These notes cover Volume One, Swann's Way, to the end of "Swann in Love."
A spirited night. A provocative discussion.
As one member of our group memorably characterized it on her way out the door: "That was spicy!"
The "Swann in Love" chapter elicited a wide variety of responses, as well as some interesting disagreements.
So here we go. I'll do my best to recall the flow of the conversation. As always, please offer any improvements or additions in the comments section below!
1. Léa's "French" Presentation
Léa justified not having read all the way to the end of Swann in Love by insisting that a "French" presentation classically requires two things: 1) knowing very little about the subject upon which you speak, and 2) saying nothing of substance -- but saying it with complete confidence.
After that funny introduction, she then proceeded to play us a CD that she had brought, which contained an excerpt from Swann in Love read by a famous French actor (I have forgotten his name... will someone please add it to the comments below?).
Léa pushed play, and this actor's low, soothing, well-trained voice (no dentalized "t"s! no whistling "s"s!) poured over us like... a rich crème brulee. (Perhaps this is not quite the right image? It was actually very pleasurable.) He read from Proust's description of the first meeting between Odette and Swann.
After about five minutes Léa brought the volume down. Renée disappeared upstairs to explain those rumbling bass tones to our children. And the discussion began in earnest.
Some members of the group commented on how "romantic," even seductive, Proust sounded when read aloud by a professional. Yann observed that those long Proustian sentences, which often frustrate him as he reads, were surprisingly easy to follow in this actor's slow and rhythmic reading.
Léa mentioned that her experience as a reader of In Search of Lost Time makes her feel like a passenger on a train: the car rattles forward for some time, then lurches backwards, then starts forward again. At many points on the trip, as she gazes out the window at the passing scenery, she has no idea where she is going. Nor does she have a picture in her mind of the station that awaits her at the end of the line. Halfway through the Combray chapter, though, Léa said she learned simply to put her faith in the engineer (imagine M. Proust in a blue-and-white striped cap!). She stopped trying to anticipate, and this helped her enjoy herself more.
So Léa urged us to trust the engineer and the tracks. Being a Californian, I urged Yann to try "surfing" the sentences, to think of them as waves, and not to get hung up in the intricacies of their grammar. Marie-José countered, quite rightly however, that the reader of Proust also needs to consider carefully each phrase, each punctuation mark, "to the letter".
I'm afraid our collective advice to Yann may not have been very helpful; it seems each reader needs to find his or her own way. I have no doubt that Yann, with his usual determination, will find his very own Proustian groove in the end.
2. The Question of Swann
From these more technical considerations -- how to approach Proust's sentences, the rhythm of the language -- we moved abruptly on to a more blunt question: What is M. Swann's problem anyway?
Heather was the one who led us there. First she noted that her concerns about the affectation of some of Proust's prose (which, you will recall, she had detected in the Narrator's attachment to his "beloved hawthorns" in the Combray chapter) had returned with a vengeance as she read Swann in Love. To Heather, Swann's anguish, his doubts, his behavior, convey a quality of "preciousness". She characterized this middle-aged man as a privileged "narcissist", living a "purposeless" life.
Renée, back from having tucked the kids in one last time, took issue with the description of Swann as a narcissist. She suggested, to the contrary, that he is merely "lost" or better yet, "stuck". His essay on Vermeer gathers dust; he is tired of the repetitious gatherings and endless status-mongering of his wealthy friends; he is seeking something new and true. (Heather, to her great credit, retracted the term "narcissist" at this point, agreeing that such a term should not be applied too broadly. Self-interested, then?)
Renée elaborated a little more on her very different view of Swann's predicament. To her, Swann's experience of falling for Odette was merely incidental to his prior encounter with art. In Renée's reading, it is of critical importance that Swann encountered that "little phrase" of Vinteuil's, which struck him as "random, fragile, melancholy, incessant, sweet" (SW, 296), before he ever met Odette. He is described as having felt immediately, upon hearing it, "the possibility of a sort of rejuvination" (SW, 296). He becomes obsessed with hearing it again, but cannot find it. So when he hears it a year later at Mme Verdurin's salon, in the company of Odette, a transference occurs, Renée thinks, wherein Swann's aspiration towards a "wholly different life" (contained, mystically for him, in this musical phrase) attaches in his mind to the person of Odette.
Thus Swann, an idle aristocrat no doubt, but an unusually intelligent and sensitive one, finds through Odette a connection to something universal. This is the artist's perspective on Swann's obsession -- that it represents a step towards the light, something almost divine. It is counter to the political perspective on Swann, that he is accustomed to exploiting others by way of his wealth and status, and Odette represents merely another object to make his own.
I spoke up here to say that I agreed with Renée's insight of how significant it is that the "little phrase" came first, and that Swann struck me too as more lost or stuck, rather than someone who is irredeemably selfish and poisoned by privilege. Yet I don't think it ends there, I added. In my reading of this love affair, once Swann attaches his dreams to Odette (I think of Yeats here: "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams"), however well-intentioned, he takes a wrong turn.
My sense as I read this chapter was that this opening up that Swann initially experiences -- what Proust calls his "sort of rejuvination" -- quickly closes down when he tries to possess Odette. He follows the fatal impulse to hold time still, to own another person's heart, and this drains out of him the oceanic feeling that first drew him to Odette.
But let's go directly to Proust and see how he sees it. Here is Swann madly trying to track down the "little phrase" (a year before he even meets Odette):
"But now, like a confirmed invalid in whom, all of a sudden, a change of air and surroundings, or a new course of treatment, or sometimes an organic change in himself, spontaneous and unaccountable, seems to have brought about such an improvement in this health that he begins to envisage the possibility, hitherto beyond all hope, of starting to lead belatedly a wholly different life, Swann found in himself, in the memory of the phrase that he had heard, in certain other sonatas which he had made people play to him to see whether he might not perhaps discover his phrase therein, the presence of one of those invisible realities in which he had ceased to believe and to which, as though the music had had upon the moral barrenness from which he was suffering a sort of re-creative influence, he was conscious once again of the desire and almost the strength to consecrate his life" (SW, 290).
He feels the presence of an "invisible reality" to which he may find "the strength to consecrate his life". This sounds promising. Then, a year later, he hears this same music, played on the piano at the Verdurins...
"[N]ow, at last, he could ask the name of his fair unknown (and was told that it was the andante of Vinteuil's sonata for piano and violin); he held it safe, could have it again to himself, at home, as often as he wished, could study its language and acquire its secret" (SW, 299).
Here we are starting to hear the language of possession: to "have it again to himself, at home, as often as he wished..." sounds downright sordid. You want to look away.
Odette, who has made him feel special, who (like the musical phrase) has so often left a smile on his lips after their meetings, becomes more and more someone whom he wants to have again to himself, at home, as often as he wished. Over time, even Vinteuil's sonata takes on a different quality for Swann, not one of liberation but of ritualistic, almost mechanistic identification:
"... the pianist would play to them -- for their two selves -- the little phrase by Vinteuil which was, so to speak, the national anthem of their love... but Swann thought he could now discern in it some disenchantment. It seemed to be aware how vain, how hollow was the happiness to which it showed the way. In its airy grace there was the sense of something over and done with" (SW, 308).
Now the music and the intimations of love are slipping away, and this development only makes him want to grip both of them more tightly:
"[Now] he contemplated the little phrase less in its own light... than as a pledge, a token of his love, which made even the Verdurins and their young pianist think of Odette at the same time as himself -- which bound her to him by a lasting tie" (SW, 309).
Swann, owning so many material things, wants to own this feeling of opening to the world, like a jewel which a thief might pocket. Not recognizing its "airy grace" for its essential quality, he wants to make his awakening a tangible possession.
3. The Politics Beneath It All
Despite her retraction of the charge of narcissism against Swann, Heather's other condemnations of him still lingered with us. Privileged... Self-interested... A "purposeless life".
A similar tone of disgust crept into Yann and Dirk's following remarks about their general lack of interest in the chapter. Yann said he wondered as he read whether Proust shared his derision at these wealthy, superficial, silly characters, the whole lot of them. He finds himself put off, above all, by their immaturity. When at one point I mentioned with a laugh that perhaps, back in college, we all experienced that sense of triumph after a break up that Swann expresses with the last line of the chapter ("To think that I've wasted years of my life [and she] wasn't even my type!" SW, 543), Yann exclaimed, "Yeah, we all experienced that, and then we turned 19!"
In his view Swann is so far beneath him as not to merit interest. Dirk echoed this, expressing his disappointment over the falling off he felt from the Combray chapter's descriptive beauty -- the sun reflecting off the lake, the white hats like porcelain, etc. To him Swann just needed to "get a job!" Dirk confessed that as he read he felt like writing "WTF" over and over again in the margins, so great was his boredom and dismay.
Wow. I was stunned. My question, addressed to Yann and Dirk: Is it the social milieu of the novel that troubles you so much, or something else? Of course Swann is an aristocrat, living in turn of the century Paris. Of course, as Karl Marx noted in reflecting on the "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!" cry of the French Revolution, certain values are reserved for those who already have their basic needs met. (I would add to the French Republic's tripartite motto, which Marx ascribed to the bourgeosie, the motto of an artistically-inclined aristocrat like Swann: "Aesthetic Detail! Ecstatic Experience! Courtesy!") Resources, however unjustly distributed, provide access to a certain set of values.
Yet these values are accessible, I would argue, to any human being under certain circumstances. In this sense they are universal. Sure, they may be superfluous for many, but they are a part of the human experience, and I believe that they are worthy of reflection.
I came back hard at Yann in particular. Look, I argued, you sound as if you should be writing for Pravda, back in Stalinist Russia in the 1940s. You will go far, comrade! Reviewers back then, party hacks, routinely condemned anything that smacked of aristocratic languor, effete concerns for truth or beauty. Soviet artists should represent the simple, compelling concerns of working men and women: bread, duty, labor. They should prioritize real-world events over the filigreed concerns of the capitalist elite.
If you want art that examines the political and economic substructures of our lives, there are many brilliant options. I think immediately of Bertolt Brecht, for example. Or Goya. One of my favorite contemporary writers is George Saunders. But to dismiss Proust's characters wholesale because they are products of this aristocratic culture -- or to insist that Swann simply needs to "get a job!" -- that seems defensive, or at the very least close-minded, to me.
Yann said it wasn't the social milieu that was the problem. It was the fact that Swann, and Proust's Narrator for that matter, are so caught up in their own thoughts and unstable emotions, that it strikes him as la vie mondiane (do I have that right?), a product of gossipy high society, and a big bore. "What do you want," I asked, growing red in the face, "More action? You should go read a spy thriller!" (Yann, I get worked up. Forgive me my enthusiasms.)
4. Taking Sides Between Swann and Odette
This debate over the intrinsic superficiality of Swann and his set tied to another topic of discussion as well. We all agreed that as readers it is not useful for us to sit in judgment of the characters. As Nabokov so often pointed out to his American readers, there is no need to personally inset yourself into a novel; it exists as a world of its own, a fictional creation in which you are free to explore without judgment. Readers looking for heroes or heroines or, worst of all, "sincerity" drove him crazy.
Sure, Nabokov. Okay. We got you.
Nonetheless, the story of Swann and Odette (not unlike contemporary romantic comedies -- 27 Dresses anyone?) invites taking sides. It is structured somewhat like a match of wits. On one side you have the attractive courtesan, who has been sexually exploited by various men since was a very young girl, who is no doubt suffering from deep trauma (as Heather pointed out), in desperate need of financial resources, at a lowly station in life, a hardened survivor: Odette. On the other side you have the wealthy dilettante, the confirmed bachelor who collects art and drops witticisms at social gatherings, who is adrift and looking for meaning in his life: Swann. The chapter traces the arc of their meeting, their love affair, and its dissolution. Who's to blame? Who won? Who lost? These are unavoidable questions.
In fact, as I pointed out in the meeting, the final interrogation of Odette by Swann, in its brutality, its play-acting, its clash of world views, reminded me of the justly famous, extended interrogation in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Swann struck me as the member of the secret police, interrogating this parasite of society, this enemy of History with a capital "H", Odette. Yet you could reverse the analogy too. Odette embodies the hard-knuckled forces of power; Swann, the fading ideals of love, consigned to the dustbin. There are, as always in Proust, multiple perspectives available to us.
Heather clearly blamed Swann, this selfish, unthinking cad. She sympathized with Odette. Although I would never raise him up as a paragon of love, I expressed more sympathy for Swann, who after all is hoping that he and Odette share something special and unique between them (even if it is only on his terms), whereas she never even contemplates such a ludicrous notion. Marie-José insisted that Swann's station in life, his aristocratic social class, precluded him from considering marriage with Odette. I argued against this, reminding her that Proust explicitly writes about Swann's rejection of the snobbery of his friends. Jennifer pointed out that there is no doubt of the shame and snobbery directed at Proust and his lowly marriage, when we encounter it in the Combray chapter. To which I replied, yes, no doubt, but Swann pointedly does not share in such snobbery when we meet him with Odette at the Verdurins. His strongest animus is towards the Comte de Forcheville, who is after all an aristocrat like himself.
Odette, we might note, was "impressed by [Swann's] indiffernce to money, by his kindness to everyone, by his courtesy and tact" (SW, 342). Swann, according to Proust,
"had, indeed, one of the advantages which men who have lived and moved in society enjoy over those, however intelligent, who have not, namely that they no longer see it transfigured by the longing or repulsion which it inspires, but regard it as no importance. Their good nature, freed from all taint of snobbishness and from the fear of seeiming too friendly, grown independent, in fact, has the ease, the grace of movement of a trained gymnast" (SW, 285).
In the end though, Marie-José and I agreed that, even if not conclusive, Swann surely has a residue of class-consciousness which would make him resist the idea of marrying Odette despite his lack of open snobbery.
Pascale commented, near the end of the meeting, having absorbed the discussion, that she found herself thinking of Swann as one of those people who connect best to art, whether writing, painting, or music, but have a difficult time connecting to real people, flesh and blood human beings. It is true that Proust describes the way the Verdurins "very quickly sensed in [Swann] a locked door, a reserved, impenetrable chamber in which he still professed silently to himself..." But I argued that this is not because of an emotional reserve, a failure to connect to others in general. After all, Proust insists that Swann's behavior is more the result of his "resistance to complete conversion, the like of which they had never come across in anyone before" (SW, 354). M. Verdurin may condemn him as "never definitely fish nor fowl," but
"In reality there was not one of the 'faithful' [of the Verdurins' salon] who was not infinitely more malicious than Swann; but they all took the precaution of tempering their calumnies with obvious pleasantries, with little sparks of emotion and cordiality..." (SW, 377).
5. What Swann in Love is Doing in the Novel as a Whole
Dirk asked the group to comment on what we thought this chapter was doing in the novel. Jeff responded that perhaps it is intended ironically -- a kind of cautionary tale about love. We start with the innocence of Gilberte and her freckled face, and the childlike sense of wonder she evokes for Proust's Narrator. But then we get into middle-school, as it were: with all of the social ups and downs, the exclusivity, the cruelty, the lies, the queen bees and social climbers, that such a setting entails. A number of people in group, including Yann and Nathalie, wondered whether Swann in Love might be a stage along the way in a progression towards an understanding of a deeper love. I was skeptical of this view, simply because I do not recognize a huge gap between the familiar pretensions and masks and machinations of the characters in Swann in Love and adult society. I think we are too quick to push that away as "middle-school stuff". Heather commented on the cynicism of Proust towards his characters, but to me he is accurate, and his descriptions, although harsh, are so compelling that they open my heart towards the people I know in my own life, with all of their quirks and habits. (I have attended holiday parties with a more generous spirit this season, having spent so much in the company of Proust these last weeks.)
6. Last Comments
Feeling terrible for having gotten myself so worked up, having managed to insult my dear friend Yann by calling him a Soviet hack propagandist who should go read spy thrillers, having found myself in a face-off with the intrepid and formidable Marie-José over the question of Swann's snobbery, I came to my senses near the end of the meeting and inquired whether anyone who had not spoken would like to say something. Thank god, because their comments were deeply insightful.
Francoise commented that she had enjoyed Swann in Love very much. She was fascinated by the way that we change according to our social circumstances and the pressures on us. Swann starts in one mode -- as the decorous, generous-minded, tactful aristocrat, without snobbery, attending his friend Odette's literary salon on a whim. And soon he is a possessive, disheveled wreck of a man, paranoid, jealous, suspicious. Odette starts with a coquettish quality, warming Swann to his work, encouraging him, very much in command of herself, and then she grows cold and irritable, disdainful and suddenly lustful. The lack of fixity that Proust recognizes in all of us is frightening:
"For what we suppose to be our love or our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion. It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multiplicity they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity" (SW, 529).
Nathalie Valette spoke to the way it struck her that so much of Swann's experience stems from his mind, as if he has not integrated his thoughts into his body. On the phone today she also noted that his sense of being lost, being adrift, might come from his Jewish identity too. He can perhaps never be accepted fully in Parisian society. And to the extent that his family has converted to Christianity this represents a trauma of its own, a denial of his cultural heritage.
Finally, Rachel made the excellent observation that many of the descriptions and passages in Swann in Love are hilarious. Dr. Cottard's attempts at word-play; Mme Verdurin's throwing her jaw out of place by the forced suppression of her fake laughter; Swann's desperate, almost slapstick attempts to find out if Odette has a visitor on the night she does not answer to his knock; his peering at the letter through its envelope. So many of these events and characters are true to life and absurd all at once.
Well, we talked about much more of course, but I'll leave it there for now. Thank you all so much for coming, for engaging your minds and opening your hearts, for your willingness to grapple with this, all of us together. Spicy evenings are good. Harmonious evenings are good. Let us continue and have ever more exotically seasoned evenings as we read and meet.