Tim is doing a reading of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time with a couple of our erstwhile colleagues. They’re working through it at a slow and steady pace, 20 pages or so a week, and he has been chronicling it in our newsletter. This is a record of those entries. At the moment they’re reading the first volume, The Way by Swann’s. If you want to follow along at home, this is the edition. (The second set of page numbers, marked with an asterisk, are to the Penguin Deluxe edition of the same translation. They appear from the third week onwards.)
23 July 2020 (pages 7-30)
If, like me, you have a taste for novels in which nothing much happens, these opening pages are pure delight. We learn about the narrator’s sleeping and bedtime habits, and are introduced to a few characters – including the eponymous M. Swann – and that is all. Proust has a light touch for comedy, and the dialogue is particularly good.
In the course of this we are treated to Proust’s meditations on consciousness: right off the bat, one can see why this is a philosophical novel. Writing about his sleeping habits, he includes some fine stuff on the nature of our relation to the places in which we live, and the way our minds are bound up in these places and the objects that populate them: the mind swells until it fills the whole space, Proust says, contoured to its edges and encompassing every object; and it is only when the mind fits the place in this way that we feel at home in it. (There’s a particularly excellent passage about the strangeness of sleeping in a new bedroom.) Apropos of M. Swann, who leads a more exciting social life than the narrator’s family care to believe, we get some reflections on the nature of the self, and particularly the extent to which we are all bound up in the (mis-)conceptions others have of us: ‘None of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go to look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others.’ (This is on page 22.) And he goes on, wonderfully, but it’s much too much to quote in full.
Reading aloud is frequently daunting, because I have all the wrong instincts for French, and there are (surprise!) quite a few French names. C’est la vie!
29 July 2020 (pages 30-50)
The episode that occupied us this week concerned young Marcel and his desire to have a kiss goodnight from his mother. M. Swann having popped by for dinner, Marcel is sent to bed earlier than usual, and denied his customary goodnight kiss from Mama by his father, who finds him a bit needy. He lies awake in bed, fulminating, unable to sleep, and hits on the idea of sending a note to her downstairs. What pains him, in part, is the sense of separation and distance, of not being a part of her consciousness as she is part of his; and when the servant takes the note downstairs he experiences a thrill: ‘Now I was no longer separated from her; the barriers were down, an exquisite thread joined us. And that was not all: Mama would probably come!’
But she doesn’t come, and he experiences further anguish at being rebuffed. Proust’s description of what happens next so beautifully captures that feeling of agitation when one is in a state of heightened emotion, drawn inexorably on by some course of action one senses won’t end well. Marcel decides to wait on the stairs for his mother to come to bed. He knows that his parents will punish him severely, but he cannot resist. At the time he didn’t understand it, he tells us, but his parents were particularly harsh in punishing acts that stemmed from ‘yielding to a nervous impulse’: ‘But at the time nobody uttered this word, no one revealed this cause, which might have made me believe I was excusable for succumbing to them or even perhaps incapable of resisting them. But I recognised them clearly from the anguish that preceded them as well as from the rigour of the punishment that followed them.’ How does that do for an image of human frailty, need, and the consequent fear of harsh judgement: a small boy, waiting anxiously on the stairs for his mother, knowing he shouldn’t but somehow unable not to, fearing the retribution of his angry parents?
Miraculously, the axe never falls. His father, seeing how sad he looks, proposes Mama spend the night in Marcel’s room. The reader can’t help but share in his delight.
6 August 2020 (pages 51-75 / 49-74*)
This week’s reading was dominated by Marcel’s aunt, and Proust’s talent for conjuring personalities was everywhere in evidence. Aunt Léonie is a recluse, living in just two rooms of her house: her bedroom for most of the time, and a little adjoining sitting room in which she spends a few hours a day while her bedroom is aired. She is fierce and she is false, maintaining (for example) a pretense that she never sleeps, and forcing the rest of the family to adopt euphemisms about her going for some ‘reflective quiet’ (not, definitely not, an afternoon nap); if she slips and says something about a dream she’s had, woe to him who doesn’t tactfully let it slide. She has few visitors, for anyone who makes the mistake of either (a) suggesting some exercise would be good for her, or (b) agreeing with her when she complains of how ill she is, is never invited back. Her maid, whom she terrorises, takes this as evidence of her superiority. She spends all day watching the activity in the street outside her window, regularly calling on her maid to supply any relevant gossip and to assist in speculating about what so-and-so might be up to or where s/he might be going. Francoise, the maid, mindful of the time, anxiously waits to be released so that she can get back to preparing a meal that had better not be late. Aunt Léonie is particularly nonplussed when she sees a woman wander beneath her window carrying a basket of thicker, nicer asparagus than her maid has come home with. Poor Francoise!
28 August 2020 (pages 75-101 / 74-101*)
This week, a number of characters came into view only to fade away, apparently for good. Marcel’s great uncle, ‘friend’ of actresses and courtesans, notorious for giving away family valuables to the young women who call on him, is forever estranged from the family after he accidentally introduces Marcel to a young woman for whom he (Marcel) develops a burning passion. Then Bloch, an older friend of Marcel’s, is banished from the house after he suggests that he has it on good authority that Marcel’s great aunt was quite saucy in her youth. Poor Bloch: he’s a wonderfully comic invention, insisting (for example), after he comes to the house soaked to the skin, that he couldn’t possibly tell them whether it was raining or not: ‘I live so resolutely beyond physical contingencies that my senses do not bother to notify me of them.’
But the best stuff in these pages is about the power and appeal of literature, especially pages 86-7. Proust notes that other people are always at a distance from us — we only come to know them through our senses, and our fellow-feeling for them (which is to say, the way we sympathise with them, and feel what they feel) is always dependent on the image we have of them: ‘A real human being, however profoundly we sympathise with him, in large part is perceived by our senses, that is to say, remains opaque to us, offers a dead weight that our sensibility cannot lift.’ Literature — especially the novel — establishes this image for us with an immediacy that can make the ‘fake’ characters seem so much more real, so much closer to us, than real people do: ‘The [first] novelist’s happy discovery was to have the idea of replacing these parts, impenetrable to the soul, by an equal quantity of immaterial parts, that is to say, parts which our soul can assimilate.’ What happens to a character happens within us; what happens to someone else happens to them.
11 September 2020 (pages 101-127 / 101-128*)
This week we got more of Aunt Léonie and her maid, Francoise. I have already commented on Léonie’s fierce and false character; what has now become clear is that she and Francoise deserve each other. Francoise, it turns out, is mightily cruel, especially to those in her power. Among those who visit the house, she resents those of higher station their superiority; she resents those who are on her level for thinking themselves her equal; and she despises those beneath her. In the way she treats her subordinates, Proust compares her to a wasp, which subjects its prey to unimaginable torments so that its young will have fresh meat to feed on when they hatch; similarly, he says, Francoise subjects the domestic servants under her authority to terrible torments in order to feed her cruel desires. An example: one summer she feeds the family asparagus nearly every day; it turns out later that the reason for this menu choice was that it provoked violent asthma attacks in one of the kitchen maids.
One episode was a remarkable study in the psychology of sympathy. Francoise is woken in the night by the cries of a pregnant kitchen maid, who is suffering from cramps. Insisting that ‘the girl’ just wants to be ‘the centre of attention’, she is nonetheless sent to look for the medical book that the doctor had told them to consult in the case of just such an attack. Some time later, she still hasn’t returned; when finally tracked down, she is sitting and weeping over the horrible torments described in the book — but, when taken back upstairs and confronted with a real live person suffering from precisely those torments, she immediately grows cold. It is as though she can only feel sympathy in the abstract; she cannot imagine her way inside anyone actually present to her.
18 September 2020 (pages 127-151 / 128-153*)
This week Proust spent a lot of time discussing flowers — at great length — and it got me thinking about the relation between reader and narrator. The focus of this flower-narration was a walk young Marcel takes with his father and grandfather through the park of M. Swann, and the park is in full bloom. Marcel has his eye out for a different kind of bloom, Mlle. Swann, for whom he has a fancy, but what ultimately obsesses him are the flowers, especially the hawthorn. I, too, enjoy a walk in the park, especially if the flowers are out, but it is not like this: he appreciates them as one would a work of art: ‘Then I came back to stand in front of the hawthorns,’ he writes, ‘as you do in front of those masterpieces which, you think, you will be able to see more clearly when you have stopped looking at them for a moment, but although I formed a screen for myself with my hands so that I would have only them before my eyes, the feeling they awakened in me remained obscure and vague, seeking in vain to detach itself, to come and adhere to their flowers. They did not help me to clarify it, and I could not ask other flowers to satisfy it.’ His grandfather calls him further up the path, where there are pink hawthorns which, he says, fill him with the same joy one feels on seeing a work by a favourite painter that is different to the ones one already knows. And this is what prompted me to think about reader and narrator, and to reflect on the gap between how I experience flowers on a walk, as a pleasant part of the scenery, and how Marcel does, as a passion: reading his account, I felt a shadow of his pleasure; and it conjured an obscure yearning to be more like him (although I doubt it will stick).
There was also an excellent passage on the magic of names. Marcel has a fancy for Mlle. Swann, as I have said; he cannot express or address this directly, to the extent of not even being able to utter her surname, so he resorts to the subterfuge of bringing her up obliquely, by pretending to forget or misremember facts pertaining to other members of her family. He will deliberately say something incorrect about her father, or her grandfather, prompting his own father to correct him: ‘No, that appointment belonged to Swann’s father, that hedge is part of Swann’s park.’ Each time he derives the thrill of hearing the name of his beloved spoken aloud, although the speaker knows not that he has uttered it.
25 September 2020 (pages 151-171 / 153-174*)
We have, for the last few weeks, followed the peregrinations of Marcel’s mind as he reflected on one of the two walks he and his family would take from their house in Combray, the walk that passed by Swann’s garden (hence The Way by Swann’s). But now he has moved on to thinking about the other walk, which passes by the Guermantes estate (and lends its name to one of the later novels, The Guermantes Way); and one of his musings meanders onto the topic of sadism. One hot afternoon he falls asleep near a house on the Guermantes way, and wakes to find himself concealed but awkwardly close to the drawing room window of one Mlle. Vinteuil, whose father has recently passed away. The final years of his life were spent in vigorous denial of his daughter’s lesbianism, which caused a rift between them. Mlle. Vinteuil is a kind and gentle young woman, but Marcel (unable to move away from the window without calling attention to himself) witnesses a scene in which, by means of a scenario she has evidently planned out in advance, she encourages her girlfriend to spit on a photograph of her father. Marcel reflects that this particular species of sadism is the province of a sentimental nature, one naturally inclined to kindness and care, but one that also experiences these inclinations as a shackling and as a barrier to pleasure. When such a nature gives itself up to pleasure, which it associates with cruelty, it goes about it with a deliberateness and artistry which would be absent if callousness were simply natural to it. ‘When they allow themselves to yield to it for a moment,’ Marcel says, ‘they are trying to step into the skin of the wicked and to make their partner do so as well, so as to have the illusion, for a moment, of escaping from their scrupulous and tender soul into the inhuman world of pleasure.’ He adds: ‘And I understood how much she longed for it when I saw how impossible it was for her to succeed in it.’
3 October 2020 (pages 171-198 / 174-203*)
This week’s reading straddled a great divide: we rounded out Part I, ‘Combray’, and proceeded to Part II, ‘Swann in Love’. The ending to Part I was nicely done, for it recalled us to the fact that it had begun, nearly 200 pages earlier, with a meditation on falling asleep and waking up; the whole thing had been a wash of memories prompted by Marcel’s obsession with his bedrooms. One of the finest things in those closing pages concerned the power of celebrity: an encounter, at a distance, with Mme de Guermantes, the local noblewoman, whom Marcel spies sitting in little Combray’s church during a service. (Marcel is on the cusp of adolescence at this point.) What strikes him at first is how normal she looks, her cheeks flushed as though (like an ordinary mortal) she were feeling the heat; the dissonance of how she looks against how he’d imagined leads him to realise that he’d always imagined her as though depicted in a stained glass window or a tapestry. But his mind rebels; hearing others nearby whispering about how pretty she is relative to various local women, even though the comparisons are favourable to her, he is outraged that people would dare even hold her in the same thought as a normal person. After accidentally making eye contact when she looks around the room, he escapes into a fantasy in which she registered him with the same intensity with which he registered her, and that she’ll return home preoccupied and wondering who he is.
‘Swann in Love’ is a novella within the broader novel, and has actually been published as a standalone book by those enterprising folks at Oxford Classics. It takes us back to a time before Marcel’s birth: he is narrating an episode in the life of the eponymous M. Swann, friend of his parents and grandparents, whom we have already met. We’re only a few pages in so far, but the style is already very different from what went before: more conventional, as a novel, less inward, and Proust’s talent for social comedy is very much at the fore. Expect more detail next week, when I am better oriented.
9 October 2020 (pages 198-216 / 203-221*)
Right: I promised a taste of Proust’s talent for comedy, so let’s see if it will survive translation into paraphrase. Among the new milieu to which Swann has been introduced is Dr. Cottard. The good doctor is never sure how to take people, and is forever worried that he will be dismissed as naïve if he takes a joke seriously, or as ironical if he laughs at something serious. So he always tries to wear an expression that is simultaneously shrewd and serious, deadpan but with a twinkle in his eye — and as a result nobody ever knows quite how to take him. When he is introduced to Swann, Swann bristles because Cottard winks and smiles at him ambiguously (a hedging move Cottard likes to call ‘wait and see’), and he interprets this to mean that Cottard recognises him from a ‘house of pleasure’; he cannot believe the effrontery of alluding to such an encounter in the presence of the young woman Swann is pursuing. I don’t know if I’m supposed to take him this way, but I find him both amusing and distressingly relatable: isn’t everyone, at least some of the time, unsure of how to present themselves, and prone to Cottard-style social hedging, laughing (just in case) at half-heard remarks, frowning and sympathising in response to mis-understood jokes — and, knowing this is an ever-present danger, often feeling more or less paranoid about it?
Also in these pages: life and music. Young Swann has been living a free and easy life, not committed to any particular ideals or projects, and consequently not giving to his life any overall form. But he hears a piece of music that strikes him so profoundly, he finds its structure and its development so moving, that it awakens in him a desire for order in himself. John Clarke (yes, the John Clarke) says of music that it teaches us to take pleasure in repetition; Proust suggests that it also teaches us to take pleasure in order. But then one remembers Nietzsche’s counter-claim, that the pleasure of music lies precisely in the way it infiltrates and breaks down the rigid, ordered self, letting loose the energies that are otherwise repressed. Oh, the things it can do.
16 October 2020 (pages 216-234 / 221-239*)
Each week I try to find two points of interest to write about, and this week’s reading really delivered. Both points are supplied by M. Swann.
First, the question of how we see people — by which I mean, quite literally, our visual or aesthetic experience of them. Swann has been pursuing Odette, the young woman referred to previously. Being quite a visual person, and a devotee of the visual arts, he experiences a terrible conflict: he likes her, but doesn’t care for the way she looks. She is attractive, but not his type; another way of putting this is that her particular flaws are not ones that leave him unmoved. But one day he notices the resemblance between her and that of Zipporah in a painting by Botticelli, and everything changes.
He no longer appraised Odette’s face according to the finer or poorer quality of her cheeks and the purely flesh-coloured softness he supposed he must find when he touched them with his lips if ever he dared to kiss her, but as a skein of subtle and beautiful lines that his eyes reeled off, following the curve of their winding, joining the cadence of her nape to the effusion of her hair and the flexion of her eyelids, as in a portrait of her in which her type became intelligible and clear.p. 226
Proust goes on to say of Swann that ‘he felt happy that his pleasure in seeing Odette could be justified by his own aesthetic culture.’ There’s something so plausible, and so monstrous, about a man who can realise that his chief pleasure in a woman is a reflection of something he likes in himself.
Now, second. There is an episode in ‘Swann in Love’ that is only a page or so in length, but which constitutes the only very vivid memory I have from a failed attempt to read In Search of Lost Time a decade ago. Swann has arrived late at the Verdurin’s, but Odette is not there. (He has been busy fooling around with his regular working girl.) She is supposed to be at a certain café, so he rushes there, but she is nowhere to be found. He and his coachman spend the evening scouring every restaurant and café in Paris for her, and Swann grows more and more disturbed, but she is nowhere to be found. Swann is lost and distraught, and this cements and intensifies those feelings he has had for Odette. It prompts this observation on love from Proust (from pp. 233-234):
Of all love’s modes of production, of all the disseminating agents of the holy evil, surely one of the most efficacious is this great breath of agitation which sometimes blows down on us. Then the die is cast, and the person whose company we enjoy at the time is the one who we will love. It is not even necessary for us to have liked him better than anyone else up to then, or even as much. What is necessary is that our predilection for him should become exclusive. And that condition is fulfilled when — at a moment like this, when we do not have him with us — the quest for the pleasures that his charm gave us is suddenly replaced in us by an anxious need whose object is this person himself, an absurd need which the laws of this world make impossible to satisfy and difficult to cure — the senseless and painful need to possess him.
This is worth pondering, not least that connection between love and anxiety. (We also noted and discussed the shift to the masculine pronoun here, where one would have expected the feminine.)
23 October 2020 (pages 234-253 / 239-260*)
Oh, M. Swann: he’s a worry. The die, as Proust has said, is cast, and poor Swann is obsessed. On the evening on which he’s been ranging over Paris, searching and searching for Odette, he finally bumps into her, unexpectedly, on the street. He drives her home in his carriage, and makes his move by way of offering to rearrange the flowers on her dress. The flowers are cattleyas, and seeing as Proust attaches such importance to floral matters, here’s what they look like:
From this evening onwards Swann visits Odette nightly, and they adopt, as their preferred euphemism for what they get up to on these visits, ‘making cattleya’. Proust suggests that, rather than being a mere euphemism, the appeal of this expression for Swann is that his experience with Odette is so different, so far beyond anything he’s experienced with any other woman, that it needs a new language; ‘make love’ just will not do.
But there is soon trouble in paradise. The trouble is that Swann finds Odette intellectually disappointing, and the feeling is mutual. Her ideas about the creative process, for example, he finds both wrong and excessively romanticised, so that if he tries to give her (what he thinks is) a truer account of how artists work she finds it disturbing and boring; thus he inclines towards silence in her company, which leads her in turn to find that he is reserved on intellectual matters and frequently taciturn and boring in conversation. Odette much prefers the company of the young men whom she meets at dinner parties who, while lacking very precise ideas about things, are nonetheless able to express themselves volubly and with confidence. Proust’s deftness in handling this relationship reveals itself in the way that one can see so clearly how the feelings of the one are a response to the other.
Meanwhile, their regular dinner hosts, the Verdurins, are beginning to turn on Swann for his connections to other social circles, and his less than total commitment to their own little set. Call me crazy, but I don’t see this ending well…