his love was no longer operable

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

I doubt I shall ever eat Asparagus again without thinking of Françoise tormenting the kitchen maid.

Swann’s Way is one of the most vivid and extraordinary books I have read. It’s only one sixth of the full work. An introduction to what’s to come. That means it’s incomplete, but even so it’s a masterpiece.

It deals in themes of memory, loss, love (particularly unrequited love), art, the way in which we create meaning out of mere incident and vastly more. It’s beautifully written, often extremely funny and it contains depictions of jealousy I found personally difficult to read they felt so true.

It’s also suffused with a powerful sense of mortality, yet not in a morbid fashion. Rather it shows an immanence in the everyday; a fragile beauty to transient things which are all the more beautiful for their transience. There is a real sense of how fleeting our most important moments are, and how their importance is as often crafted in memory as in the experience of them.

I’m conscious that having written this much I’ve said nothing of what the book is actually about in terms of its story. In part that’s because it’s quite hard to say. The novel opens with Proust/the narrator as a child staying at his grandparent’s house in Combray. He is a nervous and sickly child who dotes on his mother’s affection.

At Combray the high point of each evening for Marcel is the goodnight kiss that he receives from his mother. That kiss is so important to him that he’ll even try to delay it, so as to stave off the bleak time after it’s been given when he has to wait for morning before feeling her love again. On evenings when company calls he knows that there’ll be no goodnight kiss at all but merely a banishing upstairs, and the thought fills him with gloom and terror.

Although this part of the book (indeed all of the book) is shot-through with anguish and unhappiness it’s also full of joy and life. One of the novel’s strengths is its capturing of the intensity of childhood emotion. Little is grey. Instead, the young Marcel’s life is full of light or plunged in darkness.

The Combray section also details Marcel’s family and their habits; the walks they like to take; their peculiar customs (as all families have peculiar customs) and quotidian eccentricities. There is an acute level of social observation and the portraits of the family members, their friends, acquaintances and social world are distinct and persuasive.

Many of the scenes with the family are small comic masterpieces – often with slow buildups making them very difficult to quote. I particularly enjoyed however Marcel’s grandmother’s sisters who “in their horror of vulgarity had brought to such a fine art the concealment of a personal allusion in a wealth of ingenious circumlocution, that it would often pass unnoticed even by the person to whom it was addressed.” This leads to a scene where they seek to thank a friend of the family, M. Swann, for the gift of some wine but do so with such subtlety that he has no idea what they’re talking about.

The young Marcel is an artistic child. He obsesses with the theatre, listing actors he hasn’t seen in order of merit and imagining the wonders of plays he only knows the titles of. He is a prolific reader, but is capable too of being distracted by the sheer beauty of the countryside (which frequently he sees more in his own fantasy of it than in what’s actually before him). Proust revels in descriptive passages, thinking nothing of spending three pages or more on the beauty of a hawthorn bush. It’s dense stuff.

After Combray, the book turns its attention to M. Swann and his great love affair with Odette de Crécy (some years before the events at Combray). Swann is a rich man who keeps company at the finest salons of Paris (something which Marcel’s family, who also know him, are largely unaware of. They generally think of themselves as doing him a favour by receiving him and have a quite erroneous idea of his actual status). Odette is beautiful but vulgar, and not particularly bright. Worse yet, she is not even Swann’s “type”

Although an inveterate womaniser Swann is not at first attracted by Odette, but as time passes his feelings change and he finds himself in love. She becomes more and more important to him; central to his life. It’s a pity then that (as he largely knows from the outset) she’s a woman of doubtful reputation whose own affection for him starts to fade. Where once she would drop everything at the hint of the possibility of an evening with him, eventually she spends time with him only when she has nothing better to do.

Swann’s love is mirrored in the final section of the book, which returns to Marcel who is now a little older (though still a child) and in Paris. Marcel is in love with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, but like Swann his love does not seem to be returned. There are parallels too between how, as Odette’s love for Swann cools, she causes him to wait on her in hope of her affection and how Marcel waits at Cambray for his mother’s goodnight kiss. With both the adult and the child their love is a thing in itself, independent almost of its object and certainly independent of whether it’s returned.

Returning to the Swann section of the book, it’s clear that Swann loves Odette even though he has no great reason to. She’s not his equal in taste or intellect, she treats him poorly and she’s unfaithful. It doesn’t matter. Gilberte plays with Marcel but gives him no preference to other playmates and seems quite unaware of the passions she inspires in him. Again, it doesn’t matter.

For both Swann and Marcel love is something which flows out of them toward its recipient. That the object of love may not return it is immaterial; the love is not rational and though not being loved is an excellent reason to stop loving reason has no part to play here. Swann undergoes agonies as Odette’s ardour cools, but while his love moves from bringing him happiness to misery it’s intensity remains the same.

Nabokov’s novel Laughter in the Dark has one of the finest opening paragraphs in literature. Among it are the lines “he loved; was not loved”. For Albinus in that novel that combination leads to disaster. In a less dramatic way though it’s something most of us have experienced to one degree or another. The experience and pain of loving where one is not loved is a tragedy no less powerful for it being so common.

Here Swann loves, and while there may be times he is loved it’s not always so. One of the novel’s most powerful scenes comes when fearing infidelity Swann questions Odette about the possibility of past affairs. Despite the answers being deeply hurtful he continues to probe – unable to resist his own perverse urge to know that which he cannot bear. I found it utterly convincing and frankly difficult to read. Whether Odette is unfaithful or not isn’t the point, Swann’s jealousy like his love creates its own Odette who may have little to do with the real woman.

When we are loved we see reflected in the eyes of those who love us someone better than who we are, but hopefully someone we still recognise as related to ourselves. When love sours sometimes we see those we loved (perhaps still love) as worse than they are. We see others through the veil of our own emotions, a truth Powell would have recognised and which he brought out in his own Dance sequence.

As I write this I’m still sorting through my feelings on the work. It’s somewhat stunning and contains so much that this post merely draws out those strands which speak to me as I make this blog entry. Another post on another day could speak to many different things. This is rich and serious writing which is a genuine and sensuous pleasure to read. I laughed at it more than most comic novels I’ve read, and yet at other times I found its emotions so powerful as to be uncomfortable. It’s hard to read a paragraph like this (particularly the last line of the quote) without wincing:

He went to see Odette. He sat down at a distance from her. He did not dare to embrace her, not knowing whether it would be affection or anger that a kiss would provoke, either in her or in himself. He sat there silent, watching their love expire.

My only caution with Swann’s Way would be that it’s writing to sink into and works poorly as a casual read. It demands attention. It repays the effort put into it many times over, but it’s best read a hundred pages or so at a time rather than in smaller instalments.

I’ll wait a month or so before launching into the second volume. I’ll need to be sure I have some free time to do it credit. I’m already looking forward to it though, and while it’s taken me a fair while to get through this one I don’t regret a single moment I spent on it.

Swann’s Way
. I read the Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enright translation published by Vintage Classics. For me it maintained an excellent balance between keeping the prose modern enough to be easily read while retaining the period feel of the original. I can’t speak to its fidelity to the French, but I understand it’s pretty good and it has the benefit over the Penguin Classics version of having the same set of translators for all six works (though I understand the Penguin translations are pretty good too).

Unusually for me, I’ve written this whole entry with barely a quote in it. I couldn’t resist though the following, which is I admit a bit obvious but what’s a discussion of Proust without it?

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, except what lay in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, 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 mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?



Filed under French, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist fiction, Personal canon, Proust, Marcel

21 responses to “his love was no longer operable

  1. I like the way you picked out the threads about love: love between Marcel and Gilberte and Swann and Odette–specifically that the love object, for some, doesn’t have to do anything except exist.

    Is Proust saying that as Marcel learned to love as a child (waiting for his mother’s kiss), the pattern was set for his later relationship with Gilberte?

    Anyway, a great post and it makes me want to grab the book, but the timing isn’t quite right yet….

  2. Max: I am very impressed with the way that you snuck the madelaine quote in as a postscript. That’s the kind of thing one would expect from a barrister not a corporate lawyer.

    I’m looking forward to your further ventures into Proust. Swann’s Way attracts enough attention that most of its aspects (and I certainly appreciate your reminders) are pretty well known. I am very much looking forward to your observations on some of the lesser read volumes. I will be re-reading Proust in the future so I am looking forward to some handy guideposts. And I can certainly understand why you are waiting a month or two before book two.

  3. I’m impressed by the way you managed to sum up the essence of the book.
    You made me feel like reading it again, which I started to do at once, as I have it at home.
    I’m only at the beginning and two strange things happened. First, I had the “petite madeleine” experience myself : starting this book again brought me back to high school and reading hours in my room at my parents’ place. I can see a younger myself concentrating on Proust’s prose and marvelling.
    Second, when I read about Marcel’s longings for his mother’s kisses, I saw it through a mother’s eyes. For I am a Mom now and I have those little rites with my children. My husband and I have been singing the same song every night for almost 9 years now, besides our children’s beds. Reading Marcel’s needs for his good-night kiss made me realize how important it could be for them and that our present will be their childhood memories. I hope they will think of them as sweet memories.
    By the way, about Odette and Swann, don’t you think their love was condemned from the beginning as neither of them would accept the other for what he/she is ? Swann especially created and crystallized, in a Stendhal way, on a totally invented person.

  4. leroyhunter

    A really personal response, Max, ‘one from the heart’ it seems fair to say. You seem to have made short work of the volume – how long did it take you to get through?

    Agree with so much of what you say – lovely to have details of the book recalled to mind by your comments. I particularly agree with the point about Proust’s descriptive passages: just thinking about it now recalls the hazy Combray landscape with church spires in the distance. That element is particularly strong in volume 2 as well.

    I’m spurred to resume my own reading of ROTP, but as you say the timing is important: I fear just now it’s not right for me.

    A final point: there are so many people who are unwilling or unprepared to invest the effort in this book (or others that make similar demands of readers). If you were minded to try to overcome that reluctance, this review would make an excellent exhibit A. Hope someone comes across it and is duly inspired!

  5. Guy, I’m not sure what he’s saying yet in all honesty, but my impression is it’s more a case of a recurring patern than a causal link. Marcel’s love is mirrored in Swann’s love is mirrored in Marcel’s later love. Love is the connecting factor, it gives rise to its own patterns.

    Kevin, I can’t recall but do I take it I mentioned that I originally trained as a barrister?

    That aside, I’ve actually not seen much discussion of Swann’s Way’s aspects, which I’d have liked to have seen. It’s no surprise though that it’s much covered.

    I’m looking forward to the follow-up titles myself.

  6. bookaround,

    Lovely post there on the changing perspective with parenthood, fascinating. I think you’re right (in part anyway, it’s a complex book and there’s lots of rights) about Swann/Odette not loving the real person. Swann doesn’t even like the real person.

    But then, when we fall in love how often do we really know the real person? All too often we discover them afterwards. If we’re lucky, we get along, if we’re not…

    Leroy, it wasn’t short work at all. It took some weeks. You’ll notice there’s been a few posts about short stories recently, that’s stuff I was reading in the margins on the way to work or whatever, this has taken a while.

    The evocation of landscape is powerful. The spires section you mention is marvellous, like an impressionist painting.

    I think it would be hard not to have a personal response to this, unless you bounced right off it. It’s part of its charm.

  7. Yes, I found it had an overall “melancholic” tone – you mention – mortality, memory, loss. I enjoyed the Combray passages most, I think because I am a frequent visitor to little French towns like that and can so easily picture the location.

    Thank you for quoting the madeleine section – it was good to read it again and now I can cut and pasted it into my “best bits” document.

    I completely agree that you can’t race through this book – and am impressed that you plant to start the next volume in a month or so. I have read the first three, but regret to say it has taken me nearly ten years.

    I enjoyed your reading your review and it has attracted some interesting comments.

  8. What I found interesting was despite the melancholy tone there was still a sense of beauty and love.

    That said, mortality did loom large. There was a passage about how ghastly death was, not simply being dead but the sheer lack of dignity and unpleasant physicality of the process of dying and of how the fact of it was so much worse than the depiction in art or the imagining of it. So less dignified and so much more unpleasant.

    That’s powerful stuff, I was going to quote it but lost the section reference and couldn’t find it again. It’s important though because against that cruelty is the existence for the time being of an ability to appreciate beauty and to experience passion. It’s a book rooted in personal experience (as in the unique experiences of each person), which is probably part of why my own reaction to it was very personal.

  9. Max, I was not clear enough when I said Swann fell in love with an invented person.
    Of course, when you meet someone you don’t know the person and fall for the one you imagine she/he is.
    I think Swann fell in love with an idealized person and sticked to it, which condemned him : he married a flesh and blood person and fell in love with an insubstantial woman.
    He stood in the worst position : either he could have cherished the irreal person and maintained their love story to the “before intimacy” stage (like in The Princess of Cleves) or, as he crossed the bridge of intimacy, he was to reconcile the image of Odette to what she really was and he never could.
    Sorry, I’m afraid my English is too poor to express fully.

  10. No no, that’s well put bookaround. Crossing the bridge of intimacy, a lovely image.

    You’re quite right, he falls for who he imagines she is, but fails to adapt to the woman she really is. He loves a fiction of his own devising, as arguably does Marcel with Swann’s daughter (of whom really in this novel we know very little).

    Thanks for the comments, they do help me think about the book.

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  12. Hello, I found this discussion via Bookaround, and am delighted to discover my friends Tom and Kevin here too. What a small world it is after all!
    Anyway, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your thoughts about Swann’s Way. I read all six volumes a few years ago and am looking forward to revisiting them through your posts.
    I plan to re-read it before long, probably in the Moncrieff translation. (My edition is the recent Penguin, with six different translators).
    Perhaps because I work with children and am a mother too (though he’s long grown up now!) my most vivid memory of this volume is Proust’s evocation of childhood panic: the initial disbelief that his mother has betrayed him (surely she is going to leave her guests and come to me because I am more important to her?) his incomprehension of his father’s repudation (how can he not understand how important this is to me?) and the sense of terror when he realises that the usual routines aren’t going to be followed (how am I going to deal with this, I thought life was always going to be the way I expected it to be?) Proust’s genius is in bringing those inchoate emotions to life in a way that is plausible to adults reaching back into their own childhood memories, but also in prefiguring how the adult narrator still shares these emotional responses when things don’t go his way later on.
    Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers

  13. Hi Lisa, sorry for the slow reply, I’ve been offline.

    The childhood panic section is extraordinary. I don’t have children, but I could easily picture how things seemingly trival to an adult could be of such vital importance to the child. Proust creates drama from a goodnight kiss, where other writers need world shattering events and still achieve less effect.

    I do look forward to seeing how it resonates with the later adult narrator.

  14. *chuckle* Let’s just say he’s not exactly ‘mature’ about the way he deals with things not going his way!

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  16. Bookaroundthecorner tipped me off to these two posts of yours on Swann’s Way, Max, and I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading them and the corresponding comments having recently finished the novel myself. Was astounded by Proust’s emotional virtuosity (he captures both the heights and the lows, does he not?) and by how seamlessly the sadness and the impermanence of things coexist with the more humorous aspects of the novelist’s vision. It’s really just such a powerful work!

  17. Richard, thank you and sorry for the slow reply. He is extraordinary isn’t he? It’s the range and depth of emotion which is so impressive, coupled with a sadness at the transience of life and a tremendous sense of humour about it all.

    Really just wonderful. I absolutely agree with you.

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  19. Robert

    Emma tipped me off to these two posts of yours on Swann’s Way.
    I have just finished the first two books and have posted long comments on another readers site. One minor question that came up was whether it was Marcel who was narrating the section about Swann in love. If so, how did he know all the details of the affair? If not, then who is the narrator?
    I came to read Proust at last through enjoying Anthony Powell’s masterpiece years ago. I am experiencing the same frisson of pleasure with Proust, so it is great to read the many comments from those who are enjoying a similar pleasure. Regards Robert

  20. Robert, I’m really sorry, I totally missed your comment.

    Good question on the narrator, but then the question of narrative authority is often tricky in modernist works. I think it must be Marcel, but how he knows we don’t yet know and I don’t know whether we ever will.

    Blogging all the Powell’s here was probably the biggest achievement of my blog (if a blog can have an achievement, which it probably can’t). I was blown away by them, and in particular by how the whole is so much greater than the individually highly enjoyable parts.

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