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?