America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Swann’s Way - Memory and Desire
Remembrance of Things Past (volume 1)
10 December 1999
Proust’s fundamental triumph in Swann’s Way is in reconstructing his own past in such detail. He recreates the rhythm and events of his childhood so vividly that we recall on our childhood reading him. This is due more to emotional texture presented than to any discrete events. Proust was only able to accomplish this because he so thoroughly “put himself in the shoes of” himself as a boy, enough to remember, say, the intensity and urgency of his need for a good night kiss from his mother in “Overture”, or some acknowledgement from Gilberte Swann, a girl with whom he is in love, in “Place-Names: The Name.”
So reconstructing the events with all of their emotional intensity itself must have been a painstaking task for Proust (yet this sort of “research” is easier in some ways than other kinds of research for narratives), but even his success at selecting and relating the childhood events of “Overture,” “Combray,” and “Place-Names: The Name” (I will deal with “Swann in Love” shortly) would sink Swann’s Way if it wasn’t for Proust’s poetry, his magnificent gift of metaphor, to which we are treated in nearly every paragraph, and at times it seems, in every sentence. Constant metaphor making is partly responsible for the low ratio of action to prose in Swann’s Way, as Proust is always stopping to compare some event or emotion to something else. But much of the power and delight of the narrative spring precisely from Proust’s metaphors, without which no writer could justify such a studied pace. Turning to read Proust, I always felt as if he were slowing me down, slowing me to the pace of a calmer historical time as well as a calmer psychic time (childhood), or at least that, fitting Wordworth’s definition of poetry, Proust is presenting us with “emotions recollected in tranquility,” as Proust the man is able to revisit so many old scenes with his now accumulated emotional wisdom. We are being treated to the bubble cloud of one man’s memory, which must be handled gently if it is not to burst.
For creating his illusion, Proust chose a proper narrative style: it is highly polished and graceful, characterized by sentences large enough to hold Proust’s metaphors, as well as his successful attempts to “tease out” all the hidden meaning and emotion in a given event. In all the parts except “Swann in Love” he is a first person narrator (though with some occasional powers of omniscience as he reconstructs conversations he never heard, or surmises people’s thoughts). In “Swann In Love” he is nearly third person omniscient, despite dropping an occasional ’I’ in reference to his apparently lifelong relationship to Swann. He is often empathetic to his characters, including the unlucky Swann, but does display a certain restrained delight in their errors of judgement or flaws in character to which he, as author, is privy. But the key is Proust’s restraint. One can imagine Proust as a younger writer, armed with many of the literary powers displayed here, treating characters with an arch contempt for not being quite as bright or sophisticated as he, the future great writer. His restraint is a sign of the maturity he needed to write so well. Characters like his aunts in “Overture,” who are so removed from mundane events that they speak in a sort of sophisticated cipher that no one else understands, are comic figures, but Proust takes time to breathe a little life into them before mining the humor out of their situation. That is the key: I can’t think of any purely comic caricatures in the book: All are given a few vivid strokes of life as well as comic traits at which Proust and the reader can laugh.
“Overture” is a fitting opening for the Recherche as a whole, by presenting us the image of Marcel as a young boy—his dreams a meld of emotions and the book he is reading while falling asleep. His whole project of remembrance is triggered by the famous eating of the madeleine and tea (34) (and Proust is right that smells and taste are the most powerful of memory triggers), and he relates how his “intellectual memory” gives us only flat pictures of the past (33) which are not useful to Proust’s project. Thus, it is fitting that the opening pages deal with young Proust’s dreaming, the power of dreams to transport us to different times and places, and how magical Proust makes this seem.
Much of the first part deals with Swann’s visits to Marcel’s family’s house in Combray, especially how these visits resulted in Marcel’s mother not giving him a goodnight kiss at bedtime. Swann is seen as someone who separates the narrator from motherly love. (This may proves all the more foreboding as in “Place-Names: The Name” we find Marcel in love with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte. Indeed, Swann is described as “the unconscious author of my sufferings” (33), and perhaps he is in more ways than one. One night Marcel sends a note down to his mother that he must see her, and despite her thinking he ought not to be indulged, his father actually encourages her to spend the night with him, something which Marcel now thinks was a turning point, in his mother’s giving up, to some extent, and beginning to turn gray, and his parents accepting his “nervous condition” as something not his own fault, something for which he ought to be comforted rather than treated sternly, to rid himself of it through austerity.
We are also introduced to the rest of Marcel’s family: the two great-aunts whose rejection of mundane affairs is so complete that sense of hearing was actually becoming atrophied (17), for example.
If I haven’t already said it, Proust masterfully captures emotional reality, especially that of the young Marcel. He notices what many other writers might have passed over as inconsequential, and imparts to these emotions an engaging importance, without being Freudian about it.
“Combray” relates the story of Marcel’s life as a boy in Combray. The family would come every year at Easter time, when it was still a little cold, the steeple of Combray being seen in the distance shortly before they arrive in the town. Proust tells us much about his Aunt Leonie’s infirmities, and her policy to not leave bed. The town of Combray is dominated by its church and its steeple, which is visible from every vantage in the town, showing the dominance of a religious sensibility in their lives. The section both begins and ends with a view of the Combray steeple from a distance.
We learn much about Marcel’s family’s life: their dinner habits, the struggle between Eulalie and Francoise for primacy in Aunt Leonie’s mind, Marcel’s love of the author Bergotte, his love for the theater even though he has never been to the theater, some of his boyhood friends (including a credible description of the young Bazarov figure Bloch), Marcel’s family either walking “Swann’s way” or “the Guermantes Way”, we meet Swann’s daughter Gilberte, whom we see again in “Place-Names: The Name” (and it is hinted she will be important later on), we are introduced to M. Vinteuil, who will emerge as the composer of the musical phrase that in Swann’s mind symbolized his love for Odette, as well as Vinteuil’s daughter who introduces the theme of homosexuality. In all, we are given a sense of Swann’s status of disrepute for marrying his wife, who is rumored to be carrying on with M. de Charlus.
The “Combray” section is much concerned with the revelation of secrets to Marcel the boy. He discovers his uncle’s affair with an actress (which leads to a rift between his uncle and the family), Swann’s daughter, Mlle. Vinteuil’s lesbianism, seeing Madame Guermantes, finally seeing the town of Martinville, for so long only known as another steeple in the distance.
Unlike the other three sections of Swann’s Way “Swann in Love” in no way concerns Marcel’s childhood, but, as he tells us at the end of “Combray”, concerns a love affair that Swann participated in before Marcel’s birth. That affair is with Odette de Crecy who will ultimately become Madame Swann.
“Swann In Love” is concerned primarily with Swann’s desire for Odette, a desire which is seen as mutable, and linked to quite contingent causes. In showing us Swann’s desire for Odette, Proust shows how desire is an intensely complicated emotion, rather than a monolithic sexual attraction. Marcel’s infantile desire for his mother’s kiss in the first section, and his desire for Gilberte in the last, counterpoint the nature of desire: how much more it has to with the inaccessibility of the love-object, how it excludes all other considerations, and how much more it is rooted in our selves than in the objective merits or virtues of the love-object. Swann seems all the more the fool in love (and all the more credible as a character) by falling for a woman well beneath his social and intellectual station. Perhaps “Swann’s Way” means the way of desire as much as it means the route by which young Marcel would take his summer walks.
Odette is the only young woman in the “little nucleus” of Mde. Verdurin’s. They are an upper middle-class artistic social group, as opposed to Swann’s more elite and less artistic connections. The nucleus is filled out by Dr. and Mde. Cottard (he is seen as something of a simpleton); a pianist; M. Biche, a painter. The group is ruled sternly by Mde. Verdurin, who sets the ground rules, especially of excluding “bores,”—the rest of the world that does not visit her home. Odette is useful to the group (despite not being too bright) because she laughs in all the right places, and attracts interesting young men (of whom Swann is neither the first nor the last). The Verdurin group is described as a “little church,” and the attendees “the faithful,” which is an interesting contrast to the dominance of the church in the “Combray” section. The other women formerly of the group were one by one expelled because their natural curiosity led them to seek out other drawing rooms.
Considering Swann’s high social standing and vast wealth, it is at first blush something of a mystery how he could be so taken by Odette de Crecy, a courtesan in the relatively lowly Verdurin circle. But Proust tells of Swann’s romantic habits, how he was attracted to female beauty of a “common” type, and would damage friendships to secure introductions to some woman. So Swann was susceptible to this sort of thing. A friend introduced him to Odette, implying she was harder to conquer than she really was. Swann at first found nothing special in her beauty, but over time began associating her with a Botticelli, and with a certain musical phrase of Vinteuil’s. He becomes touched by her saying she wants only a bit of love in life; Swann is not fully aware of her reputation as a kept woman.
Their first romantic encounter occurs when Swann stays with another young woman he is seeing, away from the Verdurins, until it is too late, until Odette has left. This causes him to search madly for her, triggering their first kiss when he finally finds her. This is the climax of their love, for Proust soon relates the many reasons for their incompatibility, especially their difference in breeding. Swann is even capable of looking upon the Verdurins generously, but they soon come to despise him because he reservedly declines to denounce certain of his relations whom they have decried as boors.
Worse still for Swann, is Odette’s continuously wandering mind, as evidenced by the episode with Comte de Forcheville, who acquits himself far better in the eyes of the little circle than does Swann, and whom soon begins a relationship with Odette.
Again, it is surprising that Odette is able to capture the upper hand in the relationship—given Swann’s wealth and influence, but Proust masterfully depicts the gradual shift in the balance of power in their relationship. Swann is left wondering at the extent of Odette’s other relationships; Odette assumes he knows so much more than he does, and so lets fly comments innocent to her, but which are shocking revelations to him. He even receives an anonymous letter claiming that Odette lived a “gay” life in younger days, and even slept with women. As Swann confronts her with these charges, Odette first denies them, and then claims “only 2 or 3 times,” and inadvertently reveals that such encounters have occurred even recently.
Swann’s love for Odette has left him in the throes of suffering. As he laments at the end of the section: “To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style.” Proust has effectively demonstrated the capricious nature of love and infatuation.
“Place-Names: The Name” while seemingly unrelated to the central passage, “Swann In Love,” describes the central theme of passion in the guise of young Marcel’s infatuation with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte (Proust even draws a comparison between the two lovers on p. 312.). Marcel introduces what the coastal town of Balbec means to him (which apparently will be described more fully in later volumes). But more important is the description of the infatuated Marcel, the anxiety he feels waiting for the afternoons when he will play with the imperious Gilberte in the Champs-Elysees (is the Champs-Elysees also supposed to one of the Place-Names of the title?). It is significant too that Marcel vividly remembers the first time he heard the name ’Gilberte’ spoken, and the effect this had on him. He repeatedly writes her name in his composition exercise books.
Conclusions: Proust is a great writer for his patience in reconstructing the past, and in extracting the meaning from scenes and situations that other writers would pass over as unimportant and boring. This makes Proust inaccessible to the multitudes, but a delight for the patient.
Proust is the chronicler of passions and the inner emotions. Rather than the Joycean stream of conscious, Proust as narrator describes emotional states, allowing himself all the tools of the omniscient narrator. He is free to use his extraordinary gift of metaphor and paintstaking description to render these emotional states. He is certainly above average among other novelistic tasks; but his primary goals are illuminated the arbitrary and capricious nature of desire. Certainly Marcel and Swann do not fall in love with the women best suited for them. The origins of their infatuations are arbitrary and somewhat accidental. They are not rooted in Platonic ideals of love, as much as the in-love want to use such metaphors after the fact.
Proust has written an excellent introduction to his long work. The sections, at this point, seem only loosely connected. How well he unites his themes and disparate sections remains to be seen.
12 December 1998
10 December 1999