Friday, November 18, 2016

Dipping into Proust

by Jean Roberta

Today is the anniversary of the death of Marcel Proust in 1922. He was born near Paris in July 1871, and for many readers, he exemplifies the upper middle-class culture of the Gilded Age at the end of the nineteenth century. His big, sprawling series of more-or-less autobiographical novels, A la recherché du temps perdu, was his life work, and the books have been translated into English several times. The first English translator, Scott Moncrieff, was a contemporary of Proust, and he translated the title of the series as “Remembrance of Things Past,” a phrase from a Shakespeare sonnet. Proust was still alive, and apparently he knew enough English to be unhappy about it. More recently, Proust’s title has been more accurately translated as “In Search of Lost Time.”

To make a long story short, I finally decided to dip a toe into the river. Most of my colleagues in the English Department of the local university seem to know Proust’s work, and so do various writers I’ve met on-line.

Maybe I needed a big distraction from the ongoing bad news coming from the U.S. after the nightmare election.

For years, I’ve avoided Proust for several reasons. I usually have something else to read that I’ve agreed to review or beta-read. Obviously Proust isn’t likely to disappear any time soon, so I thought I could make his acquaintance later. However, when I came across a free paperback version of the Moncrieff translation of the first volume, Du Cote de Chez Swann (“Swann’s Way” – more accurately, “On the way to Monsieur Swann’s house”), I decided to dive in.

Nowadays, it’s hard to appreciate Proust’s daringly subjective approach, because stream-of-consciousness novels in various languages have had so much influence on current literature. Proust doesn’t even pretend to be objective, although the whole saga could be described as a search for personal truth. Swann’s Way begins with an “Overture,” in which the narrator (occasionally called “Marcel” by other characters) is a little boy who has insomnia in the home of his relatives in the picturesque village of Combray where he and his parents spend every summer, beginning in Holy Week. (Their own house is in Paris.)

The adult author is plunged back to his childhood summers in Combray by the taste of a cup of tea with a few crumbs of madeleine (a small cake)* soaked in it. Sensory experience (taste, sound, sight, smell, feeling, touch) is shown to be directly connected to memories that enable one to relive the past.

The boy’s age is vague, but apparently he is old enough to have “wet dreams.” Here is Moncrieff’s delicate translation:

“Sometimes, too, just as Eve was created from a rib of Adam, so a woman would come into existence while I was sleeping, conceived from some strain in the position of my limbs. Formed from the appetite that I was on the point of gratifying, she it was, I imagined, who offered me that gratification. My body, conscious that its own warmth was permeating hers, would strive to become one with her, and I would awake. The rest of humanity seemed very remote in comparison with this woman whose company I had left but a moment ago: my cheek was still warm with her kiss, my body bent beneath the weight of hers. If, as would sometimes happen, she had the appearance of some woman whom I had known in waking hours, I would abandon myself altogether to the sole quest of her, like people who set out on a journey to see with their own eyes some city that they have always longed to visit, and imagine that they can taste in reality what has charmed their fancy. And then, gradually, the memory of her would dissolve and vanish, until I had forgotten the maiden of my dream.”

This seems like a foreshadowing of the narrator’s relationships (to use the word loosely) with actual women, as well as other heterosexual relationships in the series. The comparison of an imagined woman with an imagined city also seems significant, especially since a long section at the end of Swann’s Way (“Place-Names: The Name”) describes the narrator’s impression of various small towns on the rocky coast of Normandy, which he has not visited yet. The name “Balbec,” in particular, summons up images in his mind which he knows are a simplified version of reality.

The narrator is still a boy at the end of Swann’s Way, but a long middle section, “Swann in Love,” deals with an adult love-affair that takes place before the narrator’s birth. (The narrator later develops a huge crush on Gilberte, the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Swann.)

In a very class-divided society, Swann is shown to be a social chameleon. He is quite at home with the narrator’s middle-class family, but he is also welcomed into the salons of the titled aristocracy. (Reading Proust, one would never guess that France had a revolution in the 1790s.)

In the home of the Verdurins, a husband and wife who pride themselves on creating their own social clique, Swann observes Odette de Crecy, who appeals to his esthetic taste, but not to his lust. She reminds him of a Biblical character in a painting by Botticelli, and he notes that she dresses fashionably, but he prefers to have affairs with fleshier beauties. He decides she is not his type, and he reminds himself of this from time to time.

Swann learns that Odette is a “courtesan” (as she is described in plot summaries of the novel), a woman who manages to seem respectable enough for bourgeois drawing rooms, but who lives alone and survives on the money given to her by various gentlemen who spend nights with her. She has to juggle her gentlemen callers, which is why she is not always at home when Swann happens to drive past in a carriage, and sometimes she has company. Odette is called “Madame” (not “mademoiselle”), so apparently she was married at one time.

Since this is Swann’s story, we are shown his complex feelings. At first, he regards Odette as a kind of living objet d’art, then he is tormented by a need to possess her, and to know where she is at all times, and with whom. They slide into an affair, and he gives her a few thousand francs from time to time, but he doesn’t want to believe he is simply paying for sexual service. To make things worse, the Verdurins stop inviting him to their soirees because Madame Verdurin thinks Swann is a social “poser.” (He is not the phony they think he is.) Since Odette still belongs to the Verdurins’ “little clan,” Swann is often left guessing about whether she is with them or with some other man that she met through them.

Through all this, Odette’s past and her consciousness are simply unknown. Since the Verdurins and their other guests would probably consider it vulgar for Odette to find a regular job (although one of her friends was “a little seamstress” before she retired), she has to cultivate the good will of men who can support her. Neither Swann nor the narrator seem to consider this an economic issue.

Swann’s sudden, unexplained marriage to Odette, after he has decided to give her up, is described as a tragedy. Many of the people who welcome Swann as a guest can’t accept Odette, even after she has become Madame Swann, so he often visits friends, including the narrator’s family, without his wife. After Odette gives birth to Gilberte, papa Swann continues to have an independent social life. Odette continues to dress fashionably on Swann’s income, and is often admired for this from afar.

I want to read Odette’s version of all this. I want to know what her childhood was like, and whether she was a widow when she met the Verdurins. I want to know whether being a “kept woman” (and her marriage doesn’t really change that) is the life she dreamt of when she was growing up.

I definitely want to know about the “two or three” lesbian relationships (or at least sexual encounters) Odette admits to when Swann questions her about them.

Even when I soldier in with the next six volumes in the series, I doubt whether I will get any sense of what the female characters think or feel. Quel dommage.

(Note: The artist Phillippe Jullian was Proust's contemporary, and he did the cover art for my 1970 --first published 1928 -- copy of Swann's Way, but I couldn't find the image on-line.)

*Cakes à la Madeleine

On a pound of flour, you need a pound of butter, eight egg whites & yolks, three fourth of a pound of fine sugar, a half glass of water, a little grated lime, or preserved lemon rind minced very finely, orange blossomed praliné; knead the whole together, & make little cakes, that you will served iced with sugar.
Menon, Les soupers de la Cour ou L'art de travailler toutes sortes d'aliments, p.282 (1755).


  1. I'll get to Proust one of these days...

    Excellent review, Jean! And wonderful cover art.

  2. SWANN'S WAY is about as accurate a translation as you can get since, like the French original, it can refer both to the way to Swann's house and to Swann's "way" as a person, i.e. his manner and psychology.

    As for politics, the novel does get rather political at one stage, but I trust the Dreyfus affair is far enough in the past that you won't find it too upsetting. ;)

    Bonne lecture !

    1. So you're saying the phrase du côté de chez Swann, as seen in the French title, has an idiomatic/metaphorical second meaning of "in the manner of Swann," in addition to the literal meaning of "[the route that goes] toward Swann's house"? I hadn't heard that before.

    2. Yes. Chez Swann can mean Swann's house or Swann's personality. For example: Chez Swann, on trouve beaucoup de contradictions - There are a lot of contradictions in Swann. So, du côté de chez Swann can mean "Toward (an understanding of) Swann's character".

  3. I plead guilty to being one of those (a considerable throng, I suspect) who've thought of Proust entirely in regard to the scent of madeleines, since he's often cited for depicting the power of scent to trigger memory. The cover image you post certainly takes advantage of that widespread impression, and so do catalogues of fancy cooking supplies when they're offering madeleine pans for the traditional little seashell shapes. You never know what odd little image in your writing might be the one to make you immortal.

    1. I have heard that this incident actually happened to Proust, but the trigger was the smell of burnt toast, not a madeleine.

  4. Thanks for commenting, all. Jeremy, I ran across a discussion of the title "Du Cote de chez Swann" which explained the implication that "Swann's Way" suggests Swann's character as well as the route that the young narrator's family sometimes take when they are strolling around the village of Combray.
    To make a long discussion short, I'm sure Anonymous would agree that the best way to understand Proust would be to immerse oneself in French, then read him in the original. However, I suspect most English-language readers who have dipped a toe into the recherche have read the Moncrieff translations, which are sometimes quaintly Edwardian. (For example, Volume 2 was named "A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs" by Proust -- an alliterative line that literally means in the shadow of blooming young girls -- but Moncrieff calls it "Within a Budding Grove." The volume that is named Sodom and Gomorrah in the original is named "Cities of the Plain" by Moncrieff.)
    One of the implications of "A la recherche du temps perdu" is that it is not only a journey in search of lost time (i.e. the past) but time wasted, i.e. an exploration of idle pursuits.
    Apparently there are English-language audiobook versions of the whole series! My old friend told me they (tapes? CDs?) fill a shopping bag, and she has absorbed Proust by listening to them. She tells me the narrator's adult relationship with Albertine is heartbreaking, so I guess I can't stop until I get to it.
    Re the Dreyfus affair of the 1890s, I knew that Proust took a stand, and so does his narrator. The whole issue of antisemitism in French society before the German occupation of WW2, and which characters are said to be "part" Jewish (like Proust himself, who had a Jewish mother, and like Swann in the novels) is a theme that deserves another critical study. (And there probably is one.) I'll stop here. :)

    1. I really can't imagine an audio version. The work deserves to be read at a pace the prose requires. I went back, read and reread passages over and over just to savor what was in front of me. One of the few books that's wowed me at each turn of the page. Been over ten years since I read it. Big commitment.

      Funny thing- When contemporary reviews came in on his work-- about the sheer size of it, hundreds of thousands of words, sentences that go on for half a page, paragraphs that span several pages, Proust said "Yes, but it is concise."

  5. Hilarious! At one point, the narrator even imagines the reader telling him to get on with it.

  6. I've read only the first book of the series, but it took me a long time. I read about a page a day, in the way Daddy X describes, reading slowly, savoring, and rereading frequently. I think you've got some really valid points about his female characters. I also enjoyed the richness of his prose (the writing feels to me like drinking cream).

    Someone once told me that you're young as long as you still think you can get through all of Proust. So, there's that. :)


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