I don’t know whether to be encouraged or dismayed that it took me 8 weeks to read a bit over 300 pages, an average of about 36 pages a week. Someone recently pointed out that I’d do better with a 6-volume edition — larger type, fewer words per page, minimal soporific effect. But I’m too stubborn to take the advice — I’ll stick with my 2-volume set, bought at a used book store in 2009. But I know now not to read it in bed, or even in a comfy chair. I must sit at a table, notebook at my side, if I’m to expect any progress.
I’ve finished Vol 1: Swann’s Way, and the next stage is Vol 2: Within A Budding Grove.
Swann’s Way ends on a melancholy note, which I’ll get to in a bit, but recall that Marcel has become obsessed with Gilberte Swann, an obsession that mirrors Swann’s feelings for Gilberte’s mother, Odette. It’s all such familiar territory to us, and to Marcel as well, for he at one point makes the connection.
This section of the volume is also about the power of names — of almost anything: trees, flowers, streets, as well as people — to evoke emotions and memories. Just like the flavor of the madeleines dipped in tea, these words call up images and moments with Gilberte that the narrator can now savor, with more enjoyment than he had while actually immersed in them, because at the time he was too busy worrying when he would next see her.
In one long sentence, Marcel presents his image of a perfect relationship with Gilberte (the same sentence in which he notes the resemblance of his obsession with Swann’s for Odette), his emotions having evolved from loving her because he knew so little about her, to loving her because she had just given him a book he had mentioned wanting. He calls this change a “reincarnation,”
… discarding my own separate existence as a thing that no longer mattered, I thought now, as of an inestimable advantage, that of this, my own, my too familiar, my contemptible existence Gilberte might one day become the humble servant, the kindly, the comforting collaborator, who in the evenings, helping me in my work, would collate for me the texts of rare pamphlets.
I had to laugh at that final phrase, at the image of worldly Gilberte giving up so much, to sit beside Marcel in a candle-lit room, messing about with yellowed publications. So much for romance!
And the melancholic ending? It’s all about the futility of revisiting old haunts, because you won’t see what you once saw. An adult Marcel goes back to the Bois de Boulogne, where he used to see an elegant Mme. Swann walking, or riding in her victoria, in gowns and hats no longer in fashion. The older Marcel misses the styles, which have been replaced by “Greco-Saxon tunics, with Tanagra folds, or sometimes, in the Directoire style, ‘Liberty chiffons'”. And the men? “They walked the Bois bare-headed.” Gone are the “tile hats” (top hats), so distinguished, and so appropriate for a sweeping salute to ladies met along the way.
Here are the last few lines of Swann’s Way:
[I understood] how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme. Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, road, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.
It’s a perfect explanation of why going back to a house where you once lived, or to any place that holds critical memories, always results in a let-down.
And now, on to Vol 2., which begins with a long section called “Madame Swann at Home.”
Roger Shattuck calls Marcel’s inability to be in the moment “soul error” (“the incapacity to give full value or status to one’s life and experience”, pp. 84-85) and suggests it may be common to all people, despite Marcel’s belief that it’s something only he suffers, due to a special infirmity. Proust (who, of course, is not Marcel, nor even the much older “Narrator” remembering his past) must have recognized the universality of this infirmity, even if Marcel and the Narrator don’t. This is part of the comedy of Proust’s work: even as the characters moan about how no one knows the trouble they’ve seen, readers can sympathize because we’ve all been there.
One more thing: I never commented on how it is that Swann and Odette married after the end of their affair. Proust doesn’t explain, and we can only guess at why. For propriety? To protect Gilberte? An early version of “settling”? Momentary madness? I recently learned about Arabella Worsham (1851-1924), a wealthy American who began her career much like Odette — only she didn’t marry her child’s father. When he went back to his official family, she found someone much wealthier — C P Huntington, of the transcontinental railroad. She eventually married him, and then, when he died, she married his nephew. She built a world class art collection, sold some of her property to the Rockefellers, donated to charities and Harvard, and was perhaps the wealthiest woman in the U.S. It wasn’t madness that hooked her up with two Huntingtons. I believe it was sheer strength of will. I’d like to believe that’s what dragged Swann into marrying Odette — her own strength of will, to get her a place in society that would allow no one to snub her. This is what Aunt Alicia was talking about in Gigi when she tells her grand-niece, “Marriage is not forbidden to us, but instead of getting married at once, it sometimes happens we get married at last.” This makes me wonder if someday we’ll get a feminist retelling of Swann’s story, from Odette’s point of view.