First week of January, 2011, must have been quiet, for I made wonderful progress in Proust, reading whom is like watching a glacier. Things move too slowly to notice changes over short periods of time (or just a few pages) — you need great distances, huge chunks of text, to see anything happening.
Within a Budding Grove, pp. 416-487
If Ralph Vaughn Williams had composed with words, he might have written the last few pages of “Madame Swann at Home”. Such lyrical beauty, with all those flowers and colors, as Mme. Swann walks along a Parisian avenue on a sunny May afternoon, surrounded by a crowd of men. Marcel practically drools over her.
It’s a fitting end to this episode, 150 pages of Marcel agonizing over Gilberte Swann, who, his readers can immediately see, barely tolerates him. He doesn’t hide the painful scenes.
Finally, Marcel gets the message (Gilberte lets her boredom show), and he goes all noble. He stays away from her, hoping that this will make her realize how much she loves him, but also reasoning that the longer he stays away from her, the less he’ll love her. It’s a very complicated sort of logic: He knows she doesn’t love him, yet can’t help hoping that perhaps she does. He stays away, to cure his obsession, but also in hopes that the separation will end in a happy reconciliation.
There are hints of future loves with others, specifically to Albertine. But he hints that his affair with Albertine will be just as unhappy as his current one with Gilberte. You can’t help feeling that Marcel tends to love in all the wrong places. Also, his fascination with Mme. Swann is a bit suspect, but I have to let that go; he’s so honestly confessional that, if he’d been infatuated with her, he’d have written about it.
Some great quotes in these pages:
… there is nothing that so much alters the material qualities of the voice as the presence of thought behind what one is saying. (p. 419) [I can’t resist a nod to the current presidential campaigns.]
It is what I should have said then and there to Bergotte, for one does not invent all one’s speeches, especially when one is acting merely as a card in the social pack. (p. 435)
We imagine always when we speak that it is our own ears, our own mind that are listening…. The truth which one puts into one’s words does not make a direct path for itself, is not supported by irresistible evidence. A considerable time must elapse before a truth of the same order can take shape in the words themselves. (p. 465)
During those periods in which our bitterness of spirit, though steadily diminishing, still persists, a distinction must be drawn between the bitterness which comes to us from our constantly thinking of the person herself and that which is revived by certain memories, some cutting speech, some word in a letter that we have had from her. (p. 476)
And this, from a Marcel in the depths of despair about Gilberte:
We construct our house of life to suit another person, and when at length it is ready to receive her that person does not come; presently she is dead to us, and we live on, a prisoner within the walls which were intended only for her.
I wipe away the tears, just as Marcel presents that paean to Mme. Swann, in her spring attire, shaded by a parasol the color of Parma violets. She has left the victoria at home and is walking gaily, creating a memory that Marcel will treasure, “Mme. Swann beneath her parasol, as though in the coloured shade of a wistaria bower.”
A note about the images: like any successful author, Proust immerses readers in a world that would have been immediately recognizable to contemporaries but becomes more obscure as time passes. Thanks to film and the internet, it’s possible to locate or recall Gilded Age interiors, fashions, manners, and even plants and trees. But Proust goes further, referencing works of visual and musical art. In a future life I may track down the musical references, but for now I’m satisfied if I can find images of the art, whether natural or man-made, that plays meaningful roles in this novel. Somehow, in the original post, I didn’t include a photo of a Parma violet, so I add it here. Colors are as important to Proust as any other visual image.