Monday, November 23, 2009

Slow Read: Swann's Way, Weeks 5 and 6

I had another book to read between these weeks for my library's book group, The Picture of Dorian Gray, so I didn't get time to blog. Oscar Wilde was just a little ahead of Proust on the literary time-line, but I found the settings quite similar. Gardens and dinner salons and people being, or trying to be, witty at the expense of others. I really enjoyed Wilde much more. One day in the library, I saw a woman who's a regular attendee of the Read the Classics programs, and she asked me if I was reading this. We were both having trouble getting into it, and she said she thought it's been overrated. Whereas Wilde is devilish and witty, Proust is meticulously long-winded. He does manage to convey a time and scene quite thoroughly, but it is so slow that Wilde has already run circles around him. During my reading, Lord Henry and Dorian Gray keep inserting themselves into the story, livening up the sickening fakery of the Proustian salons, and I have to remind myself, that vision comes from Wilde, not Proust.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: Swann's Way by Marcel Proust
In Search of Lost Time: Volume 1, Swann's Way (Modern Library Classics) (v. 1)
by Marcel Proust, translated by Scott Moncrieff

Part Two: Swann in Love

The Verdurins never invited you to dinner; you had your 'place laid' there. There was never any programme for the evening's entertainment. The young pianist would play, but only if he felt inclined...

And so, too, if one of the 'faithful' had a friend, or one of the ladies a young man, who was liable, now and then, to make them miss an evening....

...he would be put to the test, to see whether he was willing to have no secrets from Mme. Verdurin, whether he was susceptible of being enrolled in the 'little clan.' ... And so when, in the course of this same year, the courtesan told M. Verdurin that she had made the acquaintance of such a charming gentleman, M. Swann, and hinted that he would very much like to be allowed to come, M. Verdurin carried the request at once to his wife. He never formed an opinion on any subject until she had formed hers, his special duty being to carry out her wishes and those of the 'faithful' generally, which he did with boundless ingenuity.
I should have known I was in for it with this description of the Verdurins. I can't stand people like that. Apparently neither can Proust. So Swann falls for this woman, here called a courtesan, but in his understanding, only rumored to have been a "kept woman." Is it noteworthy that the narrator has such intimate details of Swann's great love that happened at the time of the narrator's birth? I've been told of the 19th century novels that the narrator is simply a device, not to get too worked up about their part in the novel.
But [my grandfather] had entirely severed his connection with what he called "young Verdurin," taking a general view of him as one who had fallen--though without losing hold of his millions--among the riff-raff of Bohemia. One day he received a letter from Swann asking whether my grandfather could put him in touch with the Verdurins. ...

And on my grandfather's refusal to act as sponsor, it was Odette herself who had taken Swann to the house.
So those outside the group don't think much of them, while the Verdurins are so rigid about their faithful. They are funny and creepy.

Dr. Cottard:
was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest. And so in any event he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he never dared to allow this smile a definite expression on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty
Mme. Verdurin:
so was overtaken and vanquished by her device of a feigned but continuous hilarity—she would utter a shrill cry, shut tight her little bird-like eyes, which were beginning to be clouded over by a cataract, and quickly, as though she had only just time to avoid some indecent sight or to parry a mortal blow, burying her face in her hands, which completely engulfed it, and prevented her from seeing anything at all, she would appear to be struggling to suppress, to eradicate a laugh which, were she to give way to it, must inevitably leave her inanimate.
M. Verdurin:
finding it rather a strain to start laughing again over so small a matter, he was content with puffing out a cloud of smoke from his pipe, while he reflected sadly that he could never again hope to keep pace with his wife in her Atalanta-flights across the field of mirth.
Swann (what is he doing here?):
"I know him slightly; we have some friends in common" (Swann dared not add that one of these friends was the Prince of Wales). "Anyhow, he is very free with his invitations, and, I assure you, his luncheon-parties are not the least bit amusing; they're very simple affairs, too, you know; never more than eight at table," he went on, trying desperately to cut out everything that seemed to shew off his relations with the President in a light too dazzling for the Doctor's eyes.
Ah, the allowances one convinces oneself of, for love:
"What a charming atmosphere!" [Swann] said to himself. "How entirely genuine life is to these people! They are far more intelligent, far more artistic, surely, than the people one knows. Mme. Verdurin, in spite of a few trifling exaggerations which are rather absurd, has a sincere love of painting and music! What a passion for works of art, what anxiety to give pleasure to artists! Her ideas about some of the people one knows are not quite right, but then their ideas about artistic circles are altogether wrong! Possibly I make no great intellectual demands upon conversation, but I am perfectly happy talking to Cottard, although he does trot out those idiotic puns. And as for the painter, if he is rather unpleasantly affected when he tries to be paradoxical, still he has one of the finest brains that I have ever come across.
Swann is a trifle too warm in describing a person the Verdurins consider a rival, so he is cast out of the 'faithful.'
His explanation was terribly effective; Mme. Verdurin now realised that this one state of unbelief would prevent her 'little nucleus' from ever attaining to complete unanimity, and was unable to restrain herself, in her fury at the obstinacy of this wretch who could not see what anguish his words were causing her...
The worthy man suffered acutely from the Verdurins' always finding him so dull; and as he was conscious of having been more than ordinarily morose this evening, he had made up his mind that he would succeed in being amusing, at least once, before the end of dinner.
M. Verdurin finds a new humor mask:
As for M. Verdurin, he was unsparing of his merriment, having recently discovered a way of expressing it by a symbol, different from his wife's, but equally simple and obvious. Scarcely had he begun the movement of head and shoulders of a man who was 'shaking with laughter' than he would begin also to cough, as though, in laughing too violently, he had swallowed a mouthful of smoke from his pipe. And by keeping the pipe firmly in his mouth he could prolong indefinitely the dumb-show of suffocation and hilarity. So he and Mme. Verdurin (who, at the other side of the room, where the painter was telling her a story, was shutting her eyes preparatory to flinging her face into her hands) resembled two masks in a theatre, each representing Comedy, but in a different way.
The Verdurins are like a parody of the arts they would say they support.

Before he knows it, Swann is given the boot:
"Didn't I say so?" retorted her husband. "He's simply a failure; a poor little wretch who goes through life mad with jealousy of anything that's at all big." Had the truth been known, there was not one of the 'faithful' who was not infinitely more malicious than Swann; but the others would all take the precaution of tempering their malice with obvious pleasantries, with little sparks of emotion and cordiality; while the least indication of reserve on Swann's part, undraped in any such conventional formula as "Of course, I don't want to say anything—" to which he would have scorned to descend, appeared to them a deliberate act of treachery.
And thus Odette begins her campaign of disdain. The more she lies, evades, and pushes Swann away, the more entrenched he becomes in his addictive love for her. Even while a rational part of his brain tells him that without the ecstatic romantic feelings he wouldn't have much in common with Odette, he becomes more frenetic over trying to see her, as well as trying to catch her in a deception. How familiar those love-addicted thoughts are. The more elusive a love's object, the more one is convinced of that love. For example, Swann realises he may be participating in the whole 'kept woman' dynamic, thinking of the money he gave Odette to help with her expenses...
He could not explore the idea further, for a sudden access of that mental lethargy which was, with him, congenital, intermittent and providential, happened, at that moment, to extinguish every particle of light in his brain, as instantaneously as, at a later period, when electric lighting had been everywhere installed, it became possible, merely by fingering a switch, to cut off all the supply of light from a house. His mind fumbled, for a moment, in the darkness, he took off his spectacles, wiped the glasses, passed his hands over his eyes, but saw no light until he found himself face to face with a wholly different idea, the realisation that he must endeavour, in the coming month, to send Odette six or seven thousand-franc notes instead of five, simply as a surprise for her and to give her pleasure.
When not Odette-addled, Swann is a likable guy. He can hob knob with the Prince, and with regular folks.
He had the same regard—to a degree of identity which they would never have suspected—for the little families with small incomes who asked him to dances in their flats ("straight upstairs to the fifth floor, and the door on the left") as for the Princesse de Parme, who gave the most splendid parties in Paris; but he had not the feeling of being actually 'at the ball' when he found himself herded with the fathers of families in the bedroom of the lady of the house, while the spectacle of wash-hand-stands covered over with towels, and of beds converted into cloak-rooms, with a mass of hats and great-coats sprawling over their counterpanes, gave him the same stifling sensation that, nowadays, people who have been used for half a lifetime to electric light derive from a smoking lamp or a candle that needs to be snuffed.
Swann tortures himself with thoughts of Odette with other men. He spies on her. He suspects her of lying, but when he doesn't suspect and she is lying, he absolutely will not believe she is lying. Such delusion, such attachment, so difficult to avoid when it comes to this kind of love.
As though this had been a bodily pain, Swann's mind was powerless to alleviate it; in the case of bodily pain, however, since it is independent of the mind, the mind can dwell upon it, can note that it has diminished, that it has momentarily ceased. But with this mental pain, the mind, merely by recalling it, created it afresh. To determine not to think of it was but to think of it still, to suffer from it still.
When she pays him a small favor of attention, he elevates it to favoring him over others with her love. She sure does know how to play a man.
So, too, Odette, certain of seeing him come to her in a few days, as tender and submissive as before, and plead with her for a reconciliation, became inured, was no longer afraid of displeasing him, or even of making him angry, and refused him, whenever it suited her, the favours by which he set most store. Perhaps she did not realise how sincere he had been with her during their quarrel, when he had told her that he would not send her any money, but would do what he could to hurt her. Perhaps she did not realise, either, how sincere he still was, if not with her, at any rate with himself, on other occasions when, for the sake of their future relations, to shew Odette that he was capable of doing without her, that a rupture was still possible between them, he decided to wait some time before going to see her again.
For Swann, the very thought of trying to pull away from her ends up pushing him further off the deep end.
An imperfect idea (though possibly all the more profound in consequence), if one were to judge it from the point of view of Swann, who would doubtless have considered that Odette failed to understand him, just as a morphinomaniac.... which in reality have never ceased to weigh heavily and incurably upon them while they were nursing their dreams of normality and health. And, as a matter of fact, Swann's love had reached that stage at which the physician and (in the case of certain affections) the boldest of surgeons ask themselves whether to deprive a patient of his vice or to rid him of his malady is still reasonable, or indeed possible.

Previous posts:
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4

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