfathomable.

Proust claimed that all great books are written in a kind of foreign language. A language that mixes the physical wisdom of a source with an urge towards unprescribed solutions.

There were all sorts of murky presences under the water to hold our attention as we paddled around the bay where the fresh water ran into the sea, letting the boat drift as things shifted and scuttled across the sandy bottom into the long reeds. At what sort of depth? Not deep, but I wasn’t able to judge whether my feet would reach the bottom had I decided to jump over. Imponderable depth, in that sense. And pleasure in merely floating over it, a shadow too for the beings below, who perhaps froze or moved in response but with no knowing of what caused them to move in this way, no more than we know what makes us startle with its suddenness, then lean closer. The water a distorting medium that receives and dissipates any expression we might tease out like so many ripples on the surface of the ocean.

Proust’s novel is full of refractions – refractions and illusions produced by streams of water and fountains and optical instruments that telescope two worlds together, harnessing the planets to the sleeping man’s armchair, filling the torpor of semi-wakefulness with otherworldly forces. The narrator’s reflective consciousness sees more and more precisely from the convergence or divergence of its perceptive faculties, like the hand that understands the whole river as it is held still in the cascading flow of the brook, or an open page of a book that registers the evolving shadows of the entire stretch of the summer afternoon as it unfolds on the other side of the closed shutters of the bedroom. Small window panes reflect whole vistas, a plate of sea food catches the drama of the sea in the opalescence of an oyster.

Some of the devices deployed in A la recherche du temps perdu: the telescope, the microscope, the stereoscope, the magnifying glass, the camera.

Devices: a means to achieving something, here an enhancing of perception in order to scrutinise the processes and composition of the natural world.

Proust grew up in a world fascinated with uncovering and analysing what was there. The devices that he invokes throughout the novel enable so many ways of discovering the workings of what lay under the surface of our ‘natural’ perceptual capacities.  But what sort of key do these devices really offer for the movement happening in the writing? Is the thereness of childhood despair, or of a stiff body awakening in a strange room, of the same order as that of the physical world? Able, in that respect, to be developed into analytical clarity? And the effort of attentiveness, the writer’s attentiveness, does it produce the sort of exposure that was the work of the new techniques of photography and optical science?

There is a felt distinction at work here, which I want to test at the level where the sense emerges. A felt distinction between unfolding and unreeling, between a sequence that adds up to a whole, and a line that runs, perhaps tugging at something that might just become visible under the surface.

The passage I’ve chosen to work on begins with the idea that the supposed immobility of things is due to the immobility of our thought: ‘peut-être l’immobilité des choses autour de nous leur est-elle imposée par notre certitude que ce sont elles et non pas d’autres, par l’immobilité de notre pensée en face d’elles’. The suggestion it makes is that if we look closer we discover that our thought is not immobile, but rather made up of rapid sequences of mobile conjectures, and that by extension that the world is not immobile either, if we observe it properly.

The passage contains three paragraphs; each one describes a room, and each room expands with the emerging consciousness, each time more fully than in the previous paragraph, as if each evocation were picking up and developing the previous room, even though it belongs nominally to another era. Each paragraph ends with a marker of constancy that reins the movement back in, the middle instance being the most exemplary for it evokes a bedroom light that shines out like lighthouse beam slicing through the night, while the first and third instances describe a more literal mental state, the first of full wakefulness and the last of comfort in habit.

None of these evocations is inserted clearly within the narrative of recurrent event. They are all apparently hypothetical. None of them appears to anticipate bedrooms that will play a diegetic role in the novel. In this sense the development of the passage is spectacular, a display, sparked by the imagined position of a slumbering body and the perceptual insight this body can have before consciousness returns fully: ‘Mon côté ankylosé, cherchant à deviner son orientation, s’imaginait, par example, allongé face au mur dans un grand lit à baldaquin et aussitôt je me disais…’ .

The sort of images mobilised have nothing to do with the storyline, nor with the novel’s ‘theory’ about the immobility of thought. They are: ‘le grand lit à baldaquin’ and the ‘veilleuse … suspendue au plafond par des chaînettes’ in the first description; the ‘feux de la lampe’ seen across the dark in the recollection of his room at Tansonville, much later in life; and the high ceiling of the unidentified room that closes the third paragraph with its description of the unforgiving ‘gigantesque entonnoir’. All of these evocations have the texture of the real. They have been long looked at, inhabited, with misgiving or relief. Yet they also emerge only through the off-set frame of conjecture. They leave little space for doubt that the experience is perceptually anchored, yet there are no bearings for this anchor.


In the middle of the passage occurs one of Proust’s key visual devices, a reference to Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic experiments to capture movement, of which his most famous is the sequence of images showing a horse in gallop. The succession of possible rooms in which Proust’s narrator could be situated, as he grapples with his disorientation on waking up, is likened to this breaking down of a horse’s movement. The photographic intertext offers a model of unfolding, whereby time is broken down into smaller segments which are filled with the complexity of the doing it contains. Yet the images of the successive bedrooms operate more like one-off stills cast in a sort of hushed finish, the light glowing on the ‘chaînettes’ of the nightlight in his grandfather’s house and the shadow deepening into denser blackness in the ‘gigantesque entonnoir’ of the hateful bedroom ceiling. They have a quality that both stands outside the succession of time, there still before our eyes, and yet reveals the relentlessness of time’s passage. There but irretrievable. Shadows in water that has already long flowed on. The Muybridge intertext is perhaps less a key than a justification: it ropes the stills together, but any idea of sequence is belied by the transfixing ‘feux de la lampe’, and the inertia of the ‘veilleuse’ around which time seems to dilate, settle and solidify so that what we see is precisely not the unfolding workings of the mind, but the immobilised image.

I am making the photographic device do something more than it was designed to do. It is helping me imagine something of the way the spaces were inhabited. A sense of the dull sheen on the small chains suspending the nightlight, or the stilled flame of the oil lamp burning imperturbably, and the force that emanates from them, ineluctable like a heavy eiderdown. These are secondary effects of the proposition made to the reader by this passage, that consciousness moves through different states. Two notions of recovering time, or of grasping its passage: by dissecting it into its constituent parts, or by allowing it to expand in a mute image. The unfolding in the first will flatten, like breath shortens, into a sequence, in the second the fold only seems to get deeper, the silence more resonant, and the space that lurks there more and more removed and fascinating.

Fascination, a different sort of immobility of thought from the immobility of habit. An immobility that waits to be transformed. Not the unfolding of spaces of fluctuation, intermittences perceived between the coordinates of action, like so many wildly different postures through which we move in the course of a few simple steps. But an expectant gaze locked on to something and pulled gradually out and down, and the slowing of breath as we watch certain things be, a sort of haunting.

 (Nantucket and Boussay, August 2012)