In Proust’s Way, Roger Shattuck includes a chapter on “How to Read a Roman-Fleuve¹”. Shattuck points to Proust’s style as purposefully constructed to slow a reader down: “His sentences move through long spirals that will not be hastened and deserve to be savored. He offers few paragraph breaks to declare the steps and stages of his thought.”
It’s reassuring to learn that my slow pace is what Proust intended. And look, this post covers 80 pages! I was on a roll.
Detail, Botticelli’s “The Trials of Moses”, Courtesy The Berger Foundation
Poor Swann. He ends up falling in love with Odette because of her resemblance to Botticelli’s rendition of one of Jethro’s daughters (remember Moses meeting them at the well?), and because of a melody played on the piano. He’s attracted by the thought that other men are attracted to her, and by the possibility of something complex and alluring to be explored underneath her simple, almost vulgar exterior.
Unfortunately for Swann, there isn’t.
A plate of home-made madeleines
But let me start from the beginning. Swann meets Odette, aka Madame de Crécy (Proust doesn’t show us this meeting), and at first finds her barely tolerable. But she, a well-known courtesan (described as being “of a certain class,” but we never learn how she became Madame), latches on to him and invites him to an evening with the Verdurins. He knows what she is, and occasionally, in conversation, her roots show:
… she let out to Swann what she really thought of his abode on the Quai de’Orléans; he having ventured the criticism that her friend had indulged, not in the Louis XVI style, for, he went on, although that was not, of course, done, still it might be made charming, but in the ‘Sham-Antique.’ ¶”You wouldn’t have her live, like you, among a lot of broken-down chairs and threadbare carpets!” she exclaimed, the innate respectability of the middle-class housewife rising impulsively to the surface through the acquired dilettantism of the ‘light woman.’
Damned twice: middle-class AND a dilettante! Not to mention the bit about being a ‘light woman’.
Madeleines, linden tea, and Proust
Mme. V runs a salon of sorts, where each night several people gather for conversation and sometimes substantive meals: a painter, a pianist and his aunt, a doctor and his wife, a paleographer, and Odette and whichever man she happens to favor at the moment. The pianist’s aunt and the doctor’s wife rarely speak, and the pianist seems to be there only to perform, and Doctor Cottard’s main contributions to the evening are very bad puns shouted out as others are talking.
A conversation will go something along the lines of Person A: I went to Paris the other day and …. Doctor C: Lady Day!, all very much like a Monty Python routine. I even began to see Eric Idle as Doctor C, Graham Chapman in drag as Mme. V, Terry Jones as M. V, and Michael Palin, also in drag, as Odette. Of course, Jeremy Irons is Swann.
But back to the book. Mme. and M. Verdurin are great comedic inventions. Mme. V considers herself a great arbiter of culture and taste, and lives for the approbation of all who surround her. Anyone who doesn’t equal her fervor in belittling rich bores and certain artists (basically, anyone too modern and incomprehensible) loses his seat at her salon. She loves to laugh, but her version of mirth is to cover her face with her hands, bend over, and shake as though her hand were battling some kind of volcano trying to explode. And M. V just lives to support his wife’s endeavors.
So, Odette brings Swann one night, and Mme. V decides he’s suitable, and she contrives to make Swann and Odette an item. The pianist plays a movement from an unknown composer’s sonata, one that Swann recognizes (he’d heard it several months earlier and, despite all his efforts, had never learned the composer’s name). Hearing the melody again, and looking at Odette’s cheek so like that face in Botticelli, Swann falls. You can almost hear the thump as he lands in the middle of this big affair.
I’m at the point now where jealousy of others has grabbed Swann by the lapel and is dragging him along into worse and worse self-abasement. He isn’t exactly on his knees begging her to turn away her other clients, but he does try to listen at her window one night (turns out to be the wrong window), and his obsessive proprietary behavior gets him booted from Mme. V’s nightly entertainments.
You can’t help liking Swann, in spite of his disastrous affair with Odette. For years he’s been working on a book about Vermeer of Delft (we’re in the late 1800s, just as Vermeer is about to hit big among collectors), he pals around with the Prince of Wales and French aristocrats, and he knows that the Verdurins and their crowd are below his level, yet he puts up with them because they appreciate Odette.
He’s also a bit silly. Because of some business involving an orchid corsage, he invents a euphemism, “to do a cattleya”, to replace “to make love”. (Cattleya — cat-LEE-ya — is a type of orchid.) He doesn’t like expressing an opinion, but is perfectly happy to share the facts he knows. (Perhaps this last isn’t so bad after all; these days, opinions seem to ride the wind, while facts are all hidden underground.) (And Dr. Cottard comes up with his own ridiculous euphemism: visiting the Duc d’Aumale for a minute is going to the toilet.)
At this moment in the novel, Swann is nearly debilitated by jealousy. I’m sorry to burden you with a long paragraph, but this one is beautiful. Swann is finally contemplating marrying Odette:
And yet he was inclined to suspect that the state for which he so much longed was a calm, a peace, which would not have created an atmosphere favourable to his love. When Odette ceased to be for him a creature always absent, regretted, imagined; when the feeling that he had for her was no longer the same mysterious disturbance that was wrought in him by the phrase from the sonata, but constant affection and gratitude, when those normal relations were established between them which would put an end to his melancholy madness; then, no doubt, the actions of Odette’s daily life would appear to him as being of but little intrinsic interest — as he had several times, already, felt that they they might be …. Examining his complaint with as much scientific detachment as if he had inoculated himself with it in order to study its effects, he told himself that, when he was cured of it, what Odette might or might not do would be indifferent to him. But in his morbid state, to tell the truth, he feared death itself no more than such a recovery, which would, in fact, amount to the death of all that he then was.
That’s the perversity of love. You want what you can’t have, yet you wonder if, when you finally get it, you’ll still be as happy. To love is to be a masochist.
I’m still trying to figure out why Proust made Swann fall in love with someone so perfectly unsuitable. But this post has gone on long enough.
If memory serves, I never figured out why Proust tortured Swann with Odette. Perhaps this time around I can get an inkling. More to come, soon, ish.
¹Roman-fleuve = novel cycle (from the French, “novel river”), where several novels feature the same characters (or generations of families) over time. Reading other romans-fleuves, such as Scott’s Raj Quartet and Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, didn’t prepare me for the challenge of Proust. Ah well.