Monday, 16 January 2012

Swann's Way

Swann's Way - Marcel Proust

In which our author remembers his obsessive love for his mother and how it coloured his days and more particularly nights  - How the visits of M Swann affected this - How M Swann was plucked from his life as a jaded socialite by the firm hand of a musical Cupid and the treacherous journey that ensued - How the narrator found in Swann's daughter a vessel for his attentions - and much else besides...

It's not often that you read a book that gave birth to an adjective - I can now understand Proustian as something more than a set of preconceptions. Like the molecules that stimulate the olfactory system, and sometimes memories, Proust's sentences (building slowly and leisurely,  clause following clause, exploring the least sensation and smallest moments in high seriousness) are complex constructions. At first I was tempted to apply the adjective Prousty, finding the writing and subject matter overly precious but gradually the book wove it's spell and started to reveal a guiding intelligence which was as much at home in irony and satire as in rhapsodic remembering of the smallest twitch of a swooning adolescent.

The book explores the process of seeing and remembering and how our preconceptions and experience shade all that we experience, and also shade how we are seen. "But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people. Even the simple act of "seeing someone we know" is, to some extent, an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place."

Famously, the taste of a "petit madelaine" and some tea releases an "all powerful joy" which is eventually a direct route to his early memories. "The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect." So we have a pendulum between what we see intellectually and sensually.

The opening chapter is titled 'Overture' and the influence of music on the book is striking. Clearly this volume is just a step on the way through the whole sequence of books but already I have begun to see how people and events are developed like themes in a symphony, being introduced and then developed in a number of different ways, but re-emerging throughout the work. Knowing that the feelings and opinions expressed in one section will probably be contextualised and altered as the book progresses changed my attitude to them and allowed me to just go with the writing, which is indeed exquisite. (I'm reading the Moncrieff translation) Proust brings elements of the story to apparent conclusions only to let us know that they are not concluded by the introduction of some new information, often very briefly.

I have previously posted on one of the descriptions of artworks (Giotto's Charity & Envy), and music is similarly described at length. Indeed, it is music which awakens the feelings in Swann that make an opening for love to enter his heart and music is the very heartbeat of much of his relationship. It is this music and his beloved Odette's similarity to a face from a Botticelli that seems more the basis for the relationship than anything else. In his mind he phrases his visits to her as "the study of an inestimably precious work of art, cast for once in a new, a different, an especially charming metal." Music works on the part of his mind not poisoned to fresh beginnings. "..for him whose eyes, although delicate interpreters of painting, whose mind, although an acute observer of manners, must bear forever the indelible imprint of the barrenness of his life, - to feel himself transformed into a creature foreign to humanity, blinded, deprived of his logical faculty, almost a fantastic unicorn, a chimaera-like creature conscious of the world through his two ears alone."

Pillars of Society by George Grosz
My favourite scene in the book is a society party attended by Swann. It starts with much pomp and ceremony, reflecting the customs of a dying era, with footmen and stewards and other domestics like a "scattered pack of splendid effortless animals." Swann, we are told, sees society like "a series of pictures." While reading this scene I felt like Proust was moving me through a brief history of art, and society. Outside the figures are like heroes from the distant past, one in particular like he was "sprung from" a "vanished race", "a classical statue" or  "Albert Durer's Saxons." Some of the more senior staff, we are told, "might tomorrow lapse to the plebeian service of some successful doctor or industrial magnate." The end of feudalism is hinted here, I feel. We move through people who seem to have stepped from Goya and Cellini and other masterpieces through the doors of the ballroom and Swann's perspective changes - "He speedily recovered his sense of of the general ugliness of the human male when, on the other side of the tapestry curtain, the spectacle of the servants gave place to that of the guests. But even this ugliness of faces, which of course were mostly familiar to him, seemed something new and uncanny, now that their features" "were at rest, measurable by aesthetic co-ordinates alone, in the autonomy of their curves and angles." Autonomous curves and angles would seem to place us at the forefront of  the contemporary art scene -  more futurism than classical.

 Conrad Felixmüller, Portrait of Raoul Hausmann, 1920s
Once 'at the party' we are introduced to a host of characters  through their monocles in an extraordinary piece of writing. "the General's monocle, stuck like a shell-splinter in his common, scarred, victorious, overbearing face, in the middle of a forehead which it left half blinded, like a single-eyed flashing front of the Cyclops, appeared to Swann as a monstrous wound which it might have been glorious to receive but which it was certainly not decent to expose, while that which M. de Bréauté wore, as a festive badge, with his pearl-grey gloves, his crush hat and white tie, substituting it for the familiar pair of glasses (as Swann himself did) when he went out to places, bore, glued to its other side, like a specimen prepared on a slide for the microscope, an infinitesimal gaze that swarmed with friendly feeling and never ceased to twinkle at the loftiness of ceilings, the delightfulness of parties, the interestingness of programmes and the excellence of refreshments."
"The Marquis de Forestelle's monocle was minute and rimless, and, by enforcing an incessant and painful contraction of the eye over which it was incrusted like a superfluous cartilage, the presence of which there was inexplicable and its substance unimaginable, it gave to his face a melancholy refinement, and led women to suppose him capable of suffering terribly when in love. But that of M. de Saint-Candé, girdled, like Saturn, with an enormous ring, was the centre of gravity of a face which composed itself afresh every moment in relation to the glass, while his thrusting red nose and swollen sarcastic lips endeavoured by their grimaces to rise to the level of the steady flame of wit that sparkled in the polished disk, and saw itself preferred to the most ravishing eyes in the world by the smart, depraved young women whom it set dreaming of artificial charms and a refinement of sensual bliss; and then, behind him, M. de Palancy, who with his huge carps head and goggling eyes moved slowly up and down the stream of festive gatherings, unlocking his great mandibles at every moment as though in search of his orientation, had the air of carrying about upon his person only an accidental and perhaps purely symbolical fragment of the glass wall of his aquarium, a part intended to suggest the whole..." This is reminiscent of the experimental modernism of Wyndham Lewis in Tarr, slashing and gouging his characters onto the page. 

What else is contained within? The early steps of the narrator towards his career as a writer ("as soon as I asked myself the question, and tried to discover some subject to which I could impart a philosophical significance of infinite value, my mind would stop like a clock, I would see before me vacuity, nothing, would feel either that I was totally devoid of talent, or that, perhaps, a malady of the brain was hindering its development.") ; delicious descriptions - ( "a Saint Sebastian of snobbery." - "flies who performed for my benefit, in their small concert, as it might be the chamber music of summer." - "the Seine frozen over, on to which everyone, even children, walked fearlessly, as though upon an enormous whale, stranded, defenceless, and about to be cut up.") and many insights into the weaknesses of man - "in my cowardice I became at once a man, and did what all we grown men do when face to face with suffering and injustice; I preferred not to see them"

But I find myself eager to see them, at this remove anyway. Onto the dead whale, fearlessly.


  1. Proust on art and music is such a fertile way to approach Swann's Way, Séamus, and yet I'm pretty sure I didn't even touch on those things in my post on the volume so carried away was I by the language and the imagery. "In my cowardice I became at once a man" is also a great quote to wrap up with--and just the sort of random line where you get the sense that Marcel really knows what he's talking about in regard to his own and human weakness in general. You've made me anxious to revisit the novel where I left off, so thanks for the friendly push. Cheers!

  2. Richard, deciding what aspect of the book to write about is hard - there are so many aspects to explore and so many angles of approach. You could probably write a book about it without too much effort. I look forward to your further adventures in Proust.

  3. Hello,

    Where did my first comment go?

    I was saying this morning that I found your review through Sarah's blog.
    What you write is very interesting, especially about music. Painting and music have a great influence on the novel and your perspective is something I haven't seen in reviews so far.

    I have a Reading Proust page on my blog and I've added your review to the others.


  4. Hi Séamus. I, too, was struck by your analogy with the themes in a symphony, which suggests to me that Proust was perhaps doing a similar thing when he moves on to describing a certain set of paintings; but I can't remember which volume that is in.

    I'm glad that you pointed out the monocle, it is an amazing piece of writing, and it's fascinating to see which parts different readers emphasize.

    Off topic, I see that you also are doing the Savage Detectives read along. I am looking forward to the discussion.

  5. Hi Sarah, trying to get through The Savage Detectives again and looking forward to the read along. I've read it before but reading beside Proust it's tempting to see points of comparison.

  6. I'm glad I've slated this book for the year. You've hinted at some of the things I usually love about books. The flow of words, the intertextuality with other arts (music, painting), the social commentary, the modernist quality of its style.

  7. @Rise - I'm sure you'll love it. He treats art with a similar seriousness to Bolaño, it's a motive force for the characters and how they view the world.