Reading this book is an extraordinary, pleasurable and subtly disquieting experience: familiar, even loved, scenes and episodes pass before your eyes in altered form; the people you thought you knew so well have changed their names. A young man of great sensibility one cold night dips a piece of dry toast in hot tea and its sopping texture opens for him the floodgates of his past, the childhood country house where his grandfather dipped a rusk biscotte in hot tea. But wait – the lilacs are in the wrong place. Surely they didn’t use to be in a little private park at the end of the town. Surely the names of the favourite walks are wrong too: the choice here is between the short ‘Meséglise Way’, associated with a sunken path of hawthorns, and the longer ‘Villebon Way’ for fine days. The sounds in the garden as the child narrator lies anxiously awake upstairs do not yet announce the approach of the elegant M Swann, whose background and traits of character are still divided between those of an uncle and a rather dull visiting aristocrat. In perhaps the most evocative and beautiful sentence in the whole beautiful book, the companion of the narrator is not Oriane de Guermantes – she inhabits the future still – but rather her shadow, the Duchess of Villebon:
And after a long walk we went back and … we rejoiced when the looming silhouette of the château presented us with the two big lighted windows, presaging for us at the hour when everyone else was asleep, the delicious dinner, conversations with friends, music very late at night.
This last phrase, musique fort avant dans la nuit in the original, evokes acutely a place and epoch, a world of leisured summer. The delight offered by such fragmentary glimpses is not the least pleasure of this book, with their hints of a narrative beginning to form, their